Resistencia Libertaria: Anarchist Opposition to the Last Argentine Dictatorship

This first appeared in the February 2003 issue of The New Formulation:
An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books
 (Vol. 2, No. 1) .

 * * *

A broad and popular resistance confronted the military dictatorships that strangled Latin America in the 1970s. Activists from diverse political tendencies fought back, in both organized and spontaneous ways, and their efforts doubtlessly saved many lives and hastened the collapse of these brutal regimes.

Although some of their contributions have been celebrated in books, articles, and
films, important aspects of the resistance have never been studied. In particular, anarchist opposition to the dictatorships—which existed in Argentina, Brazil,
Chile, and Uruguay—has been almost entirely omitted from the historical record.

The following interview offers a corrective to that omission. It tells the story of Resistencia Libertaria, a clandestine anarchist organization founded shortly before the Argentine military seized power in 1976.

Resistencia Libertaria (RL) was active in the student, labor, and neighborhood movements and also had a military wing with which it defended and financed its activities. At its peak, it had between 100 and 130 members and a much broader network of sympathizers. The organization was crushed in 1978 and 80 percent of its members perished in the dictatorship’s concentration camps and torture chambers.

The RL sustained the long tradition of Argentine anarchism and also transformed it in the face of the new conditions confronting activists in the 1970s. The experiences of the RL—which have been essentially undocumented in Spanish or English until now—mark an important chapter in the history of resistance to the last Argentine dictatorship and post-World War II anarchism generally.

Although the New Formulation is normally restricted to book reviews, it is hoped that readers will welcome this small departure from our normal editorial policy.

This interview was conducted in Spanish by phone on October 13, 2002 with Fernando Lopez, one of RL’s few surviving members. Please see the “About Contributors” section for more information on Lopez.

~ Chuck Morse

Please tell me about the origins of the RL. How was it formed?
The RL was founded by comrades from the city of La Plata at the end of the 1960s. The founding nuclei constituted a community around a cooperative carpentry shop (which still exists to this day) and developed militant projects among university students and later in the workers’ movement (specifically in the shipyard workers’ and judicial workers’ unions).

A key event occurred when members of this group starting collaborating with the newspaper, La Protesta, and a very heavy, acute discussion took place between them and the old people that were there.(1) The discussion had to do with the appearance of the first, groups of armed action, such as the Tupamaros and the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (Revolutionary Army of the People). The young people tended to support the actions carried out by these groups and thus conflicted with the older people, who opposed these actions, because they rejected some of the Marxist positions of these groups. The younger group was expelled from La Protesta due to these differences around 1971. This cut their relationship with the older anarchist movement and rendered them independent from it.

Later, in 1973, an anarchist conference was held in the city of Cordoba, in which militants of groups from Cordoba, Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Salta, and Montevideo [Uruguay] participated. Myself and another comrade attended this conference as delegates from a group called Action Directa. It was here that comrades from La Plata, Cordoba, and Action Directa from Buenos Aires constituted Resistencia Anticapitalista Libertaria (Libertarian Anti-Capitalist Resistance) as a national organization.

A year or year and a half later, the name Resistencia Anticapitalista Libertaria was dropped simply for Resistencia Libertaria (this just happened naturally, there was not a discussion about changing the name). I joined the organization in 1974.

How was the RL structured?
The RL was an absolutely clandestine organization and it was organized in a cellular form by fronts of work.(2) The fronts of work were the workers’ front, the student front, and the neighborhood front. The RL also had a military apparatus that was, in reality, a mechanism for financing the organization—working in a moment of almost absolute clandestinity is very onerous and costly—and for protecting militant workers, etc., because things such as kidnappings and rightist actions against left-wing workers’ groups were common during this era. It was necessary to organize self-defense in some cases.

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Latin American Anarchism

This first appeared in the February 2003 issue of The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books (Vol. 2, No. 1) .

Cronica Anarquista de la Subversion Olvidada by Oscar Ortiz
and Contribucion a una Historia del Anarquismo en America Latina by Luis Vitale
Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Espiritu Libertario, 2002

Anarquismo y Anarcosindicalismo en America Latina
By Alfredo Gomez
Paris: Ruedo iberico, 1980

Anarquistas en America Latina
By David Vinas
Mexico City: Editorial Katun, 1983

* * *

Review by Chuck Morse

There are important reasons for anarchists in English-speaking parts of North America to study the history of Latin American anarchism.

