Occupy Oakland's Black Panther Roots

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 7:01 AM EST

mark MurmannPhoto by Mark Murmann.On Sunday night, a day after the mass arrest of some 400 Occupy Oakland protesters—and journalists including one of my Mother Jones colleagues—many of those who'd been released met outside City Hall to let off steam. Broadcasting through a speaker in a bicycle trailer, members of Occupy Oakland's Anti-Repression Committee denounced the use of "teargas, rubber bullets, and assault grenades." The crowd chanted, "Fuck the cops!" But anger at those who'd encouraged police violence by throwing rocks, ransacking the inside of City Hall, and burning an American flag was hard to find. A veteran member of Occupy Oakland later told me that proponents of nonviolence had largely quit speaking up at Oakland meetings for fear of being shouted down.

The militancy of Occupy Oakland contrasts sharply with the culture of Occupy Wall Street in New York City, where I was embedded this fall. In the weeks leading up to the occupation of Zuccotti Park in September, experts schooled groups of young people in peaceful protest tactics. Calls to occupy the park invariably stressed nonviolence, and the movement's official "Declaration of Solidarity," adopted later that month, proclaimed that "we have peaceably assembled here." Occupiers took turns waving an American flag on the night of the eviction, and even during the most confrontational demonstrations that followed, enforced a code of restraint. During an effort to shut down the New York Stock Exchange, for example, I saw garbage bags that had been tossed into the street by a few rogue protesters get picked up by other activists and put back on the sidewalk. A young anarchist I was shadowing denounced the incident as "stupid black-block shit," showing his disdain for anarchism's militant wing.

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The same nonviolent tenor defined the movement's early days in Oakland, as when some 10,000 people blockaded the city's port on November 2 in a tour de force of peaceful resistance. But that was then. As the Occupy movement faded from the headlines this winter, many of its more moderate supporters stopped showing up at meetings, leaving the radicals to run the show. That hasn't mattered much at Occupy Wall Street, where the radicals and reformers mostly agree on rhetoric and tactics, but it has left the Oakland group increasingly marginalized. Last month, for example, a group of Oakland occupiers began holding a weekly "Fuck the Police" march where they've chanted "Kill the cops!", smashed patrol-car windows, and lit a box on fire in the middle of an intersection.

"The police are being paid to protect them, but they're attacking them," says one Oakland Occupy member. "Most people feel that kind of nullifies the contract."

Many of the Oaklanders see it as their duty to fight back. In October, Oakland police critically injured a peaceful protester, the former marine Scott Olsen, when a projectile shot from police lines at an Occupy march downtown fractured his skull. Video shows police lobbing a flash-bang grenade into a group of protesters who were trying to help him. "The police are being paid to protect them, but they're attacking them," says Jessica, a 28-year-old Occupy Oakland member who tweets under the name @BellaEiko. "Most people feel that kind of nullifies the contract."

The OPD's defenders argue that the police have inadequate funding to do their job properly. Indeed, the department's manpower has dwindled by 20 percent since 2008, although the city posts one of the nation's highest murder rates per capita. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan accuses Occupy Oakland of compounding the city's crime and budget problems by sucking up scarce police resources. The occupiers counter that the police should just leave them alone and focus instead on robberies and murders.

If only it were that simple. A cycle of tit-for-tat violence between the OPD and its activist citizens stretches all the way back to the racially charged civil rights era. It was in Oakland in 1966 that Huey Newton and Bobby Seal founded the Black Panther Party, a group initially dedicated to stopping police brutality in African American neighborhoods. In 1967, Oakland police officer John Frey was shot to death during an altercation with Newton at a traffic stop. (Newton went to jail for the murder but was later exonerated.) A year later, OPD officers retaliated, it seemed, by killing 17-year-old Bobby Hutton; the Panther's body was shot at least 12 times after he'd surrendered and stripped down to his underwear to show that he was unarmed. Through the 1970s, the police harassed the Panthers and the FBI disrupted the group through its secret CoIntelPro program—increasingly turning the city's African American community against law enforcement.

Ever since, the cycle has repeated itself. In the 1990s, a gang of rogue police officers dubbed the "Rough Riders" allegedly planted evidence, beat up suspects, and falsified police reports to frame victims. Their actions led to a 2003 class action settlement in which OPD agreed to pay $10.9 million to 119 victims and submit to a series of reforms overseen by a judge. But nine years later, those reforms still haven't happened. The department's violent response to Occupy Oakland also has tested the patience of the judge, who last week moved toward placing the OPD under federal receivership.

Meanwhile, working for OPD remains a tough and dangerous job. In 2009, the 26-year-old parolee Lovell Mixon killed two Oakland police officers who'd pulled him over, and killed two more during a subsequent shoot-out. But the officer who took down Mixon, Sergeant Patrick Gonzales, has himself been accused of misconduct. A recent study by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley found that Gonzales and 15 other officers were responsible for nearly half of last decade's police shootings in the city, suggesting that rogue elements still exist within the force. The investigation also found that the department has bent over backward to prevent complaints against police officers from becoming public knowledge.

"The militant stance of the Black Panther Party is being emulated. It may actually, at some point, graduate to the carrying of firearms."

The upshot is that ballot measures to put more cops on the street are a tough sell in Oakland even when crime is high. And to this day, many Oakland residents equate calling the police to snitching. "You can see the Black Panther mindset becoming more and more present in the Occupy movement by the actions that are being taken during the marches," says the occupier Jessica, who is part black. "On Saturday, for example, when the police came out with shields and gas masks, there were protesters out there that had shields and gas masks. They were ready as well. You can see that the militant stance of the Black Panther Party is being emulated. It may actually, at some point, graduate to the carrying of firearms."

Of course, the Panthers long ago lost the support of black leaders, who decided that militant tactics and rhetoric weren't the best path to equality. But that lesson hasn't trickled down to the young white anarchists who've come to represent the largest demographic at Occupy Oakland meetings. While critics complain that many militant protesters come from outside of Oakland and don't have its best interests at heart, occupiers like Jessica see room in the movement for a "diversity of tactics," especially ones that target property owned by the 1 percent.

Saturday's mayhem may have helped energize the national Occupy movement. Occupiers in dozens of cities held rallies in solidarity with Occupy Oakland the next day, and have shrugged off a call by Mayor Quan to reject the Oakland contingent for its embrace of property destruction. Still, Occupy Oakland's "diversity of tactics" may take its toll on the diversity of its supporters. On Twitter and on Bay Area radio shows, many Oaklanders were as critical of the protesters as they were of the police. "The Occupy people have totally lost a sort of one-direction focus of economic equality," said Ken, a self-described middle-class resident and one-time Occupy supporter, on a Monday morning Public Radio call-in program. "They are trashing my city and bankrupting my city, and to the fellow who said these marches are a direct result of the OPD, I'm just saying, 'What? Where did that come from?'"

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