Oakland’s Dirty War: Coercive Attrition and the Occupy Movement

January 09, 2012
by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER, Counterpunch

As winter sets in, the Occupy Movement nationwide confronts a new series of challenges. Conspiring with the weather, however, is the threat of a shifting policing model currently being tested out in Oakland.

Coercive Attrition

The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci spoke of a distinction between “war of position” and “war of maneuver,” between those gradual and occasionally imperceptible political struggles that occur every day and the frontal attack on power toward which they eventually build. While this distinction is necessary, it should not be overstated, and nor can we associate the war of position too directly with ideological struggle and war of maneuver with direct military attacks on and by the coercive apparatus of the state. Recent events in Oakland and the strategy of coercive attrition directed against the Occupy Movement make perfectly clear just how insufficient such a correlation would be.

Recent weeks have seen the Occupy Movement confronted with a war of attrition nationwide: as cold weather sets in, many cities have opted to wait out the movement, allowing excitement to fade and the movement to devour itself in the petty squabbles of disempowerment. Often, though, this strategy of passive attrition operates alongside a more aggressive approach. In Philadelphia, for example, a hands-off approach to the now-decamped Occupy Philly operates in tandem with ferocity toward those who step out of line in a transparent attempt to bully radicals into submission (as with the case of two housing activists currently facing multiple felonies).

But it is in Oakland more than anywhere else that friendly weather and sustained militancy have given rise to a different approach, one similarly premised on chipping away at the movement through attrition and fatigue but doing so in a far more repressive manner. One key ingredient to this peculiar constellation of forces is the empty vessel perched atop the city government: Mayor Jean Quan. Quan was discredited long ago and from all sides, hated by the left for unleashing the near fatal attacks on Occupy Oakland in October, and by the right (represented by OPD and the City Council) for not taking a harder line. Now, having opted to vacillate rather than stand on the side of history, she will simply be hoping to serve out her term and avoid an embarrassing recall campaign.

This vacillation has been nowhere clearer than on the question of the epic Port Shutdowns on November 2nd and December 12th, the first of which catapulted Occupy Oakland to the forefront of the national movement, and the second of which demonstrated a capacity for coordinated militancy not seen in this country for decades at least. Since it was Quan who took the heat for the unrestrained actions of police in October, one could hardly blame the Mayor for hesitating to unleash OPD and other forces against those blocking the port. But when Quan suggested that the city might not be able to prevent future shutdowns of the port, her critics in City Council found powerful echo in Governor Jerry Brown. But for now at least, OPD’s hands are at least partially tied, and the full-on assaults of many an officer’s dream go unfulfilled for now.

Blocked from engaging in a brutal war of maneuver, OPD’s strategy has been a different one, and what remains of Occupy Oakland’s presence in Oscar Grant Plaza has seen small raids with a handful of arrests several times a week. While some interpret this half-heartedness by the forces of order as a sign of impotence, the frequency, the timing, and the serious charges incurred in the raids speak to a more sinister strategy. Continue reading