Reflecting on violence at the SF Commune

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GUARDIAN PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

Occupy San Francisco protesters entered Catholic Church-owned properties at 888 Turk last night. This is the same building that a similar group occupied April 1, in a peaceful action that lasted about 24 hours. 

The successful reentry was a testament to the spread of skills and cultures surrounding building takeovers by groups like Homes Not Jails. The resulting “rebirth of the SF Commune” was a mellow and pleasant event at first, as protesters on a march from the celebratory Peoples Street Festival joined in the commune. Some held back in the street while others entered the building in hopes of building a “community center”—most remained outside the building, enjoying a free meal cooked and served by some of the same Occupy SF kitchen volunteers that once fed hundreds of people daily at Justin Herman Plaza.

The building occupation was meant to affirm a strong belief in the rights of people to gather and organize, or at the very least have a warm place to sleep at night. It was also an assertion from Occupy: we’re still here, your warnings to property owners to board up their vacant buildings and the chain-link fence you put up in front of 888 Turk (which protesters casually removed upon arrival) won’t stop us.

“The Catholic church owns it. They’re supposed to be doing charity, but they’re leaving it vacant until they can get high rent out of it,” said Jazzie Collins that afternoon, an organizer with Senior Action Network who was there to support the May Day actions.

“There’s too many vacant buildings in this city, while people sleep on the streets.”

Collins spoke only for herself, but her take on the situation matched the sentiments of many who questioned the importance of property rights in the light of unused building and homelessness throughout the city. That's the same reason that the SF Commune had sprung up in the same building, exactly one month earlier.

Police spokesperson Sergeant Michael Andraychak seemed to believe that this repeat occupation would turn out the same way. “We’re putting up some barricades attempting to restrict access to the building,” said Andraychak around 5pm. “We’re opening traffic back up.”

But not half an hour later, when the police put up the final barricades sealing off access to the building, the dozen or so people who got caught inside pushed back at the barricade. Police responded with intimidating and striking a few with batons. Then, a man appeared on the roof.

His face was covered in a black bandanna. He raised his arms, and in each hand, he held a brick. Onlookers began shouting, “don’t throw those!” He did though. He hit one man in the face, a fellow protester who, according to one source, has supported the Occupy SF effort since the camp.  

The mood of the crowd chilled. The brick-thrower held up more bricks, menacingly. 

Police closed the street off to traffic. Soon most protesters, supporters, and interested bystanders were on the other side of Gough or in the park, watching the events. A few spoke to and yelled at police lined up on the corners. Hundreds more police stood ground on Turk in front of the building. A few dozen remained inside, including one who had appeared on the roof, taken the bricks from the assailant, and tossed them off, out of reach.

Police arrested a suspect for the brick throwing as he exited the building out the back. Jesse Nesbitt, 34, is in custody in San Francisco County jail on $150,000 bail. According to sheriff’s department spokesperson Susan Fahey, he has been charged with three penal code violations: felony assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury (245a), assault on a peace officer with force likely to cause great bodily injury (245c), and felony vandalism of more than $400, 594b1.
 
A dozen or so remained in the building during the stand-off. Some poked their faces out an open window, hung down peace sign painted on a piece of cardboard, and talked into a megaphone. “We are not armed, we are completely peaceful,” one man assured. Meanwhile, police told press that they estimated 200 were inside and were “stockpiling pipes, bricks.”

The stand-off continued for a few hours until, at 7:30pm, police cleared out of the area. Most activists had left- thousands were massing in Oakland. But 40 or so people remained and re-entered the building. Many stayed until police came around 5am, arresting 26. Seven remain in custody, and all have been charged with trespassing. (Indicating that the weapon stockpiling concern turned out to be false. Which, as far as I could tell inside the building, it certainly was).

At that point, I entered the building as well to speak with those that remained. How did they feel about the violence? Did they think it was connected to the previous night’s events, when mysterious protesters destroyed numerous Valencia St businesses and cars in what some Occupy SF protesters suspect was an act of provocateurs?

