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Oakland is waiting…


“WE ARE UNGOVERNABLE” screams a chalk graffiti on a sidewalk not far from the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building at 1301 Clay Street, in downtown Oakland. The building, one of the city’s largest, was constructed in 1993, in a style that might be called Nineties Moderne. Meant to assert the power and authority of the U.S. government, it is neither ugly, as federal buildings from the 1950s are, nor particularly charming, although it does have a certain whimsicality. It consists of two 268-foot high towers, topped with pyramids and connected by a sky bridge. Its offices house the I.R.S., U.S. Coast Guard, and the Veterans Administration, and also include a federal courthouse and a post office. On May 29, a Black private security guard, hired to patrol the building during one of the protests following George Floyd’s murder, was assassinated; his white murderer has since been apprehended.

The “UNGOVERNABLE” graffiti is but one of thousands of others, expressing all sorts of leftist views, chalked or spraypainted onto sidewalks, shop windows, the plywood that covers shop windows, walls, doorways and bus stops throughout downtown Oakland, which has probably had more violent demonstrations than any other American city in recent years. Starting in the Autumn of 2011, when the Occupy movement was at its height, Oakland can reliably count on three or four tumultuous protests a year.

It’s impossible to know exactly who scribbled the “UNGOVERNABLE” graffiti on that sidewalk, but the person clearly wanted us to know his or her political leaning: the “A” in “UNGOVERNABLE” is capitalized within a circle, the international symbol of anarchism. The “A” stands, of course, for anarchy; the circle stands for “Order.” Together, they are said to mean “society seeks order in anarchy,” a phrase dating back to a French political tract from 1840, when “anarchism” was not against government in general, but against capitalistic banking interests. Our modern day, so-called “anarcho-punk” movement, which arose in the punk rock days of the 1970s, is against all government; it thrives in polyglot cities like Oakland. Actually, “thrive” might not be the most accurate description; since membership, as it were, is secretive and the people themselves prefer anonymity, we don’t know their numbers. But there seem to be—to my observation, anyway—a great many anarchists in Oakland. They tend to wear black, and be surly. And when they claim to be “UNGOVERNABLE,” we must take them at their word. They obey no authority, indeed they flout it. They respect no law, they have no bounds to which they will not go if given the opportunity, and this includes looting, vandalizing, robbing and torching small businesses whose employees usually are low-income people of color.

President Trump of late has famously sent federal troops to Portland, Oregon, and appears about to do so in Chicago, to protect (so he claims) federal property. On Tuesday, he threatened to do it in Oakland, which he called “a mess.” If the anarchists do strike in Oakland—and it’s inevitable that, sooner or later, they will—will they target the Dellums Federal Building, the only federal outpost (other than local post offices and a Social Security Administration unit) in my city of 430,000? If I were an anarchist, here’s how I’d be thinking: It’s the Wee Willie Keeler rule of “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Willie Keeler was talking about baseball, but his rule applies if you’re trying to break the law and avoid getting busted. Trump has announced that he is prepared to “protect” the Dellums Federal Building with federal troops. Therefore, one strategy for the anarchists might be to avoid that particular hot spot and, if they’re truly intent on causing mayhem in Oakland, find another (non-federal) place to do it. There are plenty of options.

On the other hand, if you’re an anarchist seeking confrontation, then a run-in with federal troops might be just what you’re looking for. There’s already a public outcry against what Trump did in Portland. Our local anarchists might figure that a battle with Trump’s Troops could garner a great amount of sympathy for them, or at least further outrage against Trump. Then, too, if the anarchists are truly courageous (as opposed to sneaky little thugs who get away with their hit-and-run carnage under cover of darkness), they might consider themselves martyrs to stand up to the Gestapo, even if that means putting their limbs and lives on the line.

I walked over to the Dellums Federal Building yesterday afternoon. All quiet. The ground-floor windows were plywooded up, as they have been for weeks. A few employees came and went; a handful sat on benches in the bright, sunny courtyard, eating lunch. There was no sign of security, except for a single private guard off to the side, who looked like he couldn’t have fended off a child. And yet, as I took pictures, I couldn’t help but feel that someone was taking pictures of me. Surely Homeland Security, or the Border Patrol, or the FBI, or whoever these mystery federal agents are, already is scrutinizing the Dellums Federal Building. Surely Trump’s Troops are hunkered down nearby, maybe at the old, abandoned Naval Base in Alameda, ready to spring into action at, literally, a second’s notice.

We shall see. I’d hate to see more violence here. My city is broken and bleeding; what with the pandemic and the economic collapse, we can’t take much more. I went on to express my prayer—that’s the word I used—that there will be no more violence in Oakland, a city I love. The resulting comments were, I suppose, predictable: I was immediately accused of favoring “property over lives.” Sigh. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.

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