Thursday, November 3, 2011

General Strike! And Now What?

It wasn’t a general strike, but it was pretty great.

marching to the Port of Oakland last night
At least 10,000 people came out to protest in Oakland yesterday, bringing a host of issues, sectors and tactics to make the demands of the 99% visible. It reminded me of the Shutdown of San Francisco in the first days of the Second Iraq War in 2003. The police, still hanging their heads over their outrageous aggression of last week and either under orders from or to embarrass Mayor Jean Quan, or both, kept an extremely low – read almost nonexistent – profile, allowing the windows of numerous banks and Whole Foods (all within a few blocks of my house) to be shattered. Walking home last night after the picket at the docks reminded me of nothing more than the streets of Seattle after the first day of the WTO in 1999. With the helicopters whirring overhead (they still are as I write this), it looked and sounded like a war zone.

KRON, our local NBC affiliate, reported that 41% of people responding to their poll said they were “all for the general strike,” and another 31% said it was “fine as long as it stays peaceful.” That means that a whopping 72% basically approve of it; of the rest, 17% said it was stupid because it wouldn’t do any good, while only 7% actively disapproved.

It’s almost enough to convince you that the revolution is coming.

The big question is, what comes next? Of course, I might know the answer if I had the strength to go back to Oscar Grant Plaza for the ten o’clock convergence, but I just can’t do it. My guess, if past movements are any guide (which, as I have previous suggested, they might or might not be), is that there will be two factions on that question. One will say, “We got ten thousand people [except they’ll probably say they had twenty-five; the city called it 4,500, which is both ridiculously low and ridiculously precise] this time; let’s do it again next week and we’ll get fifty thousand.” The other will say, “This was great, but we can’t repeat it; we need to deepen our approach. We can’t just keep protesting, we have to figure out what we’re FOR.” There will be those who want to focus on building the new society in the camp, and those who think they should be doing outreach to the community, to draw in the sectors who were not out today – and in fact, though the numbers were impressive, from what I saw on television and in person, there were a lot of communities missing from today’s actions.

The 99% movement also needs to be thinking about what the government’s next move is going to be. I don’t want to make anyone paranoid, but I predict the era of COINTELPRO is upon us. Last week, it seemed like the government strategy was going to be a simple one: crush and dismantle the camps one by one. It’s just a hypothesis, but it seems pretty likely that Homeland Security has been handing out more than Darth Vader costumes and stun grenades. The impressive display of interdepartmental cooperation at Oakland last week – 17 different police departments! – supports that theory; otherwise, mightn’t San Francisco and Berkeley have said, “No, we can’t come help raid Oakland, we have our own occupations to worry about”? And readers of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine will recognize the “shock and awe” approach favored by their counterinsurgency experts: go in in the middle of the night with overwhelming force and create as much chaos as possible in the first three minutes. The theory is supposed to be that that stuns people into submission. In the case of Occupy Oakland, it clearly didn’t, and that apparently was the root of the problem. They just didn’t imagine that people would regroup that day and come back out that night.

That strategy had to be scrapped because now mayors of cities like Santa Rosa are saying, “We don’t want to risk what happened in Oakland.” That statement is absurd on its face; as my friend Buff said, it’s like saying, “I’m afraid I might bomb you.” But if the people saying it are not calling the shots, it makes more sense.

So now that shock and awe are out of favor, I suspect the DHS plan is first to hope that the bad weather back east kills off OWS and ripples through the offspring, and failing that, various forms of destabilization. And let me just say that from what I’ve seen of Oakland and San Francisco, it wouldn’t take a counterinsurgency genius to destabilize these movements.

First of all, they are trying to use consensus, and even though most of them are using modified consensus, it’s a cumbersome and challenging process for a thousand or ten thousand people who don’t know each other and don’t have that much political unity. As a possible harbinger of things to come, at the SF general assembly (GA) the other day, apparently a few people objected that they didn’t realize they had agreed to modified consensus, and insisted on going back to “pure” consensus – whereby one person can block a decision. While I hope it isn’t, that could be a dangerous tool in the hands of someone wanting to wreak havoc.