For a response to come from Occupy SF, it must be consented on at a general assembly, a long process. So all the respondents represent only themselves- though most chose to remain anonymous. This structure can lead to a troubling lack of accountability: if something harmful happens at an action, who can be expected to explain it and help to prevent it in the future if everyone is responsible for only themselves? At the same time, each personal answer is less riddled in spin than a form answer would be, since people speak honestly, and for only themselves.

The Valencia St destruction "was enough that I didn’t come out and do anything today, whether it was Occupy or not," one woman who had been “pretty involved in camp, back when it was at JHP” told me. "They were there to piggy back off an Occupy event, to use the organization of Occupy to organize themselves,”

The brick incident, however, did not caution her against showing up, as she did later that night. “Incidents like this happen often with mentally ill or violent people, but they get more publicity when they’re at an Occupy event.”

D, a longtime Occupy SF organizer, said wearily that “we were all surprised” at the incident.
“We weren’t expecting any bricks to be thrown,” he said, “and we didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

But in terms of preventing similar actions in the future, D said, “We can only do so much. Everybody’s an autonomous individual and we can’t control what they do.”

“We can try to clean up everything that could be thrown, we did that last time. This time we focused more on stopping graffiti in the building. There wasn’t any.”

“That’s my friend. When I saw the brick flying at his face, I was hurt. Half our crew is in the hospital with him right now,” said another organizer. “But the real violence is the system putting people on the street, and the cops enforcing that. I’ve seen [Nesbitt] beat up by police.”

“What should we do, just turn our backs on people with mental illnesses?” another piped up.

“This whole occupy thing at this point is so spread out and separated,” said a self-described Occupy SF supporter. “There are parts that are revolutionary and parts that are more reform, and they’re trying to bridge that. I don’t know what it is at this point anymore. But I know I support a movement to articulate the rage at what’s happening in our country right now.”

Comments

At that point, I entered the building as well to speak with those that remained. How did they feel about the violence? Did they think it was connected to the previous night’s events, when mysterious protesters destroyed numerous Valencia St businesses and cars in what some Occupy SF protesters suspect was an act of provocateurs?

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What a world this person has created for his or herself?

Kenneth Harding didn't shoot himself and science is really just a matter of agenda.

mixed with

Occupy doesn't attract violent rioting trustafarians, it must have been provocateur's, who ran amok.

Again, the Guardians claims of integrity are laughable.

So good.

Posted by Matlock on May. 02, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

Occupy has always attracted fringe emelents whose behavior is criminal and destructive. So far, the worst excesses of that have been in Oakland but now we see it in SF too.

If Occupy cannot control its members or the crowds ti entices, then why should we listen to their claims to be able to manage a better society? From what I see, an "Occupy Society" would be violent and with no respect for anyone who disagrees with them. Hardly a great model of progress.

Posted by Guest on May. 03, 2012 @ 7:28 am

according to her twitter she is "hanging out at #occupysf, often chilling with @chedgo", who describes his or herself as "one of the leading lights of #occupysf's banjo playing radical community."

So that is where the Guardian is getting their reporting from.

Posted by guesto on May. 03, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

I hope we have a radical spoon playing community to hang out with the radical banjoists.

Posted by Mirrorman on May. 03, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

Occupy is not suggesting creating a better society, some individuals are.

Occupy exists to excise banksters and warmongers from their corrupt grip on politics and economics.

Posted by guest on May. 03, 2012 @ 8:46 am
Posted by Dnative on May. 03, 2012 @ 10:30 am

Occupy will always have to deal with provocateurs and people too willing to throw things at cops. At the same time, if activists want to squat buildings and turn them into living/community quarters (like the autonomists in Europe), they do need to understand that the authorities will go to great lengths to protect property, even if it is unused.

Posted by Guest on May. 03, 2012 @ 8:50 am

I've been following and supporting Occupy since the beginning. I was a regular vistori in the camps in Oakland, Berkeley, and SF. What's happened recently is a tragedy. Occupy has lost its way.