One reason is political. We need to form principled, collaborative relationships with our Latin American comrades to fight global capitalism globally and, to do so, we obviously need be able to identify our real comrades among the countless groups in the region that make claims upon our solidarity. Should we “defend the Cuban Revolution” or toast Lula’s social democratic victory in Brazil? Should we adopt the Zapatista ski-mask as our emblem or devoutly align ourselves with small anarchist groups? A genuine confrontation with these questions requires a deep appreciation of the history of Latin American opposition and certainly the anarchist movement has played a significant role in this history.

Another reason is more theoretical: it is necessary to develop a vision of a worldwide anarchist movement that takes into account the very different conditions that exist in “underdeveloped” parts of the world (such as Latin America) as opposed to Europe or the United States. It is necessary to understand how these conditions affect the form and content of anarchist activity. For example, clearly Belgian and Bolivian anarchist movements will have different characteristics, but exactly what type of differences and why? Certainly a good way to begin exploring these questions is by looking at the actual experience of anarchist movements in Asia, Africa, or, in the case of this review, Latin America.

Finally, the Latino identity is central to economic and cultural contradictions in the United States. Of course it is a positive source of community, tradition, and sense of self for millions of Latinos within U.S. borders and it is also used as a negative signifier to justify exploitation and racism. The constantly changing meaning of the Latino identity is highly dependent upon ideas about the history of Latin America and radicals can encourage the most expansive, Utopian elements of this identity by making sure that liberatory historical experiences in the Americas are not forgotten.

Unfortunately those who try to research the Latin American anarchist tradition will immediately discover that the historical literature on the movement is remarkably poor. There are no books on the topic in English or Portuguese and only five in Spanish, of which one is an anthology and another is a very brief overview.(1) The paucity of studies does not reflect the significance or dynamism of the movement but rather that social democrats and Marxists, who have produced the richest literature on social movements in the Americas, are hostile to the anarchist tradition and have attempted to erase or diminish its presence in this historical record.(2) Both groups need to construct the revolutionary Left as fundamentally statist to justify their social projects: the Marxists to defend their authoritarian regimes and the social democrats to present their free-market policies as the only socially conscious alternative to Marxist authoritarianism. Of course the existence of the anarchist tradition—a revolutionary, anti-authoritarian alternative—complicates their assertions.

Thus contemporary anarchists are obliged to undertake a major reconstructive effort to restore anarchism to its proper place in the history of the Americas and the three books reviewed here are among the best on the subject. Their authors defiantly and unanimously assert that the anarchist movement was a vital actor in early twentieth century social history. Louis Vitale, in a sentiment echoed by the other authors, observes that “anarcho- syndicalism was the dominant current in the Latin American workers’ movement during the first two decades of the twentieth century.”(3) They also all assert that anarchists were leaders in the creation of early labor unions, cultivated a strong working class militancy, and achieved many concrete gains for the working class. Indeed, between the revolutionary unions, schools, daily newspapers, and other projects, these authors paint a picture of a profoundly dynamic anarchist movement, especially in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay.

Anarchism and the Labor Movement
Alfredo Gomez’s Anarquismo y Anarcosindicalismo en America Latina {Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism in Latin America) treats anarchism in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Gomez focuses on anarchists’ role within the revolutionary labor movement and attempts to draw conclusions about the classical anarchist project based on the comparative study of the anarchist movement in these countries. G6mez, who is an anarchist, wants to both document the history of the movement and defend it in theoretical terms.

For Gomez, anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism (he does not distinguish between the two) is linked fundamentally to the labor movement. He regards anarchism as a theoretical expression of workers’ capacity to organize themselves and potentially run society without the interference of capitalists or statists. In other words, anarchism allows workers to become conscious of their power as workers, defend their immediate interests, and fight to revolutionize society as a whole.

