The Rise of Oakland’s Riot Culture
When the Bay Area’s Futureless Generation Found Each Other
The fires lit by Ferguson in the Bay Area further cemented the region’s claim to “riot capital” of the US. But how did the Bay Area become the arena of one of the most intense millennial revolts of the decade? Doug Gilbert traces the emergence of the Bay Area’s “riot culture” through the last six years of street clashes and blockading, as well as the region’s unique situation of gentrification and rising costs of living.
When grand juries returned decisions of non-indictment for the police officers who murdered Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, protests, rallies, and marches erupted across the country. In Ferguson, the reaction was especially fierce, with people starting riots, burning down buildings, looting stores, and clashing with police. As one person tweeted on the night that the grand jury in Ferguson broke their decision for Darren Wilson:
"They been killin' us for 500+ years. I ain't tryinna b peaceful, I'm not no protester; they violent, I'm violent." ~Pissed-off in #Ferguson— ReWyldStL (@ReWyldStL) December 8, 2014
The same night that police were being shot at in Ferguson and much of the city was aflame, rioting also began in Oakland, CA. What started as rather tame marches throughout the Downtown, later that evening evolved into street battles with police, looting, and vandalism. Due to the presence of the National Guard, the revolt in Ferguson died down in intensity after a few days. In Oakland however, the riots continued for three days and grew in size and scale. After Thanksgiving, they spread to San Francisco where a large shopping district was shut down, businesses were vandalized, and fights with the police broke out. Several days of calm were then shattered as Oakland erupted again after the Eric Garner decision. For three more days, people took to the streets, blocking freeways, and shutting down train lines. The uprising spread to Berkeley for close to a week, grew much larger, and continued off and on until the end of the year.
In many ways, Oakland was the second front of the Ferguson rebellion and only added to ‘the Town’s’ reputation as the “riot capital” of the US. Throughout these intense weeks, riots continued into the early mornings with stores being looted, police and their vehicles being attacked, freeways being blocked, businesses being vandalized, and hundreds of people being arrested. Police themselves were pushed to their limits, performing long hours of overtime night after night, often missing key holidays with their families. “It has never been like this before,” stated one police officer on the protests, “There is no breathing room.”
In Ferguson, the riots were condemned by everyone from Al Sharpton to the Ferguson police chief. Talking-heads dismissed the uprising as being “hijacked” by out-of-town radicals. As one police official stated in the run-up to the Mike Brown decision, “It’s the guys in Guy Fawkes masks and all dressed in black. That’s what we’re worried about.” One Democratic Missouri Senator Chappelle stated in an interview with Fox New, “[W]e have anarchists here, which we do not welcome in this community.” For many pundits, police, and politicians, anarchist become synonymous with criminal and thus not a legitimate protester and was used as a means to divide the demonstrators against each other. This narrative helped to obscure the fact that the most militant resistance, including gun battles with police, was originating from the Ferguson neighborhoods themselves. As Captain Johnson stated in the press from Ferguson, “It is criminals who throw Molotov cocktails, fire shots and endanger lives. These are not acts of protesters but acts of violence.” Whatever the target, the enemy was always those who were uncontrollable.
Just like in Ferguson, Bay Area media and the police tried to divide the erupting movement into two clear camps; legitimate and illegitimate. This split was often made down tactical lines which attempted to keep everyone passive. Those that were deemed legitimate were so as long as they were non-violent and lawful. Those that were not, were criminals and outsiders who riled up the “good protesters.” Such a narrative harkens back to the Civil Rights Movement, when Klansmen and Sheriffs attempted to alienate Southern residents from the organizing leadership by calling them “outside agitators”.
A front page editorial in the SF Gate stated it plainly: “Peaceful protests in the Bay Area are providing cover for people whose only agenda is to create mayhem. We first saw them here – the so-called black bloc – during the Iraq War protests of 2003. We saw the same violent actions from splinter groups during the Oscar Grant protests in Oakland – and then the Occupy Oakland protests in 2011.” According to UC Berkeley students, UC officials even sent out daily emails which encouraged students to alert law enforcement of protesters who broke the law and engaged in vandalism, further adding to a climate of vigilantism and self-policing.
