A departure from the regular tone

October 26, 2011 § 6 Comments

Let me start with the confessional preface: I’m not a protester. I used to be. I had my day, bandanaing-up on the streets of Edinburgh, say; or marching with thousands in the build-up to a war in Iraq whose inevitability proved more powerful than our collective will. I stopped not because I felt it was useless, though largely they seem to be. Or because they can be dreadfully boring, though all that talking and bombast, the avoidance of rhetorical landmines, it can certainly be tedious. I simply stopped, opting for different diversions, I suppose. I supported many a cause, mind you. Money here; pillows there. More than a few conversations. But I was no longer “on the ground,” as it were.

That stopped, at least for a night — beyond that, I don’t know — yesterday in Oakland. I’m not going to play maudlin. I kind of did that yesterday. But something snapped, or at least bent in a really awkward way, when I saw the Occupy Oakland camp upended the way it was. I had no real stake in that camp. I visited several times, and each time I joked that the medical tent needed to stock up on some more maximum strength deodorant. Moreover, I did not even think their presence would effect much, quite honestly. But I was happy they were there, and certainly planned to keep supporting them in spirit. Seeing the police trample through the remains of that spirit, lingering about and guarding it, protecting the occupants from themselves, was the official word, was simply too much. I commented elsewhere that at least rioters & looters have the good decency to leave after their destruction — that it takes a mob with a badge to honor its mayhem the way I saw yesterday. And, as I said then, I was angry. Angry enough to become once again a protester.

I was there last night, from 4 pm to midnight — longer than I was at my full-time job, oddly enough — and rarely have I been as proud of a group of protesters. There were some knuckleheads, yes. But it’s hard to have a dinner-party and not have at least one, let alone a gathering of some-2000 strong. There’s no reason to rehearse all that took place. The videos & photos are ample, and actually do a very good job telling the story. Nor will I even vilify the police (they do that well enough on their own, it seems) except to say I suspect they might’ve successfully radicalized the next generation of kids whose heads they’ll bash.

If I have anything to add to the conversations that follow all that went down, it is that we miss the point if our conversations about the police become either too strident or too narrowly focused. Protests haven’t changed much over history: they are each a kind of tango, between state power and those who feel oppressed by it. The cops are going to do what they do (whether it be conceding just enough to the theatrics of the moment, letting people scream themselves out, etc., or, well, what they did in Oakland [& Atlanta] last night). It is up to the protesters to take the lead in this tango whenever at all possible, though it will not be for the entire evening, on this you can be sure. As an example, the greatest moment of the protest last night was the improvisational snake march through the streets of downtown — used first to avoid a direct confrontation at 14th & Broadway (&, I’m told, an oncoming attempt at a kettling) — and then later to regroup. If there is something to learn from this it is that that there is always more than one way to move forward. Unless you’re defending territory that needs defending, keep moving.

None of this is to say we should, because we expect it, exonerate the abuses and ill-directed uses of police power. By all means, use them as motivation to keep going. Use them as propaganda. More importantly still, use them in your ever-growing arsenal of improvisation. But never forget: this is simply what they do — they have their own skill-sets after all. We should be outraged, but never surprised.

The need now is to respond to the police without our response being about the police. This is quite tricky. The images & videos we have are our greatest assets & worst temptations on this point. Yes, they bear witness to the fact that the police have declared themselves an enemy, but we (I first wrote “the protesters,” but fuck the third-person) would be wise to insure the police remain only this enemy’s symbol (whose destruction, I might add, is as useful — if, nevertheless, as vaguely satisfying — as burning a flag).

§ 6 Responses to A departure from the regular tone

  • Brad Johnson says:

    There is, I have to think, or at least want to hope, something to the power of an educated improvisation. A reaction, as it were, that somehow upsets some manner of the other side’s preparations, if not always or necessarily the inevitable results of these preparations. There is something to the improvisational moment that at the very least becomes a memory of something that never quite was that might sustain you in the days that, one has reason to fear, never quite will be.

  • tom clark says:


    All very interesting, unnerving, unsettling (especially if you’re not simply in the way, but old and in the way).

    Important thought, of course, about not confusing the police with the power — until, that is, the moment when the two become inseparable.

    For example, the Iraq vet who took the tear gas canister head shot the other night. No confusing of the p & the p, there, one and the same.

    Remembering this is the ground upon which every battle from the nights of Bobby Seale to the night of Little Oscar Grant to the battle of last Tuesday night has been won by the p of the p.

    Of course they are merely a front for something which does not show its face.

    But this does not mean they do not put righteous fear into the heart.

    This is their service to the concealment.

    Youth helps in the battle, it makes you crazy. On Tuesday night I met a kid downtown who was looking to head back into the Oakland action.

    “You nuts?” I asked. “Teargas, beanbag guns, choppers”.

    His eyes grew wide.

    “YES,” he exclaimed. “That’s WHAT I WANT!”

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Yes. There is a kind of machismo masochism often at the heart of radicalization, certainly for many males. At least in the beginning stages. The honeymoon, as it were. It’s perhaps non-productive; but maybe it is. I’m unsure.

    And, yes, the indistinguishability of “p from p” is difficult. I think that police brutality can animate a group and perhaps bring them back together — can even be a good opening target to its retributive anger — but the most effective anger is the “cool,” targeted kind, of a rage settled into a way of being more than a reason for reacting. Which is why I try to tread carefully w/ the internalization & fall out from Tuesday night.

    Will you be in attendance at any of the happenings on Nov. 2?

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Well, ideally there will be sufficient people there that our paths will not so readily cross. But I will be there as well for most of the day. Stay safe. At some point I will return to regular writing.

    • tom clark says:

      At this point, curiously, suddenly so much later in the history of the world than was thought, it’s hard to imagine ever returning to anything.

      Do you suppose a scary cyclonic event could be the augury for which we have awaited?

      Should there turn out to be some tomorrows, having our paths cross would be the thing I would fear the least.

      But my remaining path is short, yours I hope will be long and full of life.

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