In each country he treats, Gomez charts the emergence of a combative working class and the influence of anarchist groups on this class. His study of Colombian anarchism, which makes up nearly half of the book, is a welcome contribution given that Colombia has received scant attention in existing studies of Latin American anarchism. Here he documents major strikes, such as the anarchist led banana workers’ strike of 1928, and also the activities of anarchist groups such as Bogota’s Grupo Sindicalista “Antorcha Libertaria,” the Via Libre group, and others.(4) However, his emphasis lays upon the working class and its capacity to fight directly for its own interests rather than specifically anarchist activities per se. This is partially because the anarchist movement was less developed in Colombia than in other countries, but also because Gomez regards a direct action based workers’ movement and anarchism as essentially two sides of the same phenomenon (practice and theory, respectively). In Brazil, Gomez shows us how anarchists led a massive and nearly revolutionary wave of strikes from 1917 to 1920. In Argentina, which had one of the most mature anarchist movements in the Americas (and the world), Gomez focuses on the relationship between the anarchist Federation Obrera Regional de Argentina and working class struggles. In Mexico, Gomez examines the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon’s intervention in the 1910 Mexican Revolution and also treats the Mexico City based Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker), which was a center of anarchist organizing and labor radicalism.

The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism
The double book released by Chile’s Ediciones Espiritu Libertario contains Cronica Anarquista de la Subversion Olvidada {Anarchist Chronicle of Forgotten Subversion) by Oscar Ortiz and Luis Vitale’s Contribucion a una Historia del Anarquismo en America Latina {Contribution to a History of Anarchism in Latin America). These books document the history of anarchism in Latin America but have a special focus on the movement in Chile.

Continue reading

Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement

This first appeared in the November 2001 issue of The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books (Vol. 1, No. 1) .

* * * 

Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement
Naming the Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements Confront Globalization
by Amory Starr Zed Books, 2001

Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity
by Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith South End Press, 2000

~ Review by Chuck Morse

Finally, after years of disintegration and defeat on the Left, a new movement has erupted upon the political landscape. It is not organized around a single issue, identity based, or somehow “implicitly” radical. On the contrary, this movement directly attacks global capital’s economic and political infrastructure with a radically democratic politics and a strategy of confrontation. It is bold, anti-authoritarian, and truly global.

And also quite effective. This movement has already introduced a radical critique into the debate on the global economy and demonstrated the capacity to physically shut down meetings of trade ministers. It seems possible that this movement will continue to grow, deepen its radicalism, and revolutionize the world according to the radically democratic principles it embraces.

The emergence of the anti-globalization movement has produced a feeling of near euphoria among anarchists. Not only are our commitments to direct action and decentralization shared broadly in the movement as a whole, but we are also enjoying a political legitimacy that has eluded us for decades. We can now articulate our anti-statist, Utopian message to activists around the world and we are no longer dismissed as terrorists or cranks. In many respects it seems like we should just mobilize, mobilize, and mobilize.

Unfortunately this would be a grave mistake. The movement’s anti-authoritarian, revolutionary character is currently under attack by a informal network of reformists, who want nothing more than to see this movement accommodate itself to the basic structures of the present world. They are not waging a direct assault upon revolutionaries in the movement: they recognize that this would alienate them from the movement’s base. Instead, they are fighting us indirectly, in the realm of ideas. In particular, they hope to define the movement in a way that renders its most expansive, Utopian potentials literally unthinkable.

As important as it is to mobilize, anarchists will have to respond to this challenge on the theoretical terrain: we cannot afford to lose the battle of ideas. Above all, we must link the anti-globalization movement to a broader revolutionary project in a way that is coherent, concrete, and irrefutable. However, as a defensive measure, we should expose the reformist’s attempt to sever this link and reveal their designs to the movement as a whole. The reformers will respond by declaring their good faith or complaining about our divisiveness, but we should not be swayed by such pre-political subterfuge: on the contrary, we should be merciless with those who would hinder the realization of the anti-globalization movement’s most radical possibilities. Popular revolutionary movements have been betrayed countless times before: we should not let this happen again.

Naming the Enemy and Globalization from Below are exemplary documents of the reformist wing of the anti-globalization movement. They are more reflective and sophisticated than the majority of books on the movement and focus on the deeper questions upon which its identity hangs. These two works celebrate the movement’s radicalism emphatically, but in terms that make the revolutionary transformation of the social order inconceivable. Continue reading

