Conversation on Occupy Oakland
Forum on Emerging Autonomous Movements in Cuba
An Event sponsored by Amanecer and the Bay Area IWW branch
Shifting Priorities: Legal work and its relevancy to the direction of anarchist thought and action
- Illustration by Faviana Rodriguez
By Lee Chen
It was the day of the Direction Action against the War. While staffing the legal hotline, I got the call to take down the information for Cindy Sheehan and others who are attempting to get arrested.
As I took down their well-organized information, I thought of the time my friends and I were pulled over by the Watsonville police for being a car full of people of color. It’s not planned or voluntary. We didn’t have the watchful eyes of legal observers to protect us, nor resources to minimize our exposure to the criminal legal system.
It was a very odd moment for me to hear someone tell me that they are ‘trying’ to get arrested.
I have participated in my share of street protests and rallies, where I witness the insanity of the police. Armed to the teeth, they never hesitate to unleash massive amounts of violence on anyone who dared to cross their path.
I also saw the aftermath, the legal ramifications, how it drained people and community resources.
Engaging in legal work, I wanted to defend and preserve the people’s right to protest, to help foster the growth of a mass movement.
Legal, just as other work, should not be about holding the line, limited to ‘know your rights’ trainings, or making sure the police doesn’t get crazy at a protest.
It is a tool for us to push back.
But if our efforts go only toward symbolic protests and sporadic actions, the end product will not be a mass movement against capitalism.
Back in 1966, the Black Panther party decided to confront the ruthlessness of the police in West Oakland. They used the law as a tool to support their organizing. The Panthers found a California statue that would permit an individual to carry a loaded gun in public as long as it was not concealed and did not have a bullet in the chamber. This enabled them to start their patrol on the Oakland police with an organized and intimidating presence.
However, the narrow scope presented by the current legal work seeks to observe but not to participate. The main focus is to ensure the safety of activists and accountability of the police at rallies and demonstrations, but does not span further to build a mass movement. Without such a movement, how will we see an end to capitalism and enable us to build a new world based on mutual aid and self-determination?
The contrast was sharper at ‘Know your Rights’ trainings. It is ironic that the training was provided by those who only interact with the police when they ‘choose’ to. These trainings were given to people that are targeted by the police because of their skin color, the neighborhood they live in, how they dress.
By the virtue of these interactions, they are familiar with how the police operate. Who should be teaching whom?
We need to switch our focus of activism to movement building. The main goal of the BPP was not just about confronting the police, but to build a movement for the liberation of all oppressed people.
The patrol on the police was a part of their overall program. This strategy aided them to show others that people power will win over state power. Once they built a bond of trust with the community, they were able to organize successfully, building further their survival program.
As more people joined the BPP, the movement grew like wild fire across the county. Though it met its demise through many reasons, the impact they made is undeniable.
Building a mass movement will be many years of work. It will mean patience, genuine struggles against the state and institutions that uphold the current oppressive conditions.
Building relationship with others, principled organizing, supporting others in their struggles, continue to learn with each other through study and interaction. This means we do it all the time, not just sometimes, for the rest of our lives.
Legal work should be focused on building the power of the people in challenging the systems that exploit us. If our efforts go only toward symbolic protests and sporadic actions, the end product will not be a mass movement against capitalism.
PDF file for Especifista available
PDF available for Especifista. It’s a zip file, about 18mb. A permanent link will be available in the right column.
FIGHTING FOR EDUCATION: Two Organizers Share Their Experiences About the Student Movement, the Building Occupations and March 4th, 2010
Esteban Garcia is currently a graduate student at UCLA and a member of Amanecer. Originally from Northern California, Esteban has previously been involved in student as well as community organizing and community media.
What are some of the challenges that radicals face in trying to build a more widespread movement in your area?
The first challenge is the relationship between formal and informal organizations on campus. There are student organizations that are very concerned with keeping a certain relationship with student government and the administration and see direct action as a threat.
Formal student organizations face a lot of restrictions due to their funding, which is allocated by the administration. Student groups who attempt to represent those most affected by the budget cuts feel they must walk a line not to risk their funding.
