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Ordered Mayhem: Violent Protest Isn't an Accident, It's a Strategy 

Tuesday, Dec 9 2014
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Standing grim-faced before a throng of reporters at San Francisco's Hall of Justice, police Chief Greg Suhr provides all the elements of a crime procedural. To his right sits an easel with photographs of an officer's gnarly flesh wound, incurred during a scuffle with Black Friday protesters three days earlier. To his left lies a bandolier of objects seized during the Black Friday arrests: bricks, black bandanas, a padlock, a knife, electronics pillaged from RadioShack. Lest anyone doubt that the annual anticonsumer boycott had devolved into chaos, this display provides the incontrovertible proof.

Suhr uses these scenic elements to hammer home an argument that he repeats throughout the press conference. Protests in San Francisco are being hijacked by an unsavory element, he says, citing the interlopers who "embed themselves" in otherwise peaceful demonstrations, and jeopardize them for everyone else.

That's an old accusation that police have trotted out for decades, about labor movements in the 1930s (started by communists), anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the 1960s (launched by drug-addled hippies), and the Occupy Wall Street protests three years ago (Black Bloc anarchists). Yet Suhr's contention that protesters filter in from outlying areas is borne out in the Black Friday arrest statistics. Of the 79 people charged, roughly 30 percent were San Francisco residents. About the same proportion commuted from Oakland. A few came from other parts of California (Fairfax, Seaside, South Whittier, Los Angeles, La Jolla), and six came from out of state.

That's raised concerns among locals who believe that demonstrators are using San Francisco as a staging area. Not for nothing has "Shake things up in Fremont tonight" become an oft-tweeted plea.

Yet to some veteran protesters, downtown San Francisco is the only logical place for a Black Friday protest to be effective, particularly one that conflates the anti-capitalist cause with the outcry over a cop shooting in Ferguson. The melee began when two groups converged at Union Square for an annual tree-lighting ceremony — a dazzling symbol of commercialism inside the city's retail core.

Mark Naison, a professor of history and African-American studies at Fordham University in New York, says it behooves demonstrators to stage actions in the heart of the city, where they're more visible and cause more turbulence. (And Union Square, with its phalanx of department stores and 300 private security cameras, is arguably the most smashable part of San Francisco.) Since young radicals can't afford to live here, it also makes sense that they'd have to BART in, the same way their New York counterparts had to commute from Brooklyn or Bed-Stuy to protest in Times Square.

"Here's my theory," Naison says. "Since the poor are in the suburbs, they can't hurt anybody there. The more a protest comes back to the city and is violent and disrupts daily activities, the more effective it is."

Demonstrators at Union Square acted accordingly, using blunt force as a means to convey their rage. They broke windows at RadioShack, Macy's, Bank of America, and McDonald's, threw rocks at cop cars, and then tripped an officer when he tried to make an arrest. At one point, someone hurled a construction A-frame at a cop who had a protester in handcuffs. A bystander filmed the incident on a cellphone and posted it as a Vine video loop on Twitter. It instantly went viral.

These fleeting moments became the protest's iconic images, the ones Suhr highlighted when he assessed the damage for journalists the following Monday, the ones that bolstered his "outside agitators" claim. Media postmortems focused on the wreckage, rather than the original message; even the powerful "Black Lives Matter" slogan got muddled.

To Naison, though, that was the only way for the protest to reach an audience — even an audience of skeptics.

Some demonstrators agree. Bree Jackson, a 22-year-old San Francisco nursing student who attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland last Wednesday — the day a New York grand jury voted not to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of unarmed black man Eric Garner — believes that nonviolent protest might be naive, given the emotional tenor of the cause.

"Honestly, I don't think [anything] can be achieved through peaceful demonstrations," Jackson says, dangling a banner at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway, as a crowd of about 200 ambles down the block. Her eyes fall. "I wish it could be all the time peaceful," she adds.

Alex Schmaus, a 29-year-old teacher who also attended the rally, says he's been involved in social movements for years, and in that time he's watched the debate over tactical violence create fissures in radical communities. "The key thing is to get more people involved," he says, "and when more people take action, you should expect to see more emotions and more passions released." However, Schmaus cautions that "it's a distortion of facts to say this is a violent movement.

"If you want to talk about violence," he adds, "look at the police."

Pundits and finger-waggers often characterize unlawful disorder as a knee-jerk reaction, the result of poor impulse control or overweening rage. It's what happens when revolutionaries take on a cause that's fraught with racial overtones. Or worse, it's what happens when suburban kids in Guy Fawkes masks turn a city's downtown into their playground.

But to some organizers and historians like Naison, it's actually a thought-out strategy, even a principle. It's the sexy hook that turns a protest into an A1 headline in a major metropolitan newspaper, the thing that entices journalists to live-tweet the play-by-play action of every Black Lives Matter rally, and keep social media users glued to their computers.

Naison believes that such spectacles are the only way to rouse the power structure. "The South was opened up by peaceful, non-violent protest, but corporate America didn't open its doors to blacks until there was 40 years of sustained rioting," he says. "My entering class at Columbia University had six black students in 1962. Then the Harlem and Watts Riots happened, everyone got scared, and in 1967, we had 36 black students." He adds: "President Johnson told businesses that if you don't want your cars or your houses burned, you'd better start hiring some black people."

Perhaps the Eric Garner demonstrators were thinking along those lines last Wednesday, when they briefly marched from Oakland's downtown corridor into upscale Rockridge. That got a rousing endorsement from a Twitter user named Sierra. "Taking it down Piedmont Ave. Letting the bourgeoise know we want justice!" she trumpeted, tweeting a picture of a handwritten sign with the slogan "Another killer cop goes free."

Piedmont Avenue fared well that night. The protests were relatively peaceful, and a police line blocked demonstrators from swarming into the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Three nights later, however, another group took to the streets in Berkeley, trashing cop cars and vandalizing a local Trader Joe's as police used tear gas to subdue them. In the aftermath, neither side looked particularly sympathetic.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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