Program

Below is the Program of The New Formulation: an Anti- Authoritarian Review of Books. Founded and edited by Chuck Morse, a total of four issues appeared between 2001 and 2004 (when it merged with Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, the publication of the Institute for Anarchist Studies).

~~~

Program:

Welcome to the first issue of The New Formulation: an Anti- Authoritarian Review of Books. This biannual journal contains comparative book reviews examining the value of recent publications to the development of a contemporary anarchist theory and politics.

The purpose of this journal is to help clarify the distinctness of an anarchist approach to social affairs, to provide a forum for the integration of new works and insights into the anarchist project, and to give authors struggling to redefine the tradition a setting in which to share their research and reflections.

Although the anarchist movement is currently enjoying a renewed influence on social movements and political life generally, there is a compelling need to clarify the principles, goals, and strategies that constitute the anarchist perspective. This is a precondition of the movement’s ability to become genuinely revolutionary and we hope this journal, and other sympathetic projects, can help facilitate this clarification.

Contributions are welcome. All book reviews must examine the failings and virtues of books for a contemporary anarchist theory and politics. Anarchism is understood here as a doctrine seeking the abolition of capitalism, the nation-state, and hierarchy generally, and the creation of a cooperative economy, a decentralized confederation of communes or municipalities, and a culture of liberation. The deadline for the next issue is April 1,2002.

Each review must treat at least two books and one must have been published in the previous two years. In some cases, reviews of works in other media (such as film) will be accepted.

Subscriptions are $5 in the United States and $10 elsewhere. Please make checks payable to The New Formulation.

An Anti-Authoritarian Response to the War Efforts

This first appeared in the November 2001 issue of The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books (Vol. 1, No. 1) . It was co-authored by Marina Sitrin and Chuck Morse.

~ ~ ~

Editorial note: the exceptional nature of the September 11th terror attacks and the consequent war seemed to merit a momentary departure from The New Formulation’s book-review-only policy.

September 21,2001

Dear Comrades,

We are living through scary times. Clearly the U.S. Government and its allies believe they have a grand opportunity to realign domestic and international relationships in their interest. This is frightening: major shifts in the political landscape threaten to tear the ground from beneath our feet.

However, these glacial shifts in the political scene also offer anti- authoritarians a unique opportunity to obtain a new, more secure footing in our struggle against economic exploitation, political hierarchy, and cultural domination. Political conditions are changing radically and, if we respond correctly, we have the chance to advance our movement to a much higher level.

First of all, we must not be cowed by present circumstances, as disturbing as they are. On the contrary: recent events call upon us to exercise political leadership in the best, most principled and visionary sense of the term. This is our challenge, and one that we can meet with an anti-authoritarian vision and politics.

We believe it is imperative that anti-authoritarians formulate a coherent response to the war build-up and their role within the growing peace movement. We must not allow our perspective to be subsumed under more prominent but less radical tendencies in the Left. Also, the peace movement is presently defining its politics and structures and we have a great opportunity—at this moment—to engage the movement and push it in the most radical direction.

The purpose of this letter is to explore the contours of an anti- authoritarian position on recent events. We encourage you to discuss this letter with your friends and comrades and to prepare for broader discussions that we intend to initiate in the near future.

We want to address three important issues in this letter: structure, politics, and the future.

Structure
We anticipate that the anti-war movement will experience divisions similar to those that beset the peace movement during the Gulf War. In other words, national organizing efforts will be split into two organizations: one will be pacifist and more libertarian in character, and the other will be more militant and Stalinist. Both will be top-down mobilizations, built around well-known “leaders”, and awash with a moralism that would turn off even the most- open-minded citizens and activists. Continue reading

Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement, Part II

This review first appeared in the June 2002 issue of The New Formulation:
An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books
(Vol. 1, Issue 2)

Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement, Part II

~ by Chuck Morse

On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement
By various authors
London: One-Off Press, 2001

The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization
Edited by Eddie Yuen, George Katsiaficas, and Daniel Burton Rose
New York: Soft Skull Press, 2002