The authorities had good reasons for attempting to divide people: coming together in the streets were a hybrid and volatile mix of youth of color from various Bay Area neighborhoods, graffiti crews, students, and anarchists and together they stopped the flow of major freeways for hours, damaged millions in property, and cost the city of Oakland alone over a million dollars in police overtime. Put simply, the authorities had to delegitimize riots – to admit its generalization and multi-racial militancy would only add to its power.
The media and police strategy of dividing the rioters in hopes that their numbers would dwindle and public support would ebb was also coupled with outright police repression and violence against the protests. The police clampdown was directed broadly at the thousands of people who refused to leave the streets and blocked highways, but also specifically targeted youth suspected of looting and attacking property through arrests by undercover officers. While on the streets of Oakland and Berkeley, I saw people being shot at with projectiles, tear-gassed, and beaten. According to eyewitnesses, riot police even snipped at demonstrators with rubber bullets from free-ways.
While it wasn’t until this happened to Berkeley university students that it began to be questioned, such violence by police was a key aspect of the riots from the start. This crack-down was a well coordinated effort that spanned across several departments and utilized a variety of equipment – from helicopters to tank-like vehicles. The massive amount of riot police and tactical equipment was startling, and being surrounded by them was a first for many young people. And not just witnessing them, but experiencing the repression first-hand. Being tear-gassed and shot at by rubber bullets for refusing to disperse gave people a visceral connection to the images they had been seeing from Ferguson for months. For many on the streets in those weeks, the war had come home.
While Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY were hundreds of miles away from Oakland and San Francisco, the events that stirred people there also struck a deep chord in the Bay Area. But beyond simply an impassioned reaction to the uprising in Ferguson, the riots were fuelled by the ongoing class-war that has displaced tens of thousands of people, largely people of color, through widespread gentrification. Young people, especially black and brown youth, face a grim future – ecologically, economically, and socially. As millennials by the thousands took to the streets across the region, they did so as a generation that by and large has no future within capitalism. While many of these new combatants had never been politically engaged before, the culture of this uprising was informed by past revolts – from the Oscar Grant Rebellions in 2009, Occupy Oakland in 2011, the Trayvon Martin riots of 2013, and the massive ‘Block the Boat’ blockades of 2014. This evolving ‘riot culture,’ based upon shared tactics of rioting and blockading, has been growing and gaining strength in the the Bay Area for more than half a decade.
A Youth With No Future
“I am a member of the poorest generation since the Great Depression. Born to the “end of history,” [w]e have no hope of doing better than our parents did, by almost any measure. We have inherited an economy in stagnation, a ruined environment on the verge of collapse, a political system created by and for the wealthy, skyrocketing inequality, and an emotionally devastating, hyper-atomized culture.”
Oakland and the wider Bay Area in general has a reputation of being a working-class city and one with a history of radical organizing, from anarchists to the Black Panther Party to the labor movement. But the terrain is changing, as the tech boom has expanded from San Francisco across the entire region. A series of crises from the crack-cocaine explosion, to waves of foreclosures, the financial meltdown, and the rising cost of living, have all resulted in many residents, largely all people of color, being pushed out. Millennials living in the Bay Area face harsh social and economic realities, which don’t appear to be getting better anytime soon. These conditions, while never acknowledged by the mainstream, were as much a driving part of the riots as the images of police tear-gassing demonstrators in Ferguson.
Thousands of African-Americans and Latinos flocked to cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Richmond in the boom time during and after World War 2, entering into unionized positions in various trades and industries. The labor movement in the Bay Area was strong, with general strikes breaking out in San Francisco and Oakland in the 30s and 40s. Unions such as the ILWU refused to purge communists and syndicalists, who in turn remained much more entrenched in union politics than in other unions. But as organized labor moved to the Right and pursued a much more collaborationist approach with management, the labor powerhouse that was the Bay Area grew weaker. As a result, wages in relation to the cost of living have fallen continuously and strikes have become less frequent and effective at gaining concessions and raises. In pursuing a policy of social peace with capital, labor lost the power to keep up with wages and protect entitlements and conditions.
