I learned about how a handful of people could screw up a major demonstration back in 1984, when the Democratic National Convention was in San Francisco and a fairly large number of peace activists had arranged a protest called the "War Chest Tour." The idea was to draw attention to the fact that Democrats as well as Republicans got big campaign donations from defense contractors whose business was making war. Back then, a bunch of the biggest war profiteers had offices in San Francisco, and the demonstration -- which attracted hundreds of people -- wound through the financial district with signs and banners. It was, generally, a great success -- except in the national press.
The thing is, the protest (like occupy Oakland) was prety anarchic, which a small "a" -- peaceful, but leaderless. There was no organization with an office and a phone that the press could call for comment, no easy way to identify the coalition that had put it together.
Oh, but there was one very organized group present: The Revolutionary Communist Party had maybe a dozen members marching (which may have been the entire local membership of that particular group, which has been on the margins of the American left for many years). The RCP members had T-Shirts, newspapers, people designated to speak to the media, handouts with an office phone number -- all the stuff that made lazy reporters' lives easier. So when the story broke, both locally and nationally, the first paragraph read:
"Revolutionary Communists protestested yesterday in San Francisco ...." And the whole point of the War Chest Tour, which my friends had worked on for months, was lost.
Those of us who have been around awhile knew, and know, that the RCP is always with us. There may only be a handful of them still around, but they show up for everything -- and don't seem to care if they undermine the message that event organizers are trying to put out.
The Black Bloc -- the "big A" Anarchists who broke windows in Oakland -- are becoming part of the same tradition. It's a relatively small group, but it's always around. The marches against the War in Iraq were huge, with tens of thousands of people, and entirely peaceful -- except for a few Black Bloc-ers who broke windows and set fires.
Now: I'm not here to blast the Anarchists, or even the RCP. The Maoist/Bob Avakian types have become almost a parody of themselves in recent years, but if that's what you're into, go for it. I'm not even going to get into the argument over whether property damage counts as violence; been there, done that, got the circle-A T-shirt. Destroying stuff and causing mayhem can be a powerful political statement, and there have certainly been times when it was appropriate, effective and considered more than acceptable.
But it's not always the right strategy, and in Oakland in 2011, I think it wasn't. I recognize that this is an emergency situation, that the class warfare has already begun, and that extreme tactics are necessary to fight back. And hell, I don't think smashing a bank window is so awful; smash enough of them and you put a lot of unemployed glaziers back to work. But in downtown Oakland, that tactic can too quickly backfire and lead to stuff like this. (Here's an idea -- how about a Shop Local day at Occupy Oakland, where everyone agrees to patronize small local businesses downtown? It fits right into the plan to withdraw your money from the big banks and put it in local credit unions.)
The problem with the Black Bloc (which isn't really a bloc at all, it's just a loose group of people who (a) think their tactics are appropriate and (b) love this shit) is that it's acting in direct conflict with the many, many people who worked really, really hard to organize what was supposed to be a peaceful event. Like the RCP, they're too quick to piss in the well.
You want to get violent? You want to break stuff? Show up for the general assembly, make your case, and see if you can convince the rest of the group that this is a good idea, right now, one that sends the right message and promotes the cause. Maybe you can do that; maybe everyone agrees. But if the majority of the group says no -- that respect for property (much as we may hate private property, particularly bank property, and all that) is a better way to go right now, today, in this situation -- then back off, dudes, and get with the program.