___

What was remarkable about the movement that erupted in Seattle 1999 was not so much that previously adversarial sides of the progressive opposition—the “teamsters and turtles”—had started working together or that old revolutionary flags were flying once again. These things had happened at various times in recent history to no great effect. What was extraordinary was the dialogue that emerged between members of the revolutionary, ideological Left (anarchists and communists) and activists whose primary interest lay in pragmatic, bread-and-butter reforms. These two tendencies have long been divided and often regarded one another suspiciously, but somehow the anti-globalization movement created a political space in which they could come together and jointly imagine a movement that is Utopian and yet faithful to the demands of day-to-day activism.

The challenge was to figure out how to hold these dimensions together in one more or less unified movement—how to be realistic and demand the impossible—and activists across the world confronted this challenge with a vigorous campaign of education from below. They held teach-ins, Internet discussions, and sponsored countless other activities designed to flesh out the contours of this compelling new movement. Although their work helped raise the level of discourse among activists immeasurably, the movement’s common principles remained embodied in a sensibility and shared activist experience rather than in clear political statements.

Thus the significance of On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement and The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization. These anthologies attempt to constitute the anti-globalization movement as a coherent project. They draw upon its history and culture to elaborate its internal cohesiveness, identify its continuities and discontinuities with other political tendencies, and clarify its problems. They reveal a movement that is exciting and dynamic but also struggling with difficult theoretical and political questions. In fact, the future of the anti-globalization movement will be determined to a great extent by our response to many of the issues raised by these books. Continue reading

Red, Bike, & Green: The Interview!

(first published on Project Oakland on )

The link between transportation and racial justice has been an explicit part of American culture since Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycot in 1955, if not earlier. Most of us understand, if only intuitively, that who moves around, where they move to and from, and what they move upon interacts with complicated histories of oppression, rebellion, and innovation.

This is one of the reasons why Oakland’s Red, Bike, and Green collective  is so exciting. They have not only created an an affirmative, welcome spacing for Black urban cyclists but also established a platform for a new discussion of the politics of mobility in the city.

I recently had a chance to ask Red, Bike, and Green about their work and views. The following is a transcript of our exchange.

~ Chuck Morse

* * *

Q. Can you tell me how Red, Bike, and Green (RBG) got started and what exactly you do?

Design by Nick James

A. Five years ago, becoming more and more disenchanted with driving, the cost of regular car maintenance, insurance rates, gas prices, and the overall expense of having a car, Jenna Burton decided to ride her bike more regularly. She began to think about creating a space and culture for Black folks that would promote biking as a safe and viable mode of transportation. Burton organized a small group of Black bikers to go on random weekend rides. Further conversations with colleagues and friends led to naming the group Red, Bike, and Green. For those unfamiliar, Red, Bike and Green is an ode to Marcus Garvey’s idea that Black people in the United States need their own nation and flag, which would be symbolized in the colors of Red, Black, and Green.

With a little help from some friends, Burton officially launched the first season in April of 2010. Red, Bike, and Green now rides every third Saturday and First Friday of the month from April until November of each year.

Q. One way that White supremacy operates is by limiting the mobility of Black people and people of color generally—from the laws that prevented people from moving into a specific neighborhood to the ongoing police harassment of motorists (i.e., “driving while Black”). Do you believe that encouraging Black people to get around by bike is a way to challenge White supremacy? If so, how?

A. Yes. And no. First and foremost, we see RBG as a psychological and spiritual departure from White-supremacist values. While we are not gathering with the intention of directly challenging White supremacy, we are not trying to feed that machine either. If the indirect outcome of being pro Black (not anti-White) and asserting autonomy is a challenge to White supremacy, then so be it. We are functioning out of a love for Black people and the need to create a space where we feel safe and part of a community that cares about our well-being.

When you see fifty plus Black people on bikes in ANY neighborhood it is a symbol of Black power. The rides are a way to make a space where Black love and healthy Black living is visible. As a result of RBG’s success in outreaching to a community of Black folks who have largely been ignored by mainstream bike culture, it has given us a platform with which to fight different sorts of oppression and we are grateful for that.

Q. Black people have long been marginalized in the cycling sports—from the prohibition on African-American membership in the League of American Bicyclists, which was not rescinded until 1999, to more subtle signals that push Black people out of bike networks. What do you think about the racial dynamics of the bike scene in the East Bay today? In what ways is it an affirmative, inviting place for Black people and how is it not?

What is affirming is that there are groups that have advocated for bike lanes in some neighborhoods, which make it safer and easier to ride for all bikers. Who are the bike lanes for is the question.