San Francisco Maritime Strike 1934. From SF Gate
The flooding of crack-cocaine into the United States, which was orchestrated in part by the US government to help fund the Contra war in Nicaragua, had disastrous effects in cities like Oakland. In black and low-income communities, once prosperous neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area were decimated through drug addiction and poverty. After the financial meltdown in 2008, the foreclosure crisis encouraged large companies to come in and buy up massive amounts of vacant properties, flipping them and making millions. As the tech boom exploded, many people had no where to go but out, and the African-American population of both Oakland and San Francisco fell dramatically.
With few job options, many millennials also face high living costs and few affordable housing opportunities. Rents continue to climb and price out long term residents, police murders frequently take place in nearly every local city, and systems of surveillance track people throughout the city. In short, young people in the Bay Area have much to be angry about. While the revolt might have been in reaction to police violence, it was really about all of these things at once.
Unlike their grandparents’ and parents’ generation, most millennials find themselves not working in unionized positions in industrial factories or in the public sector, but in a variety of service positions, often working several jobs at one time, or relying on the ‘grey-market’ such as Craigslist or weed trimming for income. This is counterpoised by the largely white gentrifying population which generally makes much higher wages and receives much different treatment from local police.
Members of the baby-boom generation were blessed with the right economic timing that allowed them to buy homes for cheap outside of impoverished areas. But most millennials aren’t able to compete with tech workers making over hundred thousand dollars a year, either in the housing or job market. As one woman commented in the Bay View newspaper at a recent demonstration against her impending eviction, “They seem hell-bent on getting all Black families out of our [West Oakland] neighborhood. It doesn’t matter that there are already so few of us – or that they already make billions of dollars.”
The youths involved in the riots aren’t just facing a future of economic uncertainty through low-paying jobs, rising unemployment, and staggering rents, they are also the generation that grew up in a post-Obama world. Promised hope and change, most young people have only seen conditions around them continue to worsen. This despair is aimed just as much at the social movements that sought to change things as the politicians which sought to speak to those concerns: from Occupy to the recent movement against police brutality (including the #BlackLivesMatter). For many youths, both the institutions and the social movements had failed them. The only thing left was to riot.
Seeds of Revolt
On Tuesday, December 9th, when several hundred rioters looted a 7-11 and a Pak-N-Sav only three blocks from my house – as people hung out the sides of vans, wrote graffiti on every imaginable surface, and gave out looted Swishers on the street – I realized this was not a ‘movement’ in the classical sense, it was an explosion of youthful energy. This energy was also not monolithic. One group was breaking windows and looting while right next to them a car with painted slogans gave out free water and other supplies to the rioters. In many ways, a culture of rioting was maturing on the streets of the Bay Area, linking together a diverse crowd across a vast area. But where did this culture come from?
The seeds of the Bay Area revolt were planted not just in Ferguson, but six years ago at a BART Station on New Years Day in 2009, when Oscar Grant was shot and killed. As one young person in a mask screamed while they drove a hammer into a window allowing a mob to flow in and loot on the first night of the riots in Oakland on November 24th, “We do this for Oscar Grant!” The riots and movement kicked off by Grant’s killing were historic because, as Colorlines wrote, “this was the first case in California history in which a police officer was charged with murder for an on-duty shooting.” The riots also happened in the face of attempted containment by non-profit and Leftist groups, a process which continues to this day. The Oscar Grant riots remain a key example of violent action having a clear effect on forcing the hand of the State and lives on in people’s collective consciousness.
