Radical Imaginaries: Community Uprisings and the Occupy Movement
The ethics of the Occupy network are loosely based on the principles of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, but there is a strong disagreement on the terms of non-violence as it pertains to property. This disagreement about respecting and not respecting private property has led to intense in-fighting, which has split many local occupations interested in developing new tactics post-camping. In addition to separating those who may find close affinity on other values, the disagreement about tactics covers over another important discussion: what is the difference between protests that adhere to the ethics of Occupy and community uprisings? The uprising in Anaheim CA provides an opportunity to look closely at the relationship between the semi-structured organization of Occupy and the tactics of a community besieged by police violence.
On July 21, outraged over the Anaheim police shooting an unarmed Latino man, residents in the neighborhood of the deceased took to the streets demanding answers. The APD responded by shooting rubber bullets and unleashed a dog on the group of men, women, and children. Since the incident, many more residents of Anaheim and the greater Los Angeles area took to the streets to shout down police brutality, but they too were met with a violent reaction by the APD. The next day APD shot another young Latino man.
On the evening of July 24th, many residents were turned away from a city council meeting, only to be chased through the streets by APD firing beanbags, rubber bullets, and other projectiles indiscriminately. Numerous pictures and videos of injuries from the melee show impact wounds. One widely shared video shows a man shot in the chest at close range. Allegations surfaced that one of the main provocateurs in the crowd (throwing bottles at the cops) was actually a police plant intent on creating a flash point for mob violence. The MSM chose to focus on property damage to business windows, but it is unclear if the windows were broken by protesters or police projectiles.
Contrary to Occupy, those participating in the Anaheim uprising have no agreement on non-violence because communities are amorphous groups of people with divergent interests, values, and ideas about direct action. Therefore, the Anaheim demonstrators have recourse to insurrectionist tactics that members protesting under the banner of Occupy do not. Some of the tactics available to the Anaheim protesters include property destruction, dumpster fires, and throwing bottles, bricks, and rocks at human targets. That is to say, during moments of collective action in community uprisings, many in the crowd do not feel a shared sense of values or accountability. While protesters may be in the streets for the same reason (to protest police brutality and/or express outrage at the deaths of minority men), there is not shared goal. For example, some believe redistributing community resources is necessary. Others believe that redistricting the votes for city council members will help. Many seek the prosecution of officers involved in the shootings.
The police have turned to “community leaders” to quell the emotions of the protesters, but it is unclear how their pleas for peace will resonate with those most dissatisfied with community policing policies. In addition, the APD’s use of ‘less-lethal’ weapons on crowds causes much of the chaos they admonish. This only adds fuel to the fire of the MSM, who describe demonstrators as an “angry mob” or “unruly crowd” peppered with references to “gang members” and “potential violence.” These descriptions justify the violent tactics used by the Anaheim police department to disperse the protesters, including firing pepper balls, bean bags, and rubber bullets without warning.
Importantly, the subsequent connection between the Anaheim uprising and Occupiers in Southern California is well-documented. People from the camp at Occupy LA are participating in the Anaheim protests, while also providing organizing and technological support. Because many of the people who attended the camps and continue to attend the general assemblies were invested in social justice issues prior to Occupy, it is not surprising that Occupiers would become engrossed in many protest movements at once. In fact, the only real time coverage of Anaheim on 7/24/12 belonged to streamers Sky Adams, Tim Pool, and Occupy Orange County. While they streamed to thousands of viewers, many tweeted pictures, locations, and information about the goings-on in Anaheim. While the 11pm MSM concluded the protests were “over,” streamers and tweeters showed the very ugly face of police brutality and a community on the brink.
As well as being present in Anaheim, Occupy LA had a conflict with riot police on July 12 during the city’s monthly art walk event, where protesters were arrested for writing with chalk in the sidewalk. News of the arrests angered many on-lookers who spilled into the streets as the LAPD mounted a massive army of riot police to clear downtown. This situation led to police shooting “stinger balls” into the growing crowd and some bottle throwing, but nascent property damage. One food truck and a few police cars were tagged by graffiti artists who seized the opportunity during the chaotic situation. Towards the end of the demo, chants of “we are peaceful” from occupiers were drowned out by screams of “fuck the police” from the mobile mass of art walk attendees.
Noticeably without the camps, local occupations have difficulty maintaining community agreements not just about the terms of non-violent protest, but also about what issues/actions to take up and how best to conduct community outreach. Much of the confusion is due to the fact that community agreements are largely unenforceable. Shunning, shaming, and as a last resort, exile are the preferred tactics for imposing boundaries within Occupy, but in the midst of social unrest these tactics fail to stop bottles from being thrown by protesters.
In both of these instances of community insurgency, many occupiers retroactively justified the destructive actions of the mass by insisting, “but, the cops fired first.” The police are an arm of the state and consequently, their violence against the public is legitimated by the role they play in maintaining moral order. This means that to the State and the MSM, it really does not matter if the police fire first or second because they will undoubtedly also fire last.