It is easy to assume that biking is a really accessible and easy way to travel. But a simple understanding like that discounts not only the cost of the bike but also other factors that weigh in when thinking about riding. Can you afford to fix your bike if it is broken? Is it practical for your lifestyle (i.e., do you have children)? If your bike is stolen, can you replace it? What’s the morale before even deciding to get on a bike?

If we were to use a metaphor to illustrate the racial dynamics of the bike scene in the East Bay, it might read something like this: Red, Bike, and Green is like English Breakfast Tea being dropped in an ocean—it’s not going to turn anything Black. The bike scene in the East Bay is largely a White space and since Black people are traditionally overlooked in bike culture as well as multi-racial sites of organizing, an organization like RBG fills a void.

Q. There is a tendency in Hip Hop culture to celebrate cars, particularly luxury cars, as symbols of power and even defiance. Do you believe that encouraging bike riding among Black people is an important counter-tendency to this trend? If so, why?

A. RBG is cultivating a culture of healthy living that incorporates more alternative and economic modes of transportation, such as bike riding. It’s important to encourage bike riding as a counter tendency to materialism, but we want to be careful not to give Hip Hop (or any one culture) the monopoly on defining blackness. The side that’s been dominated by mainstream media has fixated on a particular kind of Hip Hop, where luxury cars are flaunted as being Hip Hop.

As an anecdote, when Burton started riding her bike in 2008, the Black folks that she would see riding were largely folks that couldn’t afford cars. By and large, they rode a bike out of necessity. And over the years she has seen a change. While it is still not commonplace, there are a lot more Black folks on bikes.

Part of the reason why RBG exists is to try and bridge the gap between the folks that are already riding (the avid cyclist; the sports enthusiast; the college educated, single, twenty/thirty something, without kids, health conscious rider) and those that haven’t given riding a second thought. And one thing RBG does pretty well is create a visual aesthetic around Black folks riding bikes, care of our designer, Nick James. The material that is produced for RBG intentionally uses the rich history of biking in the Black community. I guess you could say we are redefining Blackness too.

Q. Do you have sister groups in other cities?

Yes. In Chicago and Atlanta.

Q. In an ideal world, where will Black biking in the Bay Area be in, say, five or ten years?

A. Hopefully there will still be Black people left in Oakland and the Bay Area.

Q. How can people get involved with and/or support RBG?

A.Follow us on Twitter or Facebook.  Or you can donate through Paypal on our website at www.redbikegreen.com

Photo by Jewels Smith

 

Mayor Jean Quan’s 10K2 Housing Plan—Don’t Do the Math

(first published on Project Oakland on April 15, 2014)

Last month, when Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gave her annual “State of the City” address, the 10K2 Plan was the only major, new initiative that she announced. With an election coming up in November, and faced with persistently low approval ratings, she clearly hoped that it would help her persuade voters to give her a second term. Under the program, she pledges to add 10,000 units of housing to Oakland—25 percent of which will be affordable—at some time in the future.

Quan’s policy is designed to appeal to people with interests that are typically counterposed. On the one hand, the addition of 7,500 units of market-rate housing will be great for the wealthy tech workers pouring into the region. These are the people who can pay thousands upon thousands each month for a small apartment and who are driving up housing costs, by all accounts. On the other hand, the addition of 2,500 units of affordable housing will be good for poorer residents; these are the people who can’t pay high rents and are being pushed out in droves. On top of all this, the expansion of the housing stock will put some downward pressure on housing prices generally, enlarge the city’s tax base, and create some new jobs. Apparently, this is a win-win-win policy.

Quan looked unusually confident during her presentation, as if she knew that she was scoring a political victory, and pundits gave her performance high marks. The East Bay Express immediately lauded her plan’s environmental aspects. Zennie Abraham, one of her harsher critics, said that she had “finally found her political legs” and grown from an “accidental mayor” into a “real mayor” who understands what it means to exercise power. Her odds of winning reelection started to look a little better.

In some respects, Quan is merely rebranding and taking credit for a construction boom that is already underway but, still, she has presented this as a plan and we should assess it as such. The issue that Oaklanders need to consider when doing so is this: has she found a way to increase the city’s housing stock, make space for those driving displacement, while also protecting the working class’s ability to live in the city? Can Quan actually perform this magical balancing act?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Although the 10K2 Plan contains some modest measures intended to mitigate displacement, it will necessarily make the city more of a place for the rich and the rich alone. There are two reasons for this.