What I saw when I got to OGP last night

Second, at least in Oakland and San Francisco, and I imagine in just about every large urban area, there are basically two camps. There are the political people, largely white, young and well educated, and then there are the homeless. There’s crossover and there are people that are not either of the above – especially now in Oakland, you have the professional organizers and people from other movements who were motivated by the crackdown to get involved, but I have really noticed that if you go to the camps in the middle of the day, you get one impression and if you go to the GA, you get a totally different view of who is there. And this is something that was mentioned at the SF GA the other night, when the subject of drug and alcohol use in the camp was raised.

Third, even within the “political class” at the camps, there are a lot of different stripes. There are anarchists and socialists and reformists and people who are not into labels. There are people who think the cops are part of the 99%, people who think the cops are the army of the 1%, and people like me who think if the cops want to be part of the 99%, they need to act like it. Even among anarchists, there are those who favor strategic property damage and provoking not-so-strategic confrontations with the police, and people who adhere to strict nonviolence, and everything in between. In those situations, it’s not very hard to sow discord. (Right after I finished writing this, I got a text message that the police were attacking the camp. When I got there, I found that a small group of men was setting fires and taunting the police, who were responding – unnecessarily but predictably – by firing tear gas and sound bombs into the camp, and threatening to arrest a much larger group of people who were only sitting on the sidewalk.)

So, how can the 99% Movement protect itself against destabilization? It’s not going to be easy. There’s no magic bullet. The first step is being aware of the potential. The second is guarding against paranoia and suspicion. If we start accusing everyone we don’t know or don’t like of being an agent, the government won’t need to send in any actual agents.

Here are a few things to think about:
  • Is someone who has recently shown up trying to take too much control? Especially, are they trying to control money?
  • Does someone always seem to be urging people to do things that will escalate the risk of confrontation with authorities? Do they get impatient or angry when anyone questions the strategic purpose of their proposals?
  • Is there anyone who always seems to be at the center of strong and hostile disagreements at general assemblies or working group meetings?
  • Is there someone who uses sexuality in a manipulative or aggressive way? Someone whom women, people of color or queer people say is behaving in an abusive or harassing way?
  • Is there someone your gut tells you not to trust, even if you can’t explain why?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, what should you do? Once again, I want to stress I don’t know the answer. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a group where a member was later revealed to have been an agent or infiltrator. But if I suspected someone, this is what I would do:
  • Talk to others I know I can trust, and see if any of them feel the same way.
  • Try to get information about the person I mistrust that can be verified, and see if it checks out.
  • Confront sexism, racism, bad process, shady dealings involving money in a principled and forthright way. Don’t let people sweep them under the rug but don’t make accusations I can’t defend.
  • Keep an eye on the person or people I mistrust. Be open to realizing that I’m probably wrong about them.
  • Listen if someone tells me that someone harassed or abused them, and be an ally. Stand up against abusive behavior no matter who the perpetrator is.
  • Try to remain friendly and open to new people. Don’t get sucked into a culture of suspicion.
  • Trust my instincts, but don’t worship them.
Some excellent things to read about COINTELPRO and infiltration:

Agents of Repression:  The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party, by Ward Churchill and Jim Van der Wall.  The best history ever of the COINTELPRO of the seventies, must read for activists (but it will make you never want to leave your house).

"Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence in Movements Enables State Violence", great article by Courtney Desiree Morris, initially published in the feminist journal make/shift.
"Informants, Infiltrators & Provocateurs", nice, pithy and practical.


  1. Great article! And for a good fairly recent example of an agent provocateur I like the story of Brandon Darby

  2. Hi Kate,
    Welcome back, interesting article, especially about Cointelpro

  3. A couple other good things to read:
    Lessons from COINTELPRO: Building a Movement in the Face of Repression
    by Claude Marks and Kelah Bott,

    The War at Home by Brian Glick,