Another familiar refrain is that those committing the acts against property and/or people “were not Occupiers.” But like the notion of ‘community,’ there is no requirement for membership in Occupy and adherence to shared values does not always extend to agreements about tactics. Concretely, this shows that some property destruction and violence against police is tolerated by Occupiers during broad community insurrections, even many who are strict adherents to non-violence who publicly condemned property destruction during Occupy protests.
Therefore, organizers wanting to impose an agreement of non-violence that devalues property destruction must in the first instance, plan their protests in such a way that both values and tactics are well disseminated amongst the participants. In this situation, facebook event pages become integral for setting tacit community agreements about what tactics will be tolerated by organizers.
For example, there are no less than four event pages for anti-police demos in Anaheim each with a different set of tactics including teach-ins, marches, pickets, and rallies. Police have set up barricades around the station anticipating large crowds. Statements appearing on facebook event pages already condemn anarchists for acts that have not yet happened. As one person writes, “We do not need the anarchists jeopardizing the protesters or the cause of justice. We do not need crazy disorder from the cops or the anarchists to destroy the purpose of our peaceful protest. We need a disciplined protest to let the whole world know of the racist and lawless Anaheim police department.” Statements such as the one above illustrate that insurrectionary tactics are expected, but there does not seem to be a plan in place to prevent them from occurring.
As well, the author pins imaginary acts of violence on a group with widely divergent views on property destruction, but fail to blame likely culprits such as mischievous youth and the police themselves. Given the contentious issue with a police provocateur, protesters are more likely to encounter block ops than black bloc. Moreover, the property destruction in Anaheim somewhat resembles a tame version a sports riot, which usually involves overturned cars set on fire and the blockading of public transportation. Yet, no one claims the anarchists were involved in those scenes.
Importantly, while many anarchists eschew city council meetings and cooperating with the State as useful strategies, they do have recourse to a laundry list of ‘outside’ tactics that have nothing to do with the destruction of property, lighting fires, and throwing bottles. However, the propensity to perpetuate these stereotypes prevails unquestioningly in many liberal circles. Perhaps, the liberal only becomes an anarchist when city council stops returning their calls. In discussions on facebook, ‘the anarchist’ as a person, tactic, and group is a radical imaginary, a thing that is described in a marginalized way by another group for the purpose of defining and codifying shared values of the group. So, the liberals say the anarchists are just as bad as the cops in causing havoc and defeating the causes, while in turn, the anarchists define the liberals as a bunch of cowards that abandon the cause when politics get messy.
In contrast to structured demos with online discussion forums, protests without a set agenda and a set end time become open to co-option and derailment by those who do not share values or goals. This is further complicated when a community is loosely tied together by a shared location and desire for justice, but have not had the opportunity to discuss tactics. For instance, the uprising on July 24th was a rather spontaneous emotional reaction to being shut out of city hall. The disorganization opened up a space for the police to usher in a provocateur to incite the crowd and make a spectacle for the media. In fact on that night, the MSM were reporting from behind the police line, so rarely were the views or faces of residents showcased. The MSM anti-messaging of the protesters makes it difficult for on-lookers to understand the point of view of the public and reaffirms the need for less-lethal force. As well, the positioning of the MSM behind police lines draws a boundary between the orderly movements of the State and the public who are seen as a disorganized cloud of screaming outsiders. This view is substantiated as police chief Welter claims that 2/3 of the people protesting on July 24th were not Anaheim residents, “I think the vast majority (of people) were from outside, and I think they were here for one reason and one reason only and that is to create havoc, damage property, cause injuries and in effect just attack the democratic way.” However, 20 out of the 24 people arrested that night were residents of Anaheim, which proves a much higher proportion of residents were present. Besides all that, why should we be fooled into believing that because an atrocity happens in one place that people from another place should not get involved? Police brutality is an issue everywhere.
Nonetheless, leaderless protests and community uprisings hold a few things in common. Both are heavily policed which push protesters to hold their ground in the face of severe oppression. In addition, even while the tactics of the protest may be understood prior to the event, shared values do not dictate what tactics will appear to demonstrators as the best course of action at the time. This is why retroactive excuse-making of protesters’ destructive actions are so common amongst Occupiers. While it is difficult to enforce community agreements in peaceful times, it is impossible to do so in the midst of a riot. In addition, the MSM’s inability to find the narrative from the point of view of the crowd is another challenge faced by both groups. That is to say, missed opportunities for messaging are not the fault of tactics gone awry or radical imaginaries, but is purposefully diluted by MSM outlets who hide behind the police story. And lastly, each tries to police the boundaries of action through online discourse when possible, but when actually confronting police power new tolerances emerge.
Here then, I end with a recommendation. Make a sign, poster, or installation that says how you feel. Take a picture of yourself holding it in front of the police line and then brag to your twitter followers that you stood up to police power. When the shit hits the fan, know where your friends are, know an exit route, and do what the situation allows. But remember, police chiefs are not dethroned by burning dumpsters and cops look like heroes when they fire on people who are pelleting them with bottles. It is time to imagine new others. It’s time for our multiple identities to shift as the situation develops. Uprisings are a time to create new tactics, forge solidarities, and strengthen alliances. Or, you can just light trashcan fires. It’s really up to you.
Follow #opanaheim and #Anaheim on twitter for updates.