It is similar to how many non-profits function to not upset their funders. Their decisions about tactics and strategies are dictated by this fear.
It is not surprising that many are creating a more affinity group style structure so people can come in and discuss these tactics and not feel the need to represent their organizations.
A second challenge is creating a radicalizing experience on a popular level given the political climate on campus. The liberation of Carter-Huggins Hall at UCLA was an attempt to create such a space, by putting the building under student-worker control as long as possible.
Unfortunately, the communication with those inside and outside, logistical difficulties and really, a lack of experience, didn’t allow the action to reach its fruition. Nevertheless, this was not a failure. It forced the discussion of tactics and strategies to the forefront for groups organizing around the budget cuts, which is a very important step at UCLA.
Let’s talk about the contradictions of the direct actions in the student movement, such as the building occupations, and how these have also shifted the political terrain. What are the parts that are amazing and inspiring to you and what aspects are not?
While it’s important to discuss and critique the dynamics regarding tactics and organizing, it is also important to acknowledge the militancy of the occupations that have taken place.
These occupations are a symbolic re-appropriation of institutions connected to capitalism and a de-legitimizing of so-called “representative authorities.”
The tactic has pushed the envelope in the struggle as well as engaged all of us on how to popularize these tactics among a broad base of students in California and nationally.
We know that this struggle is not only a struggle for public education but also a fight against a system that affects all sectors of our society. The question at this point is how to leave the campuses and connect with our communities.
Some critiques of the occupations have labeled them as ‘a privileged white anarchist thing,’ which can ‘lead vulnerable populations’ such as people of color, immigrants and youth into danger. While this is not a new critique, it is very problematic. The idea that ‘vulnerable populations’ can’t make their own decisions and are being led into danger is very condescending.
Its important to make the distinction between critiquing a tactic and critiquing the dynamics involved in the action. At UCLA, where most of the direct action organizing has been among students of color, these actions have been de-legitimized by both the administration as well as potential allies as off campus “privileged white anarchist” agitators.
It is even more imperative that we begin to dialogue as anarchist and radical students in hopes of building a popular decentralized movement that uses a diversity of strategies and tactics. Yet, this will be difficult if we do not have solidarity with each other. The controversy of the March 4th I-980 freeway action in Oakland and in Hunter College in New York, reflects the lack of solidarity among ourselves as anarchist and organizers. It is as if we lack any accountability to anything larger than our own affinity groups, regardless of which position you take on the issue.
I see this as a sign of the reality we exist in. We are repressed and have intentionally or unintentionally been marginalized as anarchists, and lost any accountability to each other and to a broader community. How has it become easier to stand in solidarity with in Mexico, Greece and Austria but hard to stand with each other here?
There is a lack of dialoge. It’s important to reflect on the process of how these actions are organized because if there are legitimate issues with the dynamics of that process, it needs to be addressed. When there is no separation between tactics and dynamics, it becomes easy to demonize these tactics as “irresponsible” and “reckless,” with broad implications. For example, the Carter-Huggins Hall action at UCLA was completely disregarded as just a bunch of “off-campus agitators” having fun at UCLA.
In Los Angeles, we find it important to popularize direct action politics as much as possible. This is very challenging at UCLA. There’s definite division within the students here, because the struggle has been predominantly decentralized. Of course the administration doesn’t like that because there’s no one to target, even though they try. The leftist political groups don’t like it because they want centralization to gain more control. Then you have liberal student groups who want a structured politic. The spontaneity and the potential for repression scares established formal student organizations on campus. Because of this it’s hard to organize students.
But having a diversity of tactics and creating spaces where more people can participate is fundamental. We also have to realize that the structure of a movement that is decentralized, non-hierarchical and based on mutual aid, direct action and egalitarianism really challenges those who you would think to be natural allies on one hand, and scares the hell out of the administration on the other.
There’s debate between those that sense that the general assemblies represent bottom up democracy and a critique of the general assemblies that question whether they can be tools to organize when they are dominated by liberal groups or leftist political groups. What’s your idea of how anarchists can navigate that?
