The following is written by Jeff, a member of BtR-Oakland.
Race, Class, and the Police in Occupied Oakland
As I start my 5:30am shift this morning at a warehouse in Richmond, California, one block from the Chevron Oil refinery on the edge of the working class neighborhood known as “the Iron Triangle,” the Occupy Movement is poised to hold what could amount to the Nation’s first general strike since 1946. As it was then, Oakland, California will be the epicenter.
Some speak of this current economic crisis as “The Great Recession,” and yet companies like Chevron have easily managed to doubled their profits in the last year from $7.8 billion for the third quarter 2011, compared with $3.8 billion in the 2010 third quarter. If we are to fully grasp this historical moment we presently find ourselves in, some clarification, both political and economic, must be made.
“Hatred of the Oligarchy!”
Much of the Occupy uprisings have been built upon a confrontation between “the 99%” and “the 1%.” With this new push for mass working class participation and the overtly anti-capitalist rhetoric of the general strike coming from Oakland organizers, actions that have already shifted the terms of the struggle in a more explicitly class conscious direction, so to is it time for the movement to evolve beyond the hegemonic dialectic of 1% vs. 99%.
If our goal is to liberate Oakland and the Americas from the whims of the rich, than our rhetoric must be in line with reality. It is true that 1% of the U.S. population holds the lion’s share of wealth: 34.6% as of 2007, according to economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University.
Let’s call them the “oligarchy.”
But what is as revealing about Wolff's figures is that the 19% below the oligarchy, those who do their bidding, holds around 50% of the remaining wealth.
Let’s call all them put together the “bourgeoisie.”
Combined, that’s 85% of wealth concentrated in the hands of the top 20%. That leaves roughly 15% of American wealth divided among the poor and working classes. The fact that a large sector of these workers can convince themselves that they are “middle class” doesn’t change the economic reality. The economy is still growing for the top 20%, its just shrinking for the bottom 80%.
The revolutionary leader of the Venezuelan resistance Ezequiel Zamora had a memorable slogan during the Federal Wars of the mid-1800s: “Hatred of the Oligarchy!” This was not a structural critique based on the means of production, but something much more unmediated and visceral, and despite Zamora’s reference to the ‘oligarchy,’ this was something far more complex in practice than merely the 1%. In fact, Zamora gathered together an alliance of the most oppressed sectors of Venezuelan society--slaves, indigenous people, and the poorest of peasants--and took off across the Venezuelan plains in a quest to destroy the foundation of elite power.
This unity-in-practice of the most oppressed matters far more than the sound-byte of the “99%,” but once we seek to build it in the context of contemporary Oakland, the question of the police immediately rears its ugly head.
The Police Bid for Power
In Oakland, Mayor Quan is scared. City officials are scared. Capital is scared. The police have undoubtedly outed themselves as part of the top 20%. Not just by their brutal attempt to crush the movement last Tuesday night, but also because they rake to over 100K a year the cash strapped city. Despite the fact that OPD dominates Oakland politics and controls two thirds of the city budget, Police Chief Batts quit due to his supposed lack of resources and control. And if that wasn’t enough, in a recent communiqué to the public, the Oakland Police Officers’ Association claimed to be “confused” at the “mixed messages” sent by the Mayor regarding their violent crack down, but this feigned confusion is but a veiled demand for more power and unlimited authority in the coming days.
The success or failure of the movement will turn on how we respond to the question of the police, for more reasons than one. First, the memory of Oscar Grant is as important to this movement as Wall Street. Grant, who was murdered by a transit cop more than two years ago and whose killer walked free this summer, is now the namesake for the occupied plaza (formerly Frank Ogawa Plaza). But second and more importantly, it is our opposition to police that bears the most potential to draw this movement toward the most oppressed members of this society.
Occupy Oakland was attacked by the state, yes, but this was but a small taste of what Black and Brown communities suffer on the daily. The debate that this attack has stimulated has some potential to force the Occupy movement to turn its sights away from the 99% or even the 80%, and toward the ultimate actors of U.S. capitalism. But we do so not out of charity, but because our liberation is bound up with theirs: as W.E.B. Du Bois demonstrated long ago, there can never be a class revolution in this country without first overcoming white supremacy. Overcoming the glorified slave-catchers we call police is but a first step.
Toward this end, I was among those who put forth a proposal to the Occupy Oakland General Assembly for an Anti-Police Speakout last week. For nearly an hour, the GA debated this proposal, sharpening and transforming positions in this alchemical process that is direct democracy, before passing the proposal by more than 90% of the many hundreds present. The day of the Speakout saw twice as many gather in Oscar Grant Plaza, giving testimonies of police abuse and fervently demanding not justice from the system as it exists, but another system of dispensing justice entirely.
As the Ruling Edifice Cracks and Splinters, the Movement is Moving
There are a number of actions planned and many groups and individuals working nonstop to make this mass day of action a political victory for the occupation. The plan is to stop the flows of capital by marching from downtown to the port of Oakland where protesters will set up picket lines to agitate among and involve dockworkers. Actions are also planned to shut down banks, and to walk out of schools and universities to protest the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich. If the bosses decide to punish workers for participating, radicals are already prepared to retaliate against such reactionaries.
As we move forward, we hope to see a protracted strike and shutdown of the Port of Oakland, the largest port on the West Coast. But we also hope to see the transcending of purely economic struggles as we transcend as well the myth of the 99%. We hope that the Occupy Oakland General Assembly can serve as an inspiration for directly democratic decision-making while being transformed as a model: away from stifling and anti-democratic consensus and toward a more powerfully dynamic and effective functioning that will attract workers, students, teachers, and the people in general to seek the same.
But we also hope that other sectors, viewed less generously by the left, also take up the struggle. Councils representing the unemployed, the undocumented, and convicted felons would mark a decisive break from the limitations of our political past, departing both from economic determinism and the legitimacy of the law. As workplaces and schools are occupied, we hope that we all take our rightful place in the struggle, one not limited by economic sectoralism: the streets.