This blog post was originally published here on January 28, 2013.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Occupy, lately. Perhaps it’s the slow, plodding force of a familiar New England winter allowing me to reflect on that period with some degree of clarity for the first time. Something that keeps coming up in my head as a moment where I let myself down, and have hopefully learned from, is my involvement in the eviction of Occupy LA. On the surface, the raid defense would seem to have gone the way local organizers hoped for. Among the most pacifist camps I visited, there seemed to be little desire in the occupiers to actively resist the initial raid, as had happened to varying degrees of success in many of the other large East & West Coast encampments. Instead, their overriding concerns seemed to be “nonviolence” and a high number of arrests.
With 292 arrests, and little of the police brutality witnessed time and time again at similar raids, the eviction could easily be seen as a success that met the needs of local organizers. Conversely, as a visitor to the city, who took a very prominent role in the action, I feel like I failed. I overstepped my bounds and missed out on several opportunities for skill sharing with other organizers. Worse, it was my many privileges that allowed me to have the hand I did in shaping the course of that action.
I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time in my life only days before the raid. Arriving shortly after sunrise, I picked up a copy of the L.A. Times. The front page story was the Mayor’s announcement that an eviction of the camp was imminent. I remember my traveling partner and I, hungry for confrontation, thinking we had arrived at the perfect time.
Upon arriving at the camp a couple hours later, we found the iconic “info table” that existed in just about every town and city across the United States during that time. We asked when the next direct action group meeting was, only to be informed that they hadn’t been meeting too much, lately.
“Well, is anyone working on what to do about this imminent raid?” we inquired.
“OH yeah! There are meetings about that every day on the south side steps at 3pm!”
Relieved, we spent several hours checking out the occupation. It was probably the most physically impressive I saw in my travels that Fall and Winter. Estimated to have over 500 tents, they had completely surrounded City Hall on all sides. Their general assembly took place on the main steps of the building every afternoon. The place had a friendly, easy-going atmosphere, with a constant pervasive aroma of high-quality marijuana, to a degree that made it unique among Occupy encampments. Folks had established dozens of “tribes” (side note: I’m uncomfortable with the use of this term, for obvious concerns about cultural appropriation, but this is what they were called in the camp), where new members had to be consented upon by the “tribe”, allowing many diverse groups of folks with diverse methods of resistance and reasons for being in the park to feel comfortable. Unlike other occupations that adopted similar setups, it felt as though the “tribes” were in solidarity with one another, and disdain between groups seemed minimal.
We showed up to our meeting a tad early, and were met by an engaged, talkative person and his dog. We talked for almost an hour about life in the park, and the state of Occupy LA itself. One of the most important things I learned during that conversation was that the LAPD had been using Occupy as an opportunity to “reform” their image. Throughout the existence of the encampment, they often tolerated acts of civil disobedience, and folks were having a tough time incurring the arrests they felt were needed to gain media attention. This led to the desire for a high number of arrests as their overriding concern for eviction.
After talking for nearly an hour, and realizing the meeting should have started long ago, our gracious host informed us that he had had trouble convincing folks to come to these meetings, and that we shouldn’t expect more people to come. This is about when I started to screw up. Shocked, we took matters into our own hands. We scheduled several direct action trainings, with perhaps a more confrontational tone than that particular occupation was accustomed to.
In the course of those trainings, we met two more direct action trainers, who we had mutual friends with from the Alter-Globalization movement. All 4 of us were anarchists, experienced with direct action and active resistance, and quickly became friends and comrades. We began leading trainings on protecting one’s self from police chemical weapons, and more advanced resistance tactics like hard-locks, barricades, etc. Along with giving standard civil disobedience trainings, and helping facilitate the raid meetings, the 4 of us quickly became the face of Occupy LA’s defense for the imminent attack by police. This was despite the fact that my partner and I were not from LA, and the other two folks were only peripherally involved prior to now.
When the direct action team came back from its hiatus a day or two later, they began offering “nonviolence” and mediation trainings. Rather than engage them, to try to combine our trainings, or offer the camp a joint talk on the importance of diversity of tactics, my response was to snicker as I walked by the trainings. We continued to work in our group of 4 anarchists, and with the raid defense committee. There were only 4-5 days from the time we arrived in Los Angeles to prepare for the raid, and more often than not, one of the 4 of us would facilitate these meetings. In fact, when friends from New York tuned in to Livestream to watch the general assembly the night before the raid, they saw familiar faces presenting the raid defense plan. It was my partner and I, fresh off a bus from Texas, giving the speech.
When raid day finally came, the eviction plan, carefully crafted by the raid committee to meet the needs of local organizers, went off well. The direct action team’s main contributions were to hand out pink “nonviolence mediators” t-shirts to their selected marshals and peace police, and to incite fear about “anarchists from Oakland” coming to LA, itching for a riot. The riot, and the “anarchists from Oakland” did not materialize. Everyone seemed satisfied about the outcome. Except for me.
I doubt anyone learned much of anything from working with me on that action. I didn’t take the time to really work with local organizers, building their skills and helping them confidently take the key roles in the forthcoming action. The fact that I stood in front of their general assembly, and explained the action plan, having only been in the camp for 3-4 days, and the first time in Los Angeles in my life, is an embarrassment. I didn’t work with the local direct action team at all, and we certainly didn’t learn much about our different perspectives on resistance. Perhaps working together, we could have found way to mediate our differences, have a transformative experience together, and avoid employing marshals and peace police to monitor our comrades.
When being a travelling, out-of-town organizer, or really being in any situation where you’re not a core organizer of a project but have a lot of skills to contribute, our goal shouldn’t just be success. Our goal needs to be facilitating the sharing of skills, discussion of ideas & perspectives, and bringing up new organizing talent. I’m reminded of how in moments of duress, such as making a snap decision in the middle of an action, well-intentioned activists and agitators put anti-oppression work to the side in order to achieve the desired goal. As long as we achieve a perceived success, the way we got there becomes less important; which is an inherently flawed and oppressive way to organize, and is exactly how capitalism, the state, patriarchy, and every other oppressive structure teaches us to behave. Those structures reward success, by any means, and as such are breeding grounds for socialized oppression. If our interest is truly in building a new society right now, in between the dying gasps of the old world, our methods of organizing and relations with one another must reflect that world we’re trying to give birth to. Anything short of this is counter-revolutionary, regardless of the perceived outcome.
Chris Longenecker, based in Boston, MA, is an agitator, organizer and direct action trainer. He is a founding member of Occupy Wall Street’s Direct Action Working Group. He is also a freelance writer, his work appearing most recently in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, Waging Nonviolence and Occupy.com.