Hell if I know! Just kidding, but in my experience of Southern California, general assemblies haven’t really been used as an organizing tactic like it up north. But they are important in building a popular and mass student movement. General assemblies may be one way to organize thousands of students who are sick and tired of the system and are sympathetic to fighting for free and radical education.
The question is, how do you make the general assemblies as organic a possible? How do you keep that space from becoming a struggle over power, goals, messaging? What do you do when groups come in and use the general assembly as a platform for their own organizing or their own agendas? It would be ideal if people could agree that goals of the movement should be decided upon through conversion, not steering committees. This really calls home the point of being committed to a process.
A powerful strategy understands that we are engaged in a process of building something that we may not even know what it will look like but we know its not the current system. However, there is a very traditional and formulaic methodology of what organizing looks like in this country; you come up with a campaign, you organize a message, and you build people up around that.
When you are doing something that doesn’t fit it that, something more dynamic, more radical, people have trouble putting their faith into it. Using general assemblies is an attempt to move away from that.
The powers that be within this country have been able to neutralize radical student sentiments. The politics playing out in this struggle begin to challenge that by creating and reformulating a radical student consciousness.
Tenaya Lafore is currently a masters student at UC Berkeley in education and a close comrade of Amanecer. In the past she has worked as a staff organizer for labor unions and more recently has spent several years involved in workplace organizing campaigns while working in the restaurant and hotel industries.
Let’s talk about what you’ve witnessed as far the challenges of having a mass movement that is also democratic?
With the building occupation I think the second attempt at Wheeler Hall shows that it’s possible to learn something from the problems of the previous attempt [where an immediate occupation was decided during a General Assembly by a small group of people without the consent of the rest of the people in the building].
The Wheeler Hall occupation on Nov 20 was discussed and decided in a general assembly and done in conjunction with multi day worker and students strike. The students had a General Assembly on the last day and there was a vote of 150 or more people to do an occupation and a smaller group was chosen to act as a reconnaissance team, going out to scope out potential buildings to begin an occupation.
It wasn’t done in this vanguardist manner of acting on behalf of people because they’re not ready. It was an open discussion and debate. And I think the fact that it had been done in a collective manner is why so many people wound up going on November 20th [to support the occupiers]. When I first got to the occupation at seven a.m. there were only 20 of us, but by noon there were hundreds and by the afternoon over a thousand and they were very adamant about defending the people inside.
At the statewide conference hundreds of students, as well as workers, from all levels of education gathered to discuss the direction of the movement. It was inspiring, but also had its frustrating moments. What are your thoughts on the actual process and how that went?
At some points during the meeting, when the facilitators called for a vote on an issue, people would yell from the audience “You need to have discussion before you vote on something.” Then the facilitator would say “Well, let’s have discussion first and then we’ll vote.”
In many ways I think it reflects that this is a learning experience for everybody there, and for some of the facilitators in particular on how to run democratic meetings.
We’re in a time in history where we don’t really don’t know how to engage in democracy. We don’t know what democracy means, in that people don’t have much experience getting to make decisions collectively in small or even large groups. People always say it takes too long, but we don’t have any practice.
So I don’t totally blame the facilitators. I think there were issues of power, but they were also trying to deal with both on one side the super reformists who just wanted to go to Sacramento and they were also trying to stop the vote for a general strike on March 4th.
That was their biggest mistake—they were trying to control it instead of allow a real, open dialogue and vote that really was the will of the participants there.
I also saw groups of the audience yelling ‘general strike’ because they were frustrated with the process, which is legitimate. They also wanted what they wanted and they had this kind of arrogant attitude.
It was mostly men and mostly yelling and not trying to move other people by saying ‘Hey you guys, this isn’t democratic’ but just trying to shut it down by being loud.
As far as the demand I understand the desperation for radical change, but I think that’s equating actual organizing and building power with just calling for it. You can’t just call for a strike, you have to build it.
With respect to the process I understand where they were coming from as well, but people came in with this attitude of this supposedly far left, which I don’t really think is left, but very top down controlling approach—which is saying ‘either you’re militant the way we say, or you’re reformist.’
It totally shuts down conversation and the actual possibility of coming up with something that is possible for people to decide to take action on.
Getting more into the role of radical and their roles, what do you feel are the tensions present?