But the movement that broke out in the early days of 2009 in Oakland were important for another reason; it brought in large amounts of youth of color from outside of political and activist scenes. This moment also lead to the formation of the Oakland 100 Committee, an ad hoc group formed by anarchists and other radicals which sought to legally support those arrested during the riots through bailouts, the provision of lawyers, and court support. Over the next few years, the group supported hundreds of arrestees, which contributed to a culture of mutual support of those facing heavy charges and helped normalize a climate where more militant action could be taken and supported.
More than two years later, Occupy Oakland continued to raise the bar, (inspired in part by Occupy Wall Street as well as the Student Occupation movement that took place over a year before), both locally and nationally. In the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, tens of thousands of participants took part in street battles with the police in attempts to defend and later regain control over a small park in front of Oakland City Hall, dubbed Oscar Grant Plaza by Occupiers. After police nearly fatally hit Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen with a tear-gas canister, more riots began in earnest. On November 2nd, only a week after Olsen was struck, the movement saw its highest point as a General Strike took over the Downtown. More than 50,000 people participated in roving protests and successfully blocked the Port of Oakland, causing millions of dollars in losses. The two key methods of fighting, blockading and rioting, would continue to play themselves out in the struggles to come.
Image of Oscar Grant Plaza from Above. From Bay of Rage.
Throughout the coming year, Downtown Oakland saw the proliferation of rioting through weekly “Fuck the Police” (FTP) marches, combative block parties, and numerous demonstrations, all which used the Downtown core as its battleground. While Occupy Oakland would branch off in the coming months with a series of widely popular BBQs throughout the city, the choice of the Downtown was intelligent for many reasons. It was neutral ground for many of the cities youth, and represented, geographically, a place in the middle of the city where people could come together across the various neighborhoods.
Occupy Oakland was also a cornerstone in generalizing a critique of the police within wider society; a push that began when the camp formerly banned cops from entering it. This style of action carried itself into San Francisco as well, as the Mission District was the scene of numerous riots in 2011 and 2012 in the wake of police shootings. Another grouping that grew out of the Occupy period, the Anti-Repression Committee (ARC), proved to be invaluable in supporting those arrested by the police during street actions, and was built on the experience of the Oakland 100 Committee.
Occupy declined in 2012, but the Bay Area exploded again in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. These riots were different from previous ones in two key ways. First, they specifically targeted rapidly gentrifying areas of Oakland. This meant that beyond banks and Starbucks, hip and swanky bars and coffee shops were also attacked and vandalized. Secondly, on the first night of the riots, people shut down the freeway close to Downtown Oakland. This tactic was also taken up by youth in Santa Rosa in the summer of 2014, in protests against the acquittal of a Sheriff who shot and killed Andy Lopez, a 13 year-old Latino boy who was carrying a toy gun.
A month later, massive blockades at the Port of Oakland were successful in stopping the docking of the Israeli company ZIM, in protest of Israel’s continued assault on Gaza, and only further cemented the confidence of people in the strength of stopping capital flows. At the same time as the actions at the Port were happening, Ferguson exploded in the initial wave of riots that occurred when Mike Brown was killed. In Oakland, people marched from the Downtown to Berkeley, attacking police and businesses. Protests continued over the coming days, and demonstrators shut down a freeway on-ramp briefly. By the time the Ferguson rebellion hit, thousands of people had experience in blocking freeways and ports, which is one reason why the tactic was adopted even by the strongest adherents of ‘non-violence.’
A visualization of the massive displacement caused by the Ellis Act. From Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
In late 2013 and into 2014, the Bay Area saw ongoing struggles against gentrification and displacement. Taking place mainly in San Francisco and the East Bay, these struggles helped generalize a larger culture of rebellion in the Bay Area that began to target landlords and property management firms. Tactics were diverse, ranging from attempts to stop the eviction of a long running squatted homeless camp close to Berkeley called the Albany Bulb, blockades against eviction, protests outside of tech companies homes, to the blockades of tech company shuttles such as Google.
