By Peter and Paul and other members of affinity group Hella503
The Portland Action Lab’s Feb 29th call to “Shut Down the Corporations!” (F29) was picked up by over 70 cities, making waves across the country. Here in Portland, roughly 1,000 people responded, showing up in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, to march through downtown streets for over three hours in the cold rain. F29 reinforced that the best lessons of the last three months, our unapologetic defiance of established institutions–the courts, political parties, the police, and even trade unions and nonprofits–has been our greatest strength. This defiance has rallied thousands to our side in a manner that the past fifteen years of protests, marches, and symbolic actions have largely failed to do.
What F29 has also made clear is that our actions need to continue to push forward our collective sense of possibility and strength in order to maintain momentum in the movement. Occupy Portland issued a statement underscoring that their goal in F29 was to create “a peaceful and informative day of positive action and discourse with fellow Portlanders.” Is the role of conscious revolutionaries really to ”educate” people? If it were so easy, if people just needed to be informed of the corruption, the brutality, and the alienation that capitalism creates in their lives, then why are we still in the streets, hundreds of years after the inception of the modern capitalist sociopolitical system? It is arguable that the problem for most folks is not their lack of awareness of the injustice, and the failings of our system to meet basic human needs, but rather their feelings of impotence and powerlessness in the face of it. It is this sense of despair that must be countered through action.
The moments of bravest defiance have been the moments that best define Occupy in the minds of millions–and the moments in which hundreds and thousands of previously “apolitical” people have swelled the ranks of the movement. This should not be forgotten. The militancy of comrades in Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere–the willingness to take risks, to shatter the myths and limits of “peaceful protest,” and “messaging,” and a flexibility in tactics are what have made Occupy’s best moments possible.
Our biggest victories–the Nov 6th march, which turned out 2,000 people in solidarity with the Oakland General Strike; the Nov 13th defense of the camp eviction; the Nov 17th action against the banks; organizing in solidarity with Longshoremen in Longview; and the D12 Port Shutdown–all succeeded due to two things: significant public support wedded with militancy. The combination of illegality, significant disruption of business as usual, and tactical flexibility–up to and including physically defending marches and gatherings from police attacks and pushing riot police off of streets–demonstrated a new range of possibilities and ignited inspiration and momentum in the movement.
In all of these instances, either the public debate, or the replaying of the event itself across the day’s news feeds, extended an invitation to the public at large to engage in action that went beyond the stale standard of being paraded around the city, symbolically shaming and wagging fingers at this or that bad entity. Rather than being reassured by leaders with megaphones that what they are doing is changing things, people saw firsthand the potential for power they held together.
Over the past few months, a relatively small group of organizers have rapidly advanced their own sense of militancy. Whereas just four months ago, the debates were whether or not we could take the streets (for fear of police, delaying buses or cars, or being “too confrontational” and alienating potential supporters), now the debates center on more nuanced questions. It’s a testament to the ability of everyday people to rapidly assimilate collective experiences into meaningful political conclusions that in a mere four months, the questions of how to break through police lines, push police off streets, and defend actions from police assaults have begun to find answers in practice and be picked up by increasing numbers of people, opening new possibilities for the question of “Where do we Occupy next?”
Of course, this learning curve has not been without friction. The night before F29, a communiqué was released by a group referring to itself as “Some of Those Responsible.” In the piece, “Some of Those Responsible” identified as anti-capitalists, and took responsibility for smashing out windows and ATMs at the U.S. Bank on SE Main and César Chávez Blvd. They explained their motivations as symbolically targeting (one of the) institutions responsible for the imbalance of global wealth distribution, as well as for banks’ roles in the financial crisis and in environmental degradation. “We also did this to remind Occupy to keep its horizons open,” they continue. “Parades through the city may be able to accomplish this task on occasion, but at the end of the day there’s really no replacement for a few dozen folks in masks with rocks.”
The next morning, before the day’s actions could even begin, the Occupy Portland PR team responded by immediately distancing the organizers of the march from the autonomous action: “At 11:30 last night…a non-Occupy Portland group expressed that their action was done in solidarity with Occupy Portland. As Occupy Portland has clearly stated in every mention of F29 Shut Down The Corporations, this event will be peaceful. Property destruction through autonomous action by individuals or groups has never been advocated for or supported by Occupy Portland….We hope that fellow Portlanders recognize that though our actions today will be disruptive yet peaceful as we create awareness to shut down ALEC.”
