Protesting protesting

I attended a rally and march Wednesday night (01/14) in downtown Oakland demanding:

  • A BART community oversight committee
  • a murder conviction for officer Mehserle
  • the release of names and an investigation of all other officers present at the time of shooting
  • the creation of healing centers in communities most affected by police violence
  • the resignation/recall of Alameda county’s DA Tom Orloff

First of all I should say thank you to folks who organized this protest. I appreciate the time and energy that was put into it, and the obviously good intentions behind it. I know I haven’t contributed nearly as much as they have, and don’t mean to diminish their contributions. I do want to raise some critical questions & observations though, in the spirit of movement self-evaluation. The first one is specifically about this rally, but the rest of it is about this type of protest in general.

After the opening rally at Oakland city hall, the march kicked off with a prayer to “God the father” and “Christ our Lord”. We were asked to hold hands and pray along with the reverend. I can sort of appreciate the desire to bring a spiritual element in when you’re asking people to remain peaceful. But the invocation of a Christian god, in whose name bloody oppression and conquest have been carried out for millennia, was very disturbing to me. While leaders from other faiths were included as speakers (a Muslim leader whose name I don’t recall spoke eloquently about all the $ poured into the CA penal system while our state goes deeper into debt and our poor communities remain underserved), the only actual prayer I heard while I was there was this one. Personally I’d prefer no praying at all, but if it’s included, shouldn’t it be a little more… er… inclusive? While I don’t subscribe to any theistic belief system and my objections tend to be more political, I wonder if those of other faiths might have been offended to have to march under the “blessing” of a Christian god. I don’t understand why organizers felt this was a good call.

The organizers’ intent to keep the protest peaceful was abundantly clear. Speakers repeated it over and over, and as with any legally permitted march, “dissident” volunteers worked alongside police to monitor the crowd and keep the peace. Yet during the march, unsurprisingly, this well-used protest slogan was repeatedly invoked for us to chant: “No justice, no peace!”. Does anyone else find this maddening? Nothing like watering down the intent of what should be revolutionary words by using them completely out of context where they become meaningless. Okay yeah, “We are peaceful now, but if you don’t meet our demands we might reevaluate our strategy and bring the noise” isn’t exactly a catchy slogan. But can’t we at least refrain from using language that lulls us into believing we are acting in a threatening manner towards the state when in fact we are clearly working with the state to ensure that our peaceful protest doesn’t get out of hand? Maybe I’m just being a nitpicky vocabulary geek, but I do believe in the power of words and I believe it’s a problem that we kill our own power phrases.

This is the main reason I stopped going to marches and rallies many years ago. They just make me feel incredibly stupid, to be honest. There’s surprisingly little critical evaluation of tactics and I feel the opposite of powerful when I’m following a crowd that’s adhering to state-sanctioned forms of expression. Like a little sheep, marching where I’m supposed to march and yelling what everyone else is yelling, and going home at the end of it to resume normal life. None of it really makes sense to me. I don’t think the powers we are supposedly yelling at during these protests simply don’t know that we wish the cops would stop shooting people for no reason. That they don’t realize people want justice and aren’t getting it. That if they only realized how unhappy we are with the way they run things, they’d stop making policies based on greed and power and start making policies that reflect the desires of the people. I think they know exactly what they are doing and they choose to do it anyway, either because they have a twisted belief that it is necessary for people to have no rights in order to save us from ourselves, or because they really couldn’t give a shit whether or not people are happy. If they were sitting up there scratching their pus-filled heads, waiting only for an indication that folks were dissatisfied with their leadership to mend their ways, we would’ve launched blissfully into utopia ages ago. Ages.

I believe that peaceful marches and rallies¬† serve two purposes only – to educate others about what’s going on and increase community ties between dissenters.¬† IMO, these tactics are a means but they tend to be used as an end, which creates a feeling of accomplishment amongst participants that I don’t feel is realistic.

January 15, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

The shooting of Oscar Grant III, Pt. II: Protest strategy.