I was speaking with a long time organizer about the stuff on campus and she said ‘you have to take actions that correspond to the power you’ve built and those actions hopefully get you to a new step of power.
Radical students have helped bring direct action to this movement as opposed to people being stuck on going to Sacramento, writing your legislator and all that bullshit, and so its great that there are people who say ‘no, we have to shut business down and we’re not going to stick to using the means and boundaries of change that those in power want us to use.’
Not being able to assess what kind of actions correspond to the power of the movement at a particular time and the experience of being able to mobilize the power you have is one problem.
The other is the arrogance of the vanguardist sense of lacking trust in the people and that through dialogue and discussion people can come to the conclusion of wanting to take radical action, and that instead decisions and actions have to be taken for people. When this approach is taken people become passive, and objects of the movements instead of the subjects of the movement.
What’s crazy is the connection of the vanguardist actions and anarchists because anarchism is not about this authoritarian lack of trust in people and needing to take action for them, though there are the insurrectionary ideas within anarchism that carry some of these ideas.
But to me anarchism is about direct action, but in a way that is connected to where people are at and helping support them taking actions for themselves, not taking action for people. If you actually have conversations with people, and find others who are on the same page, and perhaps take action not on behalf others but in dialogue with and in conjunction with other organizing to show people what’s possible that can build a movement.
Instead there’s this idea that if a small group of people go take an action it will wake up the masses, but I think it’s not only condescending but misguided and lazy. It turns people off and it becomes like they know better than everyone else, which doesn’t get people involved.
What roles do you think radicals should be playing in the student movement right now?
Radicals should work together, meet together and talk with each other to build their analysis and also be going back to their own natural communities which is their [school] departments, their friend groups, their clubs, whatever they’re part of at their schools and engage with other students and build groups that may not be as radical as they would like them to be but they can be a voice of ‘Hey, I don’t think we should go to Sacramento.’
I’m involved in a group in my department where some people have different ideas than I do, some for example want to have K-12 administrators come to speak, which is not my focus, but that’s where they’re at. But I engage with them, make the case for my ideas.
For instance, there’s a lot of people who feel we just need to fight the budget cuts, but I feel that just gets us to where we started—we fight this same fight every ten years. So it’s a question of that’s where people start out, but what do with that?
For example I was with a classmate and I asked them, if all the workers in the café we were sitting in had their breaks taken away from them and they knew it was the law that they should have a break.
You could say that the demand was reformist because all they want to do is get their breaks back, but if you organized in a way that you build the power of the group of workers, the radicals among the workers can be asking ‘Why is the boss able to take away our breaks in the first place and why is the boss trying to retaliate against us for demanding this?’
Posing those questions is a dialectical process of not just accepting people are at where they’re at, but thinking that they have the capability of having a more systemic critique and also not having this idealistic view that they’ll all of a sudden come to their senses and rise up. Instead you engage with the issue that people are grappling with and try to get to the root of the problem which is both respecting where people are at and not accepting where they are at, that’s what radicals should be doing.
Getting a copy of Especifista# 1
A PDF version of the publication will be up shortly for download. We are just working through some technical stuff. If you wish a hard-copy mailed to you, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can try and work and arrangement about how to get those to you.
COMICS: Crunchy Life Bites
Text by Angelica Nieves – Art by Pedro Ribeiro
Capitalism is crap Obama is the air freshener Revolution is the shovel
ESPECIFISTA #1 is out!
Amanecer: For a Popular Anarchism is proud to present the first issue of its publication – Especifista.
Especifista is a sporadic publication by Amanecer: For a Popular Anarchism. Especifista aims to start a conversation with those involved in different struggles, be in the community, in labor or any other, about the roots of society’s ills, the possibility of fundamental change and how we can achieve it.
Especifista is a publication by anarchists, that is to say, people who believe that society should be organized in a manner that provides for all based on their needs, and where the power and decisions flow from the bottom up, in a real democratic way.
We selected the name Especifista because it best describes our political perspective.
Especifismo is a practice of anarchism originated in South America, and first theorized by the Federacción Anarquista Uruguaya in the 1950’s.