The response from the Occupy Portland PR team implies a number of assumptions regarding messaging, how to leverage power, and the appeal of Occupy. While the statement from “Some of Those Responsible” suggested that multiple forms of action should be open for consideration and left on the table, the PR team assumed a need for Occupy to distance itself from property destruction, placing value instead upon being “peaceful” and “informative.”
Did F29, in juxtaposition to the actions of ”Some of those Responsible,” actually “create awareness to shut down ALEC” with the result that “when we succeed we will have changed the course of history in our political system by helping restore the legitimate voice of all of the American people, not just the 1%” any more than the bold night time raid on a few bank windows in SE Portland did? This raises the question of whether we really believe that people are drawn to a movement for a ”peaceful and informative day of positive action and discourse with fellow Portlanders.” We suggest that, thanks to this disavowal of the kinds of tactics demonstrated by the autonomous action, the experience of F29 for its participants and onlookers lacked the transformative energy that it could have generated. While it succeeded in making many symbolic points, it failed to send its participants away with an expanded sense of possibility and power.
Two Actions: Same Tactics, Different Results: What was different between N17 and F29?
Following the eviction of the camp on Nov 13th, N17 was preceded by days of skirmishes between protesters and police, all dominating the news cycle, with photos of police violence and attacks in Portland even making the New York Times. What loomed in the background of N17 was the experience of the well over 5,000 people who only four days before had come down, pushed police off of the streets, and successfully defended their encampment, only to have police come sweep and close it the next morning. Nov 17th began with a largely scripted series of symbolic, pre-negotiated arrests on one of Portland’s bridges. Chief of Police Mike Reese acknowledged in interviews at the time that they had no problem negotiating the arrest of anyone who wanted to sit down on the bridge and be arrested. N17 took on significance once the action went “off script,” and hundreds of people, having seen the latest in a series of conflicts with police unfold on news screens, flooded into downtown to confront the police. Even by Chief Reese’s admission, it was not the symbolic arrests, either at banks, or on the bridges, that gave N17 its resonance and power. It was the spontaneous expression of popular force and defiance that arose as a response to the actions of the police during the eviction and for days after.
In contrast, F29 stayed largely on script. Aside from the exemplary actions of small organized groups with large banners and the rest of the crowd, who rallied behind them to push aside police cordons (police lines were broken through three times), little else happened. Media coverage was limited; we marched for 4 hours, passed numerous targets, and went home. ALEC was not impacted. American capitalism did not collapse. But who expected these things to occur?
More importantly, unlike on Nov 17th, the event ended on time and did not spur any continuing actions or sense of possibility. Had the crowd not done such a good job dealing with police menacing that day, the entirety of the event would have been a retreat for the movement. Numerous nonprofits and leftist groups have been holding safe, peaceful marches around many of the same issues that “Occupy the Corporations” was attempting to raise, yet they have rarely succeeded in capturing the attention of the general public or inspiring to action masses of those not already ideologically committed to their agendas.
Debating Militancy and the Black Bloc
In addition to the success of breaking through police lines and defending the march from police provocation and attack, the widespread support for black bloc tactics, despite the denunciation of the prior night’s actions by some leadership, was noteworthy. Organized groupings formed a bloc at the front of the march, using reinforced hard banners. They maintained discipline in their ranks, repeatedly breaking through police lines, and refusing to be kettled, quarantined to the sidewalk, or to allow police to dictate the direction of the march. These tactics were successful, and won many at the march over to the type of tactics that were widely disparaged earlier. This was a success that we should build on.
It may be worth debating whether or not the actions of “Some of Those Responsible” helped or hindered the movement. However, denouncing their actions as somehow less legitimate than those sanctioned by larger organizations is a blow to constructive solidarity. It also offers little in the way of rejuvenation to a movement already growing stale.
This movement needs thousands of experiments–who knows what its next form will take? It is not likely to be encampments again, but we won’t know its new form until it arises, and it’s likely to do so from places people least expect. Regardless of its end result, the actions of “Some of Those Responsible” are exemplary for a number of reasons:
- They expanded the sphere of what is possible – they have demonstrated that people can engage in small attacks on private property and get away with it.
- The actors assumed responsibility for their actions – there was very little risk of injury, arrest, or consequences being assigned to non-participants in the action.
- It appears that “Some of those Responsible” actually responded to criticisms from some in Occupy, who had suggested that they had previously exposed marches and groupings who did not want to accept such risk to dangerous situations; they changed their behavior by planning and carrying out their own action.
- “Some of Those Responsible” demonstrated that the police and institutions like Bank of America are not all seeing and all knowing.
