Defending the Occupation

Occupy Oakland meets to discuss the planned building occupation on Jan. 28.

By Ezra Silk

OAKLAND — It was late December, and dusk was setting over City Hall. Dozens of people had formed a circle on the concrete lip of the plaza below, in order to sketch out plans to occupy an abandoned building on January 28th. On tonight’s agenda: Defending the Occupation.

A big, inebriated man in a red parka was eagerly offering the occupiers various defense strategies.

“Before you take the building, you should buy pro-gauge steel, line the walls with it, so that its bullet proof, also buy more iron bars, then your barricade…

A weary-looking young woman with a nose piercing, the meeting’s facilitator, tried to intervene.

“Okay, so let me—” she said.

“This is, this is, this is, this is real strategy from a Marine Corps Black Ops operator,” the drunk man continued. “This is real strategy. If you’re gonna do it and you want it to be a defensible building, then you’ve gotta bulletproof it, for one, and you’ve got to make it impenetrable, number two. That is your best line of defense.”

“Cool,” she responded, silencing the man. “Let’s move on to another idea, but that’s on the table if we have the budget for it.”

Another man gave his two cents.

“I was involved in a couple large-scale squat defenses in New York City in the ‘90s, and we were able to prolong how long it took them to evict us, for sure,” he said. “But if they’re intent on evicting us, it’s pretty hard to stop that. So I think our best defense is basically, look at this huge meeting, and like, if we keep building on this, that’s gonna be our best defense — having as many people as we can. I mean, the logistics of holding a building — you can weld yourself inside, you can obviously put barricades outside, that’s sensitive to people — but ultimately if they’re gonna, you know, we don’t really have a movement that’s gonna be able to defend a building long-term if they’re really coming at us militarily. So I would say the best defense is a good offense, and building this huge movement that has thousands of people there.”

“May I say this?” the drunk vet blurted out.

He was shouted down. Someone proposed a “rank-choice” political strategy in response to the expected police eviction.

“If they kick us out, they kick us out of the first place, we’ll move on to the next place,” he said. “So, for example — building, then city hall, then another port shutdown. I mean, you create this level of — basically, list of — our rank choices and if we get eliminated from the first ones, we have the other ones, that creates a certain amount of political will to leave us alone because we’re gonna continue to act, so that we have a plan for re-convergence if we get kicked out. Everybody knows ahead of time.”

Boots Riley, the rapper, suggested that the occupiers make sure to explain that they are seizing the building on behalf of the community, not just themselves.

“I haven’t been involved in any sort of action like this, but obviously community support is what’s gonna get people out there to defend us, and part of what’s gonna make the community support it or not, is whether we promote it as just a place for Occupy Oakland to be, as people see it as just a few people, or we promote it as also a community center, and therefore list the things that we’re gonna do,” Riley said. “Even though we don’t know what, what, what neighborhood its gonna be, we should be telling people what we’re gonna be providing for the neighborhood and for the community. That way, people don’t just see it as just Occupy Oakland that they’re defending, but something that is good for the community. And maybe that’s already been talked about, but I think that’s the way that we get folks to support it.”

“I agree with what Boots is saying,” another person added. “That’s a really good idea. I also think that we could do a lot to make people feel more comfortable with being down there, by like heavily encouraging people to bring things that would defend them against weapons that police typically use, such as like encouraging people to bring masks, encouraging everyone to bring vinegar and goggles, we could like get groups of people together to build shields and stuff, I don’t know. I think that we could do a lot to encourage people to actually feel as though they could physically defend a building against the police.

Still, it’s important not to project an image of pure militancy, another occupier responded.

“There’s gonna be a library and resource center there,” he said. “If you bring a bookcase and a bunch of books, set it up there, as soon as we get there, before the police get there, then they have to destroy a library, not just an abandoned building full of occupiers. We wanna keep in mind, this space that we’re creating, if we’re milling about with shields and bringing in iron bars to reinforce the door, we’re gonna end up making this space look like a war zone, whereas, if we bring in a library it’s gonna look like a community center. Just framing the issue.”

Most of the meeting’s participants were sitting on the stairs on the edge of the plaza. Below, a thin line of people, including the facilitator, completed the circle. On the thinned-out side, a man, perhaps in his early 40s, was standing, with a thoughtful, amiable expression on his face. He had on stone-washed, loose-fitting jeans, non-descript white sneakers, a very short blue scarf, and a red beanie that he was wearing, oddly, above his ears. Above his lip rested a short, grey moustache.

As the defense tactics conversation wrapped up, the man politely raised his hand.

“It looks like we have two more people over here,” the facilitator said.

“Okay,” the mustachioed man began, speaking deliberately. “This is just a question to throw out there to get the debate started — I know you want to close the round really soon — but I’m just wondering, how you guys feel, if the cops did attack, if you’d be willing to physically defend yourself against the cops, or if you want to do it peacefully. It’s just a question I want to throw out there to see your mood, to judge, you know, where you guys are at.”

A murmur passed through the crowd. The young woman sitting to my side, also weary looking, also pierced, stared in my direction, wide-eyed.

“Sketch!” she mouthed.

“Can I just say something?” an occupier responded. “You should be careful what you say here. Be careful.”

“What do you mean by physical?” another occupier shouted. “Like, define physical.”

“We were gonna close the stack here, but that is a very good question,” the facilitator added, piling on.

“Physical means physically arrested!” the drunk vet shouted. “Or physically oppressed!”

The vet was shushed, and the conversation was quickly dropped.

An occupier approached the man, and the two appeared to have a discussion on the potential merits of violent resistance against the police. Every few seconds, the man nodded his head vigorously.

As the meeting moved on, the man raised his hand again. He wanted to know whether “we” had any good contacts with local labor unions.

Yes we do, the woman to my side told him.

A few minutes later, the mustachioed man pulled out of the circle, and calmly walked off into the darkness. The meeting was not over.

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