You mention the brick-throwing incident but there's so much more. For one thing, I saw an Occupier on tv commenting on the brick thrower. "He's an autonomous individual," was part of the quote. That's the heart of the problem right there. Once you support "Diversity of Tactics," you refuse to draw a line. You refuse to say, THIS is not us. So you can say the brick thrower is an outside agitator or just acting autonomously, but by refusing to make a judgment about what you will and will not accept, you embrace the worst of it.

Secondly, this is the second time OSF took over the same stupid building. As a tactic this is simply stale. It's not going to work and it's not a commune, it's just vandalism.

Third, this all happened the day after Occupy trashed the Mission. Not Occupy, you say, just a splinter group. But again, if Occupy won't come out and renounce Diversity of Tactics, won't take a stand against property destruction, then Occupy gets slimed by the MSM.

And trashing small businesses in the Mission? Come on, man! That's a complete denial, a complete renunciation of everything Occupy is about. Shut down a bank branch? Well the branch isn't corporate headquarters but at least the symbolism makes sense. Attack Weston Wear and Fourbarrel coffee? What the hell is that about?

Finally, the personal. I was in Oakland Tuesday night. I'd worked my way around behind the police line ... so there was me, a line of cops facing away from me, and the protesters on the other side.

Suddenly I saw something flying out of the crowd. I don't know if it was a bottle or a cup of ice or what. But it damn near hit me.

In the past when the cops said protesters where "throwing rocks and bottles" as an excuse for mass arrests and teargassings, I was the first one to call the cops liars.

Now? Stupid Ocuppy motherf*ckers almost hit ME with.

Occupy needs to step back and figure out who they are and what they stand for. Renounce vandalism and start venting that anger at the targets who deserve it. Not their own supporters.

Posted by Guest on May. 03, 2012 @ 11:40 am

Was interesting for about 3 weeks.

Posted by Guest on May. 03, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

Here are the Valencia Street businesses that sustained property damage according to MissionMission.org:

* Brick and Mortar
Taca Airlines
299 Valencia
Tradesmen
Property Management Systems
The Voyager Shop
Four Barrel
* Pica Pica Maize Kitchen
Art Zone 461 Gallery
Locanda
Bar Tartine
Tartine Bakery
Therapy
Weston Wears
Mission Police Station
Farina

Upscale targets for sure but most patronized by the 99%. The only potential legitimate targets for anti-gentrification groups which are not affiliated with OSF/OWS would be the new crappy condo at 14th and Valencia and the Property Management Systems office. Brick and Mortar and Pica Pica are the only ones with any Mission roots to speak of.

It turns out that this action:

http://www.missionmission.org/2012/04/30/an-early-strike

was called and carried out by the property damagers as a way to associate themselves with and gain cover by proximity to Occupy SF.

This event was not called by OSF or any of its subsidiaries, it was bait and switch.

Posted by marcos on May. 03, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

As a shop owner and long time resident at Valencia & 14th I don't understand why the police only made 1 arrest (as far as I know). I don't understand why the police seem to have followed behind while the vandals did their damage. Why didn't they bring in police cars by the time it got to 18th Street? Why didn't they have the corralled by the time they got to 16th? I don't understand. Were they just unprepared? Overwhelmed?
The crazy right wing provocateurs from Sacramento? Anarchists? Police infiltrators? Common thugs? None of 'em, all of them, I don't know, but I am concerned about how the police seem to have handled it.

Posted by Guest on May. 03, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

so how does it serve the great cause to smash their window?

How will that hurt the CEO of BofA?

Posted by Anonymous on May. 03, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

Is it impossible to negotiate with the city to get a space? Or to actually learn something about homeless policy in SF and put your energies to helping the Coalition on Homelessness?

Direct action is only one tactic among many, but it's the only one Occupy knows.

Posted by Doug on May. 03, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

So they take over a building owned by someone else, rename it the "SF Commune" and believe it's theirs? I don't think it works that way in this country.

Posted by The Commish on May. 04, 2012 @ 11:06 am

"The building occupation was meant to affirm a strong belief in the rights of people to gather and organize, or at the very least have a warm place to sleep at night."

And I'm sure this author would have no problem if I broke into their house with several friends to "gather and organize".

Right?

Posted by missiondweller on May. 07, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

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