In my last post, I discussed how I’ve been disturbed by the valuation of Oscar’s life based on certain aspects of his lifestyle. How we need to avoid using the state’s (or any) value markers to assess the relative tragedy of someone’s murder while demanding the same from authorities. Now I’d like to talk about responses people have had to the property destruction during the protest last Wednesday.

Let me start by saying that I was not there and my opinions are based only on report-backs and others’ responses. So there may be details I’m missing and questions about the appropriateness of my voice here. Regardless, I think that any time a protest involves property damage or violence, it is important to follow it up with nuanced discussions about why people are so angry; why some people felt that the more peaceful tactics being employed were insufficient to either express their rage or get the attention of power; whether the destruction contributed to garnering a desired response from authorities; and how, in the event of future destructive outbursts, protesters can channel their rage in more appropriate directions.

I’m not hearing this sort of balanced evaluation much, if at all. Even on radio shows I usually consider pretty radical (Hard Knock Radio, for one), the responses have largely been blanket disapproval of any sort of destructive protesting, regardless of the situation and the success of other tactics being used. There is only dismay and disappointment, people talking as though the loss of a business is equatable to the loss of a life, and plenty of words like “unproductive”, “violent”, and “anarchist”. I have to take issue with these terms specifically.

“Anarchist”. The fact that something is out of control and destructive does not make it anarchist. Please learn something about anarchism before you use it as a label for all things chaotic! Not simply another word for lawlessness, anarchism is a very well thought-out set of ideological theories that, whether you agree with them or not, are far more complex than they are given credit for. Also, even if people doing the destroying consider themselves anarchists, that doesn’t make their actions “anarchist” any more than, say, a punch thrown by a capitalist is a capitalist action. Unless there is a specific anarchist agenda related to an action, it does not become “anarchist” simply by virtue of the (possible) political beliefs of the perpetrators.

“Violent”. While the destruction of property can be considered violent in certain situations, it isn’t violent in and of itself. It is completely situational. For example, would the destruction of an air force bomber to prevent it being used to kill thousands of people qualify as violent? I don’t think that could be considered anything but anti-violence, since it potentially prevents more suffering than it causes (if it causes any). However, destroying the property of someone who has very little to begin with – for example, throwing all the worldly possessions of a homeless person into a trash compactor – would qualify as violence in my book since it causes much suffering and ameliorates none. Most people apply the word “violent” indiscriminately to all property destruction, and this has the effect of making property seem as important as living beings. That’s an extremely harmful idea to foster, not to mention it’s also propagated by the state.

If the definitions above are applied to this particular protest, where the property destruction was unfocused, it can probably be said that both violent and non-violent destruction occurred. I wouldn’t call the smashing of an empty police vehicle or a McDonald’s window violent, for example, but smashing up the car of a man on crutches as he stands there pleading with you is definitely fuzzier for me. Violence or not, I have sympathy for the car owners and business owners whose lives were made more difficult. But it should always be remembered that windows can be replaced; is financial hardship a fate worse than death?

“Unproductive”. When people are not being heard no matter what they do and it’s a matter of survival, things are gonna get ugly. This is the fault of power that is deaf, dumb and blind to the needs of the people, not the fault of the people sweating it out in the corner they were backed into. While it’s helpful to look at ALL the events of Wednesday and ask ourselves how they could have been more effective, I don’t think a blanket condemnation of lashing out against property is an effective or particularly accurate review of events. An examination of traditional “non-violent” protest strategy would show the vast majority of it to be unproductive as far as effecting real change. Just as there exist effective and non-effective uses of various “non-violent” tactics, there also exist effective and non-effective uses of property destruction as a tactic.

Focused property destruction in a capitalist state can be extremely productive and can be incorporated into a wider strategy of other non-violent tactics. For example, property destruction could be used by “peaceful” community organizers as leverage with the state in the days following, insisting that the force of people’s anger is proof that they must waste no time in setting things right. Instead, the opportunity is wasted on lamenting protesters’ lack of self-control and strategy, admonishing people to use restraint next time. Standing behind the justifiable anger and the intent behind property destruction while presenting the powers with a choice – listen to our demands or face more unrest – might transform the destructive actions into constructive actions.