With other parallels in the anarchist movement, it is based on the idea the anarchists should primarily be involved in the struggles of the people, not to control them but to preserve their democratic and radical character. This is called social insertion, and comes from the belief that popular movements are not only the hands of revolution, they are also its brain.
Anarchists should organize into their own, specifically anarchist organization to theorize and strategize about their involvement in the social movements and to learn from them.
The organization of anarchists should also be a voice for the principles of solidarity, democracy and anti-capitalism in the popular movements.
With Especifista, we aim to add to the voices that continue to promote these principles inside social movements.
For contact, please e-mail us at email@example.com
What’s Left one year after Obama?
by Ian Martin
The failure of Obama to live up to expectations can be disempowering to many on the Left, even those who understand the limitations of the current political system and how it truly serves only a wealthy elite. We must fight against this tendency with all of our might. Now more than ever, those who are committed to a just society must put forth a viable alternative to the present system, both through words and deeds.
Obama’s charisma and oratory was all too achingly reminiscent of fallen civil rights leaders, playing on people’s longing for a time free of today’s suffocating cynicism, when change seemed not only possible, but tangible.
So-called “ordinary” people were more free of illusions than the left-wing Obama activists when they voted, looking for a candidate who would provide more jobs, health care, and an end to the war in Iraq, rather than believing that he would magically usher in a one-man revolution.
Even by these modest standards, Obama has failed. He has been uncompromising in bailing out the rich, while timid in doing anything of substance for the working class, or tackling racial justice or rights for the LGBT community.
He doesn’t aim to end the “war on terror” whereby troops, mostly working class youth, especially those of color, are made into killers of other poor people so that corporate profits are safe. Rather, he wishes to “do it right”, by shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Obama’s health care similarly protects the interests of insurance companies, while providing the illusion of progress.
The Democratic party is fundamentally tied to the capitalist system that shapes our society, and serves the interests of an elite, just as the Republicans do. They differ in tactics and strategy, in the specific mechanics of oppression rather than anything of essence.
While these differences can mean tangible results for the working class and people of color that should not be dismissed out of hand, the parties have grown closer to each other over time. The social programs following World War II, implemented in response to pressure from below and the fear of revolution, were built with the record profits of American corporate exploitation throughout the globe. In the America of today, this is no longer possible.
The (relatively) high-paying union jobs in the manufacturing sector have largely been outsourced, as have much of the highly-touted information and high-tech jobs, leaving a large portion of the economy to low-wage service sector jobs. The reality of waiting tables, serving drinks, working the drive-through, and being a health attendant is not that these are “student” or “teenage” jobs, but the true jobs of the present and future. For many others, unemployment has remained the rule.
Many on the Left see the need to defend Obama, as he has been subjected to unprecedented attack by virulent right-wing forces. Corporate-backed ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck masquerade as populists, stirring disaffected, largely white citizens into a frenzy. There can be no denying that these attacks play on thinly-veiled racism.
But the real threat are groups such as the Minutemen and Tea Party, whose verbal attacks on marginalized groups such as immigrants and people of color could easily turn to violence.
We must also resist the urge to cast large sections of America as hopelessly reactionary and racist. There are many angry people out there who see that big business and government are corrupt, and who feel that their lives is threatened and that the future of their children is becoming bleaker.
Unfortunately, right-wing forces have been far more successful in tapping into this sentiment in rural areas and amongst working class white people, while the Left has never made a genuine attempt to do the same in the last few decades.
It is all too easy to turn class resentment, mixed with anxiety from the perceived loss of white privilege into hatred for people of color, immigrants, women, and the LGBT community. Instead, the Left could use this opportunity to seize the moment to confront the real issues of the day.
People are not monolithic, and hardcore reactionaries are a minority; rather there are many disparate influences. This is why in a recent Gallup poll, 17% of Republicans had a favorable view of socialism (a mind-boggling statistic), with about 30% of conservatives having an unfavorable view of capitalism!
Defending Obama may be the natural tendency, and I am not suggesting that our priority is to recruit at Tea Party rallies, but to support Obama would be to miss a genuine chance to show a truly Leftist politics, a completely different animal than what the Democrats represent.
