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Unmasking the Anarchists: Occupy Oakland Returns 

Wednesday, May 9 2012

Photo illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

Just before noon, the explosive echo of a deployed tear gas canister rings through Frank Ogawa Plaza. Moments before, demonstrators — some wearing black bloc garb, others with their faces uncovered — had been munching on free cupcakes. Now they dash into the intersection to confront riot police.

It's May 1. If you had somehow missed the banners and signs, or the panicky press coverage, the protesters charging into a high noon skirmish with the cops should be an instant giveaway — this is Occupy Oakland.

Anarchist organizer Barucha Peller skirts the back of the crowd. She seems to know everyone, stopping again and again to ask, "What happened?" No one who's hanging back knows; it seems everyone who witnessed whatever initiated the tear gas is surging north, forcing a team of riot police up Broadway.

They chant: "We are not afraid."

As Peller disappears into the action, a young woman stumbles away from it, sobbing. Her hair is wet and matted against the side of her head. A painter's mask, spattered with blood, dangles around her neck.

Matt Edwards — an Occupy Oakland medic, anarchist, and Ph.D. student who studies violence in social movements — pulls the wounded protester back into the plaza, where he props her against a wall. He's wearing a black bodysuit with a red cross on the sleeve. Beneath that is full body armor that he says will stop anything except a bullet. He yanks gauze from his backpack and peels the woman's hair back to expose the gash on her scalp.

"A cop hit me with a baton," she cries. These Occupiers have no trouble believing that the Oakland Police Department might have violated its crowd control policy, which expressly prohibits striking any person in the head with a baton unless the officer is threatened with serious injury or death. (By press time, the OPD had not responded to SF Weekly's request for comment.)

As the girl tries to explain exactly what happened, another bang reverberates down Broadway.

"Stay together," Edwards advises the two medics flanking him. They hoist their patient to her feet and guide her from the tangy stink of tear gas to a bus shelter on 14th Street. Edwards holds her head in his palms.

"It's superficial," Edwards says. He can tell the severity of the injury by the color and shade of her blood, which is congealing on her skin in purplish trails. Light-colored, bright blood, he says, would indicate an arterial wound. Still, he shakes his head. "Motherfuckers."

One of the other medics pulls gauze from his backpack; Edwards directs him to bandage her head. Her tears have slowed to a trickle. Friends of the girl — who is just 19 — crowd into the bus shelter. White tearstains ring their eyes, signs of a homemade tear gas remedy that Oakland Occupiers have shared since police first evicted their camp in October.

"She needs to go to the hospital to get checked out," Edwards tells them. They nod and usher her away. "Here," he offers wet wipes as a final gesture, "to clean up the blood."

Back on Broadway, the cops have been chased off, but not before making a few arrests. The only signs of them are the granules of tempered glass littering the street, smashed from the windows of their van. Last fall, banks were the primary targets of vandalism, in keeping with Occupy's desire to mete out justice to financial institutions. On May Day, marchers briefly picketed banks, and broke several windows later that night, but the primary targets of vandalism were police vehicles and even the officers themselves, who were splattered with paint as the day wore into evening.

Today it's clear that anarchism has always thrived at the heart of Occupy, guiding many Occupiers' goals and tactics and even providing the organizational structure for local chapters. Barucha Peller points out that anarchist traditions inspired the movement's general assemblies and consensus decisions, its principles of solidarity and mutual aid, its principled lack of leadership, and its ingrained anti-capitalism.

She explains, "Anarchists know you have to cooperate and take action to organize your lives and get your needs met. What's happened in this movement is that that understanding has amplified."

As Edwards puts it, "Occupy is the cloak covering an anarchist."

To these two, the window-smashing that grabs headlines is far from the key tenet of Occupy Oakland's strain of anarchism. Instead, it's looking to fellow citizens to meet one's needs instead of to the government. This philosophy spurs Occupy to avoid making demands, and keeps Occupy Oakland from negotiating with the city or allowing politicians to speak at general assemblies. "[Occupiers] feel like the system has failed them, and they feel like Occupy Oakland is providing something that wouldn't otherwise be provided," says Leo Ritz-Barr, a member of Occupy Oakland's Events Committee. It's also why an Occupier like Edwards is the first to treat injured protesters, rather than paramedics. Occupiers want to rely on each other more than any existing system or service.

Occupy Oakland has become infamous for its nonchalance toward militant protest tactics. Since the first camp sprang up in New York's Zuccotti Park last fall, most iterations of the movement, including Occupy S.F., have endorsed nonviolence; Oakland's chapter has refused to do so. (Of course, Occupy S.F.'s nonviolent pledge didn't stop one protester from allegedly lobbing a brick off a roof at police during May Day actions.) Instead, Occupy Oakland supports what's known among Occupiers as "diversity of tactics."

Edwards explains, "Typically, 'diversity of tactics' has been code for breaking windows." It encompasses more than just that, he says, listing: "Property destruction, militant direct action, as well as nonviolent civil disobedience and strategic direct action."

During November's general strike, anti-capitalist marchers smashed windows and sprayed paint at major banks and Whole Foods. This was the "black bloc" — a controversial protest tactic supported under diversity of tactics, one that entails dressing in black clothing and covering faces in order to conceal identity, and moving as a unit. Most black bloc people don't actually vandalize, Occupiers say; they're just there so the vandals have a crowd to disappear into.

About The Author

Kate Conger

Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.


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