All of these actions not only brought the eyes of the world to the unfolding housing crisis in the region, but laid the blame firmly on the doorstep of large tech businesses and their often willing accomplices in cleansing formerly working-class and poor neighborhoods predominantly of color: the police. This connection was crystallized in the marches and protests that ensued in the wake of the death of San Francisco security guard, Alex Nieto, killed by SFPD while eating a burrito before work, armed only with a taser. And this tension further intensified in San Francisco in late October, when thousands of Giants fans took to the streets after the team won the World Series, attacking tech shuttles, condo developments, buildings owned by start-ups, and spray painted the names of Michael Brown and Alex Nieto. But the political and anti-police nature of the Giants riot only foreshadowed what lay just around the corner in less than one month’s time.
By the time the riots in November broke out on both sides of the Bay Area, the various gentrifying neighborhoods throughout the region had thus been burned into the minds of thousands of people as enemy territory. While some decried the attacks on coffee shops and wine bars are ‘hurting small businesses,’ others concluded that these actions in themselves pointed to a new intelligence in the riots that sought to move the terrain of struggle into areas that were rapidly/or had been recently gentrified. The East Bay Solidarity Network wrote, “...[G]iven the corresponding rise of upscale establishments, mass displacement, and police violence in the Bay Area, [going after these establishments] may...be a strategic direction for our movements.”
Further contributing to the context of the current rebellion has been recent lawsuits against police that have cost Oakland millions and in theory, legally bound the police to change their tactics. Starting in the summer of 2013, the city began to pay out millions of dollars to those injured by police during the Occupy clashes. $1.7 million was doled out in a settlement with 12 protesters, some of which were injured in 2013. The settlement also forced Oakland police to adhere to their own rules on crowd control, which were constantly broken. In December 2013, $645,000 was paid to a man beaten by a police officer after the General Strike in 2011. Scott Olsen received $4.5 million in May of 2014. Then, in January 2015, it was announced that $1.3 million would go to people who were mass arrested on January 28th, 2012.
These protest settlements are not typical. According to the website, Oakland Police Beat, “...[S]ince 1990, Oakland [has] spent $74 million dollars to settle at least 417 lawsuits accusing its police officers of brutality, misconduct and other civil rights violations.” The reasons for settling as opposed to taking the cases to court are clear: “In settling the cases the city does not admit to wrongdoing. It pays the plaintiff a mutually agreed upon amount of money; in return the plaintiff drops the litigation.” According to the same website, while these lawsuits may have cost the city millions, the police carrying out these violations are some of the Oakland’s most decorated officers. They go on to write that of the “35 officers who have received the most awards and medals: 40 percent were involved in one or more officer-involved shootings … 61 percent were named in civil rights-related lawsuits. At least four were members of the small tactical squads, called Tango Teams, that used chemical agents as well as beanbag and explosive projectiles during violent clashes with Occupy Oakland demonstrators in 2011 and 2012. (Oakland has spent more than $6 million to settle lawsuits stemming from those clashes.)”
In light of such large lawsuits and the bad press they got for their heavy handed clampdown during protests – from Occupy to the Oscar Grant protests – Oakland Police attempted to clean up their image. Before May Day 2012, then Police Chief Howard Jordan stated in a press conference, “We are committed to immediately improving our training, tactics and policies in light of our experiences.”
But Oakland police quickly found a way around their own rules. The use of “mutual aid” between police departments proved invaluable during the Bay Area rebellion in the winter of 2014, leaving the ‘dirty work’ of shooting projectiles to departments such as Hayward and Berkeley or other agencies like the California Highway Patrol (CHP). While the media praised the more “hands-off” Oakland Police, other police departments were more than happy to break bones, shoot tear-gas, and launch concussion grenades.
Year 2014 also saw continued police killings, sex scandals, and storms on social media, along with cop beatings at sports events, on public transportation, and at schools. In 2014 alone, the California Highway Patrol (CHP), who generated much controversy when undercovers pulled guns on demonstrators in late December of the same year, killed at least 4 people. All of these added fuel to the fire of anti-police sentiment and further cemented the divide between much of the of the population and the police.