The endless debate between Democrats and Republicans and the view of a hopelessly polarized America is misleading. Rather, it is more accurate to say that a majority of people in this country are unhappy with the way things are. Unhappy does not mean ready for revolution. It means people would be open to an alternative, but see none likely to happen or possible.
This does not stop people from fighting back, and it is a source of hope. The workers of Republic Doors and Windows in Chicago staged an effective and electrifying sit-down strike in December of 2008, one month after Obama’s election. These workers intuitively grasped a timeless fact: direct action gets the goods; that instead of waiting for a president or Congress to look out for workers, workers should look out for themselves and make what they want a reality with the force of their collective will.
More recently, students throughout California and the nation hit the streets in record numbers, occupying their campuses and shutting down a major freeway. Those involved were not just the expected student radicals, but “ordinary” students tired of being attacked year after year.
As some who were part of this movement declared that “we are the crisis”, they sent a powerful message. Workers, students, people of color, women live the crisis while the rich hear about it on the news and they sign the memos that destroy lives and families.
Many are coming to understand that it is only by becoming a crisis for the rich that results will come.
Actions in response to attacks from the elite are as old as the history of this country and beyond. By themselves, they are gratifying and inspirational, but not enough. As I stood the education rally at my school, I heard many students wondering aloud whether there was anything substantial that could be done or what would come next. They knew too well that marches and rallies alone do not change what needs to be changed.
In the May Day rallies of several years ago, millions of immigrants and their supporters marched through the streets of major cities, demonstrating an amazing build-up of energy and power, but when the crowds petered out, the lighting that was caught in a bottle escaped. Simply reacting to the attacks heaped upon us is not sufficient.
Instead, we must create an alternative by building power. We must show, by building truly democratic, mass organizations, that the world of domination masquerading as democracy is not the best we can hope for.
Every time they tell us that we cannot make the key political and economic decisions that determine where we work, how we will work, who we will love, what kind of living spaces we will occupy, what kind of food we will eat, how long we will live, whether we can be healthy, they are saying that we are too stupid, too lazy, too violent.
The sad part is that most of us have come to believe it. Like the child who is abused and comes to believe she really is worthless, we look at the people around us and our communities and see only despair and ugliness. If we remain isolated, the spell will never be broken.
But by working with others to grapple with the problems we face, by discovering how sweet and exhilarating is the power we can exert as a collective, we can expose the lies about ourselves that we have been told all our lives.
It will not be easy. It will be painful, filled with conflict and setbacks, but ultimately we can come through the other side stronger. We need an economy that is run not by the rich for their own profits, but by the workers who do the actual work. Not by a “socialist” government either, but by democratic communities of workers, students, and human beings.
We would like to introduce our humble publication Especifista brought to you by members and friends of Amanecer: For A Popular Anarchism.
First it would make sense to introduce ourselves —we are a group of mostly workers and some students spread throughout California. We are a majority people of color. And we share common dreams and visions of a new world.
We hope you share these too: a world where people control their workplaces communities and land and where all basic needs are met; where power and participation flow from the bottom upwards; where systems of profit, white supremacy, patriarchy and imperialism are uprooted and one in which we live sustainably with the planet.
Together and as individuals we’ve struggled and organized – meeting with our co-workers to confront the bosses, knocking on doors to talk about housing issues, marching for the rights of immigrants and our undocumented compañer@s; working with the family members of those abused by the police; and rallying up fellow students against the attacks on public education.
We’ve had sweet victories and bitter defeats. But this is not enough.
We believe that this vision can only be brought about by the mass movements de los de abajo, by those from below and the building of poder popular, the popular power.
But as those who actively seeking to construct this vision, we need a political home. We need a space to carry each other through between the ebbs and flows of the movement, to deepen our analysis of the struggle and the systems of power we struggle against. A place where we can build our politics and create strategy and that can act to share our ideas with others whom we are in struggle with.
With Especifista we hope to add our contribution to these goals, however modest.
Passed by hand to those we work and organize with first and foremost, we hope this publication can be the beginning of a dialogue with those we share these values with.
“We carry a new world, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute