How the Black Bloc Occupied Oakland 

Can the movement be sustainable if it won't condemn violence?

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Then the group of Black Bloc demonstrators set fires. Their exact motivation for doing so wasn't clear. When Occupy medic Douglas Connor arrived shortly after 1 a.m. and asked what the fire was for, he got a matter-of-fact response from one of the protesters standing guard. "Fires help dissipate tear gas," the protester said. Apparently, they'd all read it somewhere in a protest manual.

By then, the scene had devolved into chaos. Police closed in on the crowd gathered at and around Frank Ogawa Plaza and issued a dispersal order that few people could hear over the clamor. A fire truck arrived to put out the fire. Police fired tear gas and bean bags, hit protesters with batons, and made about one hundred arrests — including Connor, who was standing by in his military fatigues (he'd served two years at Walter Reed and one in Iraq) with red crosses taped on the sleeves, waiting to see if anyone needed medical attention. In fact, several medics were arrested that night, along with members of the National Lawyers Guild, bloggers, people visiting from the Occupy encampments in Sacramento and Los Angeles, students fretting about term papers they had to write the following day, and members of a group who huddled on the ground in front of City Hall, holding up peace signs. Most people were charged with failure to disperse; a few got hit with vandalism charges. It's still unclear whether anyone who was arrested that night was part of the original building takeover.

"I don't think anyone who was wearing all black [got arrested]," Connor said. "The Black Bloc is very wily. They do stuff to instigate, and then when it gets hot, they leave."

The next morning, Occupy Oakland experienced a major crisis of faith. Liberals and progressives immediately called for nonviolence, dismayed that the public's perception of the movement had changed overnight. Local anarchist Jason Hoopes even wrote a vituperative "open letter" to the Black Bloc: "As an anarchist, I am deeply disappointed in you," Hoopes wrote. "I am angry at you. I am saddened by you. I feel let down by you. I feel nearly irreparably misrepresented by you."

But even in the face of criticism, members of the Black Bloc contingent were emboldened. Some of them reframed the incident in terms of self-defense rather than police provocation, arguing that building seizures were a logical next step for the Occupy movement, and that they needed a burning barricade to defend their new encampment. Occupy Oakland had started out populist and has become increasingly tribal and territorial. And within its new discourse, the self-defense argument has been striking a chord.

Black Bloc violence is highly organized, and it relies on a familiar set of tropes: arson, rock-throwing, barricade-building, and public-street seizures. Whereas the larger group had previously disparaged such tactics, it seemed that many now condone them — or at least refuse to condemn them. Now, speakers at the assembly meetings routinely advocate for violent retaliation against the police. When a man who introduced himself as an "Indian nonviolence trainer" stood before the crowd at Thursday's meeting and admonished that Black Bloc tactics had tarnished the reputation of Occupy Oakland at large, he was jeered. A social worker stood up shortly thereafter, and preached the opposite message: "The overthrow of capitalism isn't going to happen nonviolently," she said. The crowd erupted. A speaker on Friday even argued that there actually isn't a hard dividing line between "violent" and "nonviolent" factions at Occupy Oakland. He accused "the bourgeoisie media" of purposefully creating schisms in order to undermine the movement at large. "They want us to eat each other alive," the man insisted.

But for all his protestations, it seems clear that Occupy Oakland is currently at cross-purposes with itself. And it's not only divided into "violent" and "nonviolent" camps; it actually has at least five different strata. There are the ideologues who think that violence is the only way to properly overthrow a system. They tend to be highly ideological, and even academic — or at least very well-versed in protest-speak. There are the non-ideologues, who enjoy wreaking havoc-for-havoc's sake. They're the ones who graffiti storefronts and curse at the police, but usually act in an irrational, disorganized way. Then, there are the people who don't commit violence, but sympathize with others who do. They dress in all black at protests to create uniformity and help vandals get away — incidentally, there's a huge "anti-snitch" culture at Occupy Oakland. "I don't think we should do the police's work for them," said an occupier who called himself Louis Michel.

On the other side are the nonviolent protesters, but they also vary. Some believe in radical change and endorse building seizures or appropriation of public space, but say it should happen without recourse to vandalism. Others adhere to the values of Occupy Wall Street, but disassociate themselves, wherever possible, from the radical, tactical methods of the Black Bloc. That last school includes all the mainstream labor advocates and union members who participated in Wednesday's general strike, left happily at 10 p.m., and were appalled to wake up Thursday morning and find the narrative had completely changed. SEIU spokesman Carlos Rivera said the delineation between "occupiers" and agitators needs to be a lot sharper: "We were so happy that people came together for the right cause," he said, referring to the general strike and port shutdown. "And then bandits stole it away from us."

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