Message Does Matter
The tremendous amount of organizing that went into F29 should have served to take the movement to the next level, politically, tactically, and strategically. Success of this nature would have involved a clearer articulation of the action’s goals, as well as a stronger understanding of its political potential. One of the goals of F29 was to disrupt business as usual. To a degree, we succeeded at this. The march was unpermitted, and we went where we wanted, even when police blocked us and attempted to stop us. Anyone who was downtown at the time and saw the march understood that the movement is still strong in Portland.
On the other hand, the politics of F29 were largely reformist, and the tactics scripted and tame. Targeting corporations is only targeting one expression of the underlying system of capitalism. Many of the day’s chants were anti-corporate, not anti-capitalist. This masks the underlying problems and tensions of the capitalist system as it molds every corner of society. Corporations are not the root of the problem; at most, they are a symptom of something much broader and more pervasive.
Not explicitly naming capitalism was a missed opportunity to identify the underlying causes of our social problems and develop a common understanding of how to fix them. In the future we need to talk about capitalism and to work this into our materials, chants and talking points. We need more creativity and militancy in our choice of tactics. And we need to develop a long-term strategy. What overall purpose did this march serve?
The day was billed as “Shut Down the Corporations,” and three corporate offices were targeted during the march. At two of the three, the primary tactic was to shame them. Unfortunately, we will not shame Verizon out of existence. There were rumors that affinity groups had formed and were intending to lock-down and obstruct various corporate offices, but very little planned civil disobedience occurred. This would have inspired people, but unfortunately it only happened once, and even then it was well out of view on the 34th floor of the Wells Fargo building. The prank resignation from ALEC in front of Blue Cross/Blue Shield was well done and showed the type of creativity that was otherwise lacking.
Another goal of F29 was to empower people. In addition to proving that people don’t need to apply for a permit to hold a march, we also showed that the movement can defend against police attack, and we demonstrated how to stay together, and how to march on our own terms. All of this is important and inspiring. People that came to the march looking to express their frustration at the workings of the system may have been satisfied with their experience. But then again, chanting in front of corporate offices may not have lived up to many people’s expectations. Not seeing more direct confrontation with the rulers may also have left people wanting more. More importantly, did people have an experience of their own potential collective strength? If they didn’t, no amount of reassurance from leaders on megaphones that they are doing something great will convince them to return.
Despite being denounced by pacifists in Occupy, the more militant and confrontational actions of those who organize black blocs, militant extra-legal marches and night actions have been more effective in garnering publicity for the movement. Eighty people marched on Feb 6th against police brutality and ended up getting more media coverage than the 1,000 who marched on Feb 29th. In part this was because things got broken. What if the destruction that happened that night had been more thoughtful? What if it was a corporate office that got smashed up, rather than Genoa restaurant and a BMW? A small march would have still gotten more media, because the media loves property destruction, but the message would have been less controversial and more clear.
At the same time, night actions and black blocs have small numbers of participants, while what we need are thousands of people in the streets utilizing creative and militant tactics. The night of the eviction, after a week of publicized threats and vacillation from much of the official face of Occupy, 5,000 people stood up to the riot police, took over Main Street and refused to give it back, despite police using horses and nightsticks to try and clear the crowd. One of the most inspiring images of that night is the line of riot police retreating in the advance of thousands of people in the streets. Small night actions lack this level of participation in direct action. We need to discuss how we can create actions involving thousands of people that will help move them from being spectators to participants.
We are not calling for small, adventurist actions. We shouldn’t fetishize breaking windows. Rather, we are calling for a reevaluation of the tactics and strategy of the broad social movement we are working to develop. We think we need to be both more creative and more militant in our thinking. We need to see “Some of Those Responsible” and Occupy Portland as being the spectrum of the movement. We need to bridge the militancy of those engaging in night actions and organizing militant, extralegal marches, and black blocs with those working actively to create a broad social movement, involving thousands and eventually millions of people in the ongoing work of fundamentally remaking society. We need to broaden the scope of participation in militancy.
The types of empowering actions we are calling for, which need to be generalized throughout the movement, are those that increase people’s sense of power and possibility. Successfully defending a march from police attack, pushing back retreating lines of riot police, pushing through police lines: these are the types of experiences that entice people to return. The next time we get 1,000 people in the streets, let’s have it more effectively move us toward the development of a revolutionary movement. Let’s have actions that people walk away from feeling empowered, inspired and worked up for the next! Let’s create a movement that draws people into the long-haul project of creating a new society–not through lectures or parades, but through moments of the experience of the possibility of true freedom!