First, the 10K2 Plan embraces an economic model that has been ruinous for Oakland’s poor and urban areas throughout the country. After deindustrialization and “white flight” gutted the city in the mid-twentieth century, planners and policy makers have set out to rebuild the city’s economy around shopping, entertainment, and housing. We see this not only in the 10K2 Plan, but also in Quan’s boosterism on behalf of local sports teams, the hotel and restaurant industry, the monthly Art Murmur gatherings, etcetera. These things generate some jobs (and some tax revenue), which politicians are quick to celebrate, but the jobs are low-end service jobs that are almost always insecure, lack benefits, and do not pay salaries that could support the rental or purchase of a market-rate home in Oakland. The 10K2 Plan embraces this model and, as such, furthers the city’s commitment to an economic form that more or less guarantees that its poor will remain poor and have to go elsewhere.

Second, adding 7,500 market-rate units will bring many thousand more—let’s say 15,000—wealthier residents to the city. These people will push for planning and policy changes that will make Oakland less hospitable for lower income folks. We can expect more parklets, dog parks, and bike lanes, which are great for people with lots of leisure time but maddening for those rushing to get to work. We can also anticipate an increase in heavy handed police tactics, a necessary tool for managing marginalized and discontented populations. Subtly and not so subtly, these things will indicate that Oakland’s streets are not for the working class.

In reply to these criticisms, defenders of the 10K2 Plan might argue that at least the low-end service jobs being produced are jobs, which is better than nothing at all. This is a “logic of lesser evils” argument used to bludgeon people into accepting the bad because it is not worse, but Oaklanders shouldn’t have to endure substandard employment or an economic model that pushes the poor from the city. Likewise, Quan’s allies might say that the city can institute policies to ensure that its planning and design decisions express all residents’ concerns, not just the upper class, but this is naive. These new Oaklanders will demand that the city reflect their needs and they will have far greater resources to force it to do so than the poor. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise.

Although Quan was able to deliver an effective stump speech, no one should be confused about the class-bound nature of her 10K2 Plan, such as it is. It portends more displacement not less, despite the presence of superficial half measures oriented toward working class residents’ needs. There are so many things that cities can do—foreclosure prevention, improve rent control, encourage land trust conversion, etcetera—but this is not what we see here. In essence, expanding the housing stock without challenging class inequality will always serve the upper class. Indeed, no politician will ever be clever enough to create a policy that can override the basic class conflict between the rich and the poor that is dividing our society and our city. Quan may try her best, as she fights for reelection, but we should not be deceived. Housing justice and economic equality are inextricably linked.

~ by Chuck Morse

The Leftwing Alternative in Oakland’s 2014 Mayoral Race

(Posted on Project Oakland on January 2, 2014)

Doh! There is no leftwing alternative in Oakland’s mayoral race and there won’t be one. The three credible candidates—Jean Quan, Joe Tuman, and Libby Schaaf—are pro-business, pro-gentrification Democrats and no viable left candidacy will emerge from the fringe. Why is this? Because the left has basically checked out of municipal politics in Oakland and that is a huge mistake.

I know it seems nuts to say that the left is absent in Oakland. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Occupy Wall Street protestors swarmed the streets of downtown? And isn’t there always some demonstration or another going on? Whether it’s up in the Hills (isn’t that where Angela Davis lives?), in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, or anywhere in between, there are literally scores of lefty writers, activists, and on-going and ad hoc groups. That’s why it made sense when the New York Times called Oakland the “last refuge of radical America” in 2012.

However, there is a big difference between having leftists in a city and actually having a municipal left. As it stands now, no group is advancing a program to transform the City of Oakland as such. No one is pushing or even talking about comprehensive changes designed to fundamentally alter how the City works or how it fits into the region. People occasionally prod the City to change this or that policy, but no one is trying to rewrite the rules as a whole.

Could the left have an impact on the city government? Experiences in cities elsewhere suggest that it could. Activists have used Richmond’s City Hall to challenge “big oil, big soda, and big banks,” making it one of the most progressive cities in the country, to cite the East Bay Express. Up the Pacific coast, socialist Kshama Sawant just won election to Seattle’s City Council. She has urged Boeing workers to take over the factories and explicitly positions herself against capitalism. Last July, Chokwe Lumumba became the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; he describes himself as a revolutionary and wants the city to foster a “solidarity economy” that would include things like “worker-owned co-operatives, co-operative banks, peer lending, community land trusts, participatory budgeting, and fair trade.” Even Jac Asher, the new mayor of that corporate barfpark known as Emeryville, has called for the inclusion of worker-owned cooperatives in new development.

And there is a history of local engagement with the city. The Black Panthers ran Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown for Mayor and City Council, respectively, in 1973; this was part of their “Base of Operations” campaign, with which they hoped to seize the city government, take control of the Port, and turn Oakland into a hub of global communist revolution. In fact, the Socialist