March of the Millennials
“Severed from the broken family structure and without any people or home to call its own, revolt comes with an iphone in its mouth.”
— Between Predicates, War
Millennials, whether graffiti writers from the roughest neighborhoods of Oakland or recent transplants attending the University in Berkeley, were the driving force of the revolts across the Bay Area. Young people were the backbone of the revolt, and helped cultivate a variety of tactics which pushed it to its most disruptive and destructive extremes.
The Bay Area rebellion that followed Ferguson was remarkably different than in other cities, but it was also different than past Bay Area revolts, in several key instances. Its intensity allowed the riots to last sometimes up to ten hours, often involving several waves of different actors – from students carrying signs for the first time, to old school insurrectionaries. The wide variety of participants showed the degree in which the revolt was extremely generalized, with people joining in from off the street.
As one friend stated, “This is Oakland. If you’re out past 10:00 pm, you’re going to see some real shit.” In an interview on progressive radio station KPFA, an “insurrectionary anarchist,” whose voice had been changed to hide their identity, stated, “Generally these protests hit a point where the people that are interested in ‘sending a message’ rub up against those that want to ‘shut things down.’ Once those people send a message, they go home for the night.” And there was plenty of real shit to see, as each night the crowd seemed set on out-rioting or out-blockading the crowd from the night before; undeterred by police attacks and arrests.
The revolt also changed some people’s attitudes about struggle. One night, when one young woman attempted to move a dumpster out of the street because, as she told me, “It was violent,” I asked her if she wanted the streets to be cleared and allow police free access to the streets like the night before. She replied that she did not, and said, “Sorry, I’m new to this,” and then walked away.
The way in which people dealt with vigilantes in the crowd also pointed toward a heightened intensity of the revolt. The number of vigilantes, also known as the “Peace Police,” was small. Insofar as they can even be considered a group, these people would often state that they simply wanted to preserve the “image” of the movement as peaceful. This lead to extremely bizarre moments, such as groups of white people chanting “Black Lives Matter” while they attempted to tackle black youth looting a Radio Shack. In retribution, several “Peace Police” had their teeth beaten out with hammers or were violently attacked by rioters.
A big portion of those involved in the revolt were young people with no previous involvement in political struggles. This played a huge role in shaping the events. Police attacks on students brought more attention to the riots as suddenly a whole new demographic was getting their first taste of tear-gas. As one man told me while we watched hundreds of people block Highway 24 on December 7th, “They’re not just beating anarchists anymore.” While this in itself fed into media hype of “anarchists” and “criminals” leading the students astray, the police repression also radicalized hundreds of Berkeley and Oakland youth, both on the university campus and in the high schools.
When the rebellion broke out, a small occupation at UC Berkeley was taking place and many of these students were also among the demonstrators. In turn, high school students across Oakland and Berkeley, many of whom were caught up in the riots, also began organizing walk-outs of their schools. When hundreds of Berkeley High School kids walked out of school, they marched on UC Berkeley chanting, “You showed us how!” Without the riots, none of this would have been possible.
The rebellion was extremely mobile and refused any set territory, target, or location. By the third week of the revolt, disturbances were happening daily without any set group even calling for them, as people continued to meet outside of UC Berkeley at the end of Telegraph Ave. If you wanted to fight, you knew where to go.
While rioters would stop at times to attack banks and businesses, loot stores, or block freeways, the pace was almost always one of constant movement. In reality, this was done more to keep from being boxed in or arrested by police than anything else. While on major streets, people generally had free reign. But as soon as people turned down residential roads, police almost always took an opportunity to kettle them. This was seen most powerfully on November 25th, when rioters constructed a huge flaming barricade across Telegraph Ave and then rampaged, but were kettled only hours later on a small side street.
Within the rebellion, I saw the growth of crews of people that were focused primarily on extremely specific activities. These ranged from street fighting with police, writing graffiti, the blockading of freeways, property destruction, and also the looting of stores. Graffiti crews would tag (often writing overtly political and anti-police slogans), anarchists would attack banks or police cars, one group would loot a store, others would hold the streets, a few would guard against vigilantes and undercovers, and more still would push onto a freeway. While one certain group might have stuck to one tactic, the diversity simply just added to the chaos and provided for a multiplicity of actions to take place.
In many ways, graffiti crews were one of the chief protagonists of the winter 2014 clashes, with many writers and crews taking a very active role. One group in particular, Keep Hoods Yours (KHY), a grouping of writers based out of San Francisco, was a mainstay on both sides of the Bay Area during the revolt. The groups name was intended to provoke an anti-gentrification sentiment and the crew also was involved in numerous graffiti bombings of gentrifying businesses in 2014.
Many demonstrators were extremely antagonistic toward organizations that tried to tell the riot what to do. After protests began again in Oakland when the police that killed Eric Garner were let off the hook, a group of activists with the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) had their banners and signs taken and destroyed when they attempted to take over and lead a march after a mob of people shut down a BART station. Many were angry at the group who often tried to capitalize on the protests by passing out signs and banners with their website featured prominently. Another communist group, BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) was often shouted down when they tried to direct demonstrations and hold meetings in the streets.
Social media also played a huge role in the Bay Area revolts like never before. Occupy Oakland had a massive Twitter account, but when Occupy took off, they weren’t able to utilize Instagram they way people could this time around: people made small ‘flyers’ that simply stated “FTP” or “ACAB” with dates, times, and addresses. These were then shared through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. But their popularity must be understood as a result of many years build-up and actions – people actually knew what was about to go down.
Riots yet to Bloom
“Indeed, some of the poor are so isolated from significant institutional participation that the only contribution they can withhold is that of quiescence in civil life: they can riot.”
—Poor People’s Movements
When you can’t go on; when you can’t reproduce yourself in society, you fight. When you can’t afford tuition, you occupy the university. When you can’t accept bad wages and conditions, you strike. When you can’t afford the high rent, you refuse to pay. When the police shoot down your neighbor in the street, you riot.
In the Bay Area, all these things are happening every day. For a vast majority of the population, there is no future. Tens of thousands of people will be priced out, evicted, and driven from their homes to make way for “progress” and the tech industry invasion. Police beat, harass, and kill people consistently without consequence. The riots and mass upheavals that broke out in the Bay Area starting in the winter of 2014 are a testament to a desperation. They speak to the failure of anything trying to change the situation – from Obama, to the unions, to Occupy.
The riots that break out next time might be even more nihilistic. It is possible people will burn, destroy, and attack those things that immiserate their lives and represent the current order. But they will likely also seek to meet needs directly and break down the separation of people from those needs – taking of land to create food; seizing of buildings, infrastructure, hospitals, and water treatment facilities; taking over of neighborhoods and territories and the expelling of the authorities. This is what I envision riots to look like in the near future because, quite frankly, there is nowhere else for them to go.
Ironically, it is those in power at the helm of politics and the economy that are pushing people from their homes as the urban cores of US cities are transformed; that is in turn leading to the creation of the next set of Fergusons. Just in the last month, police shot and killed people in both Stockton and Antioch, two of the cities with the greatest influx of ex-Oaklanders. As more people are displaced, and as neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces become more segregated and policed, the Bay Area will continue to be further divided along lines of race and class.
The Bay Area culture of rioting isn’t going away anytime soon. As this article was being finished, less than a mile from where I write these words, a young female shoplifting suspect, Yvette Henderson, was shot in the head and killed by local police about a week ago. Her blood and brains splattered across an entire city block. The fire department came to wash it away, but they didn’t get everything – I still saw the remains on the street after I got off work. Close to 100 people gathered that night where she was killed and then marched to the Home Depot she was accused of stealing from. They broke windows and looted flowers that they brought back to the spot where she was shot by police. Holes from the shotguns and other weapons were still open and gaping. Like the looted flowers for the fallen, the riot culture of the Bay Area continues to flourish.
Originally published in the “Anniversary” issue on February 16, 2015