We’ve Been Framed, by Owen Li
by Owen Li on Nov 8, 2011
published on Ella’s Voice: the blog of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Criticizing the black bloc for vandalism is like shooting fish in a barrel – both are pointless. I’m sure they will show up again so I want to reflect on recent media coverage and share my thoughts about our role as members of the occupy movement.
The black bloc is nothing new so I took a look at how they were covered back when I first saw them in 2003. The first article that popped up in the SF Chronicle archives was a richly detailed 1,600 word article describing the 2/17/03 anti-war mobilization. According to the article, “1,000 protestors…vandalized businesses and clashed with police…before some were arrested.” But the march was unequivocally described as “peaceful.” Not “largely” peaceful, peaceful until violent, peaceful with rogue elements – just “peaceful.” How much attention did the black bloc receive? Just 33 words out of 1,600 – the sentence I quoted from is the only sentence that mentions them.
Why the difference in coverage? Undeniably, media outlets desperately wanted some police vs. protester action. Maybe the exuberant and festive atmosphere just didn’t fit the usual violent frame for Oakland. But we also have to acknowledge that WE are to blame for feeding, reinforcing, and perpetuating this focus on vandalism. So here are some things we can do next time:
1. Stop Apologizing for the Vandalism
Helping with clean-up, working constructively with small businesses, and trying to talk to black bloc anarchists face-to-face are all wonderful responses. Throwing black bloc anarchists under the bus all over the internet and media is not helpful. Fundamentally, the guilt by association doesn’t make sense. Let’s say that you’re standing in front of my house and someone runs up, punches you in the arm, and runs off. I will work to be helpful, but I’m not going to be held responsible for the person who punched you nor will I move out of my house.
2. Connect Back to Occupy Wall Street Issues
It’s frustrating when people won’t cooperate to promote orderliness, cleanliness, and enjoyment of public space. Bank of America forecloses on countless homes in our communities and denies loans to people who want to stay in their homes. BofA neglects these once-thriving houses, turning them into blighted eyesores that pull down our neighborhoods and drive away businesses.
Taxpayers spent billions bailing out BofA. Now they’re making record profits. Yet, they pay no taxes. In fact, 30 of the largest, most profitable corporations are paying no taxes by using loopholes written for them. If Oakland’s Public Works department had more money, there would be less blight in our communities. But as long as corporations can spend unlimited millions in elections, they can buy legislation that puts profit over people and never pay their share towards keeping our neighborhoods blight-free.
3. Keep Things In Perspective
It sucks that the city has to waste money on cleanup. You know what also wastes taxpayer money? $10 billion in contracts for private immigrant detention centers. Wells Fargo holds $88 million in a private prison corporation that makes money running these detention centers and hires lobbyists to push the harsh anti-immigrant legislation that fills them. Some of that $10 billion could’ve gone towards struggling small businesses. And some of those immigrants came from Oakland!
In the Dimond District, I was one of the neighborhood activists, NCPC 22x members, and Dimond Improvement Association Board Members who spent years pleading in every way we could think of with the Bank of America branch on the corner of Fruitvale and MacArthur to keep its property clean. They never listened to us, even though residents in the district spent hours regularly cleaning up the area in teams. We also spent countless hours trying to get the owners of the vacant building at 2114 MacArthur Blvd to take care of their property and make an effort to attract tenants. Instead, we watched the property become the dumping ground for tires and mattresses.
I would love if the media would give equal coverage for efforts to clean up and revitalize the neighborhoods where we live and highlight corporate chains and absentee landlords unwilling to be responsible community partners.
4. Talk About What We Actually Experienced
What we experienced during last Wednesday’s general strike was nothing short of amazing. Media reports the next day were discouraging. We need to tell anyone who wasn’t there what we felt and saw. Talk about the Children’s Brigade. Talk about the Volunteer Bike Valet. Talk about the powerful stories you heard from people you met. Talk about the creative homemade signs (I saw a child with a sign that said, “Fight for my future. I can’t afford a lobbyist, I’m only 6!”). Talk about how there were no police or paid workers in sight but people self-organized to provide childcare, musical performances, medical aid, and directed traffic. Talk about the countless small groups of people who decided to come together and contribute in some way to taking care of people. There were at least two separate groups that provided free, nutritious food. I paid for my meal at the Plaza Cafe which was open and had a line of customers out the door the entire day.
5. Keep Our Eyes on the Prize
The entire country is talking about wealth inequality. That is a huge victory. It was brought about by a scale of coordinated grassroots activity we’ve not seen since the height of the most recent anti-war movement. This victory sets the stage for further struggle. The modified consensus process in the General Assemblies, as frustrating and imperfect as they are, represent a dramatic experiment in direct democracy that few imagined possible. The importance of this experiment cannot be measured in numbers but by the degree of transformation in people’s consciousness and faith in our ability to work together.
For those who say that being leaderless is a weakness, we should simply reply, in the spirit of Ella Baker, that strong people don’t need strong leaders. Do not confuse the lack of charismatic messiahs with a lack of leadership. For those who say there aren’t clear demands, we should gently remind them to listen, because the demands are there. Tax the rich, regulate the banks, get corporate money out of politics, close the gap between the rich and poor – these initial demands are clear enough.
But if we listen closely, we hear an airing of long-standing, heartfelt grievances that defy summary. That is the beauty of “organic” mass motions – they give expression to widespread frustrations and tie together ongoing social justice campaigns that vary by region, city, and constituency. And if we are patient and listen very, very closely, we will hear a deeper conversation – about how to organize an economy based on people’s needs, how we should relate to one another, how we should deal with disagreements and decision-making.
And the best part is that Oakland is at the center of it all – let’s not lose sight of how significant that is. We must believe in each other and the people of Oakland. We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for and this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Every single one of us should think about where we want to lead this movement, not just next month or next year, but through the next decade. And whenever Occupy Wall Street ends, we will still have the rest of our lives to keep struggling together.