The proposal to the General Assembly calling for the Oakland general strike stated “All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.” However, except for shutting down the Port in the evening, only a handful of banks were blockaded and shut down during the strike. Most of the thousands of people in downtown that day stayed close to the occupation except for a few short marches. As a result, while a few blocks were closed to traffic and totally disrupted, it generally seemed like a normal day only a few blocks from the occupation on November 2.
If there is another general strike, the participants will have to determine whether it makes sense to try harder at disrupting business as usual as much as our numbers might allow, or whether a mostly symbolic day of action is enough.
Following are suggestions on how to disrupt business as usual in an urban area:
In a protest, you request change from those in power. Direct action is when people ignore those in power and build new forms of social interaction on their own — cooperatively organizing housing, farms, workplaces, etc. Militant disruption falls between traditional protest and direct action — the common situation in which people reject the authority and legitimacy of those in power, yet don’t have sufficient social resources to just build a world outside the rulers’ control. Disruption seeks to prevent business as usual and resist social control, thereby weakening the rulers and opening possibilities for new social structures.
Tactics that evade the police are almost always the most disruptive. All too often, you see would-be militants getting caught up in the cop game by focusing on confronting the police — pushing against a police line, etc. This is a mistake. When you confront the police, it usually results in order, not disorder, because the police know precisely where you are. They can re-route traffic around you, maintaining productivity and business as usual everywhere else except on your tiny corner until they can amass enough forces to surround and bust your ass.
If you see a police line, it is usually best to go the other way or melt away and regroup elsewhere. This keeps police guessing and confused while you’re free to cause chaos. The police are organized centrally and use radios which can only communicate between two locations at a time. If we can keep mobile in several different groups, their hierarchical structure has a much harder time keeping track of it all. If you’re lucky, you and a group of friends can get together, run through a business district, push some dumpsters into the middle of traffic, and generally run amok. If you keep moving, you’ll never see any police because by the time they arrive at a particular location, you’ll be gone. Sometimes you can watch cop helicopters to figure out locations cops are concerned with.
The police hope we’ll engage them on their level – it is up to us to figure out realms in which we hold the advantage:
• Maintaining traffic flow is a weak link for the system – causing traffic chaos is very disruptive to the system. The day the Iraq war started, a few hundred people were able to shut down traffic in downtown San Francisco with flying traffic blockades. As few as 20 people materialized on the street a safe distance from police, joined hands to block traffic, and stood in the street for a few moments. When police approached, the line melted away. These short interruptions in flow caused a ripple effect blocks away and gridlock for miles.
• Disruption and disorder can take many forms. Sometimes, creating beautiful or humorous expressions of the world we seek to build — music, art, gardens, public sex, bicycle swarms, etc. — can be disruptive while avoiding the system’s “us and them” paradigm. A disruptive march on leap day action night in 2004 invaded bank lobbies but threw only glitter and popcorn. Another tied doors shut with a pretty red bow.
What to Bring
For mobility, you want to travel as light as possible and avoid bulky signs, props or costumes. Leave those to the protesters. Carry water in a squirt bottle for drinking and to treat chemical weapons. Use a fanny pack or bag that doesn’t get in the way in case you have to run. Not everyone has to adopt the black bloc uniform – it can be like wearing a huge target on your ass. You may be able to get away with more if you’re dressed so you don’t stand out.
If weather permits, water repellent clothes protect skin from pepper spray. Layers are good because they provide padding and can be used for disguise/escape. In hot weather, dress comfortably — avoiding heatstroke and dehydration so you can run is way more important than protection from chemical weapons, padding or a disguise. Wear good running shoes. Don’t wear contact lenses, loose jewelry, loose long hair or anything the cops can grab, or any oil based skin product that may make chemical weapons exposure worse. Carefully consider if you want to bring drugs, weapons, burglary tools or anything that would get you in extra trouble if arrested.
Affinity Groups/Decision Making
Affinity groups are small action cells — usually 4-8 people — who share attitudes about tactics and who organize themselves for effectiveness and protection. The best affinity groups are people with pre-existing relationships who know and trust each other intimately. Decisions are (hopefully) made democratically, face-to-face and quickly on the spot. In a chaotic situation, affinity groups make decision making (as opposed to just reacting) possible, while watching each others’ backs. Affinity groups with experience and a vision can take the initiative and start something when the larger crowd is standing around wondering what to do next.
Some affinity groups use a code word which any member can yell if they have an idea for what the group should do next. Upon hearing the word, others in the group yell it too, until the whole group gathers up and the person who called the huddle makes a proposal. The group can then agree to the proposal, or quickly discuss alternatives, and then move. A code word can also allow regrouping when the group gets separated in a chaotic situation. Sometimes someone in the group holds a visible sign or flag to help keep the group together. It is a good idea for everyone in the group to discuss their limits before an action. During the action, taking time to check in about how everyone is feeling will keep the group unified. Don’t forget to eat and take pee breaks — a lot easier when someone can act as lookout while you duck behind a dumpster.
The police use these weapons to scare and disperse crowds. While these weapons can be painful and dangerous to people with medical issues, most people can endure tear gas and pepper spray just fine, thank you. Don’t believe rumors about use of these weapons — these rumors frequently circulate and are often false.
If you see tear gas, stay calm and focused and avoid it as much as possible. If there is wind, the gas is likely to blow away quickly. Some people are more chemically sensitive than others, so everyone has to decide individually what their body can accept, no questions asked. Throwing gas canisters back is heroic and looks great, but be careful of hitting other demonstrators or burning your hand. The canister might be fairly cool right after it goes off but heats up quickly — a heavy glove helps. Pepper spray is nasty — the best advice is to avoid getting hit by it. If you get hit, don’t spread it around or rub your eyes. You may need help from a medic to clean up. If you get hit with tear gas or pepper spray, avoid contact with others (including pets) until you wash off and change clothes.