Maybe if folks organizing protests these days were less staunch about discussing exclusively pacifist tactics, people who do end up engaging in property destruction could be afforded the space to strategize and come up with more effective windows to smash than what just happens to be in front of them. I don’t expect that major organizers would actually come out and condone property destruction, I’m just saying they should allow people the space to talk about what to do (what sort of things to target, how to focus the destruction more effectively on the state) in the event that things turn in that direction.

Having said all that, the family of Oscar Grant have come out in the last couple days and said they don’t want any more destruction in his name, and people absolutely need to listen. While folks understandably want to use this latest police murder to demand justice for the wider POC community, this is also a singular personal tragedy for the people closest to Oscar and they should be heard and respected right now.

In the event of further destruction related to this incident, there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of organizers to distance those actions from this specific case and align them with a larger nation-wide movement to end police brutality and corruption.

January 10, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized. 3 comments.

The shooting of Oscar Grant III, Pt. I: The value of a life.

The unjustifiable death of yet another black person by an officer of the law (who, if history tells us anything, will likely go unpunished) is deeply disturbing and maddening. This fact is being discussed everywhere and there’s not much else I can add to that aspect of the conversation. But there are a couple other things that have been eating at me this week regarding responses I’ve heard from protesters, radio talk show hosts, and people commenting online. I’m breaking this into two parts because it’s long.

First, a little background. For anyone who hasn’t heard, an unarmed 22 year old black man named Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by BART police on New Years in the Fruitvale BART station. Grant and his friends were pulled off the train because someone reported an altercation, though the officers didn’t know exactly who had been involved. At one point Grant, who was being cooperative with the police and encouraging his friends to do the same, was forced to lie his belly with his face on the platform and a few officers on top of him pinning him down. For no apparent reason, one of the officers stood up, drew his gun, and shot Grant in the back. He died a few hours later.

The whole incident was recorded on cell phones and cameras by multiple BART passengers, and though the police confiscated as many of these devices as they could before the train pulled away, there are still a couple videos that made it onto the web and into tv newscasts.

While on paid leave following the murder, the officer who shot Grant, Johannes Mehserle, resigned before the investigation began. He has not been questioned by anyone nor has he made any public statement about the murder. For a week following the shooting, there was nothing but a blanket of silence from BART officials and the city of Oakland.

Protesters took to the streets in Oakland this past Wednesday looking for some sort of response or explanation, and demanding that Mehserle be charged with murder. A smaller group broke away after the rally to march, their frustration and anger eventually leading to smashing windshields and storefronts, burning cars and dumpsters, and trashing a police car. No injuries were reported as a result of this low-level rioting.

So that’s the lowdown. Now here’s what’s bugging me about how people are framing the tragedy.

Everyone’s talking about the fact that Oscar had a 4 year old daughter, that he was “trying to do the right thing” by being a father to her, and that he had two jobs. And because he had been trying to get his friends to cooperate with the officers during the incident, the word “peacemaker” is now splashed all around the internet. What bothers me is that these statements reinforce the idea that some people’s lives are worth more than others – that we should be more outraged by the unjustified police shooting of a person with a child, a person with a job (or two), a person who is playing by the rules.

The lives of black and brown folks, gender variant folks, poor folks (especially the homeless), and people who commit non-white-collar crimes (no matter how petty) are valued substantially less by the state, and thus they are valued less by the general public as heavily influenced subjects of the state. That’s a big part of why this sort of outrageous police behavior can happen and go unpunished all the time in the first place. To play on these tendencies in order to garner wider public sympathy for this tragedy is to perpetuate what folks say they want to challenge – the devaluing of some lives by the state, in this case specifically the lives of people of color.

We are not serving our purpose by emphasizing state-sanctioned markers of human value. It is reprehensible for agents of the state to get away with murder when they are supposedly employed for our safety; and that is true whether the person they kill is unemployed, homeless, a car thief, a sex worker, a priest, or a soccer mom. We shouldn’t be coming up with reasons why this particular man was less deserving of being randomly executed than someone else, because nobody ever deserves that.

January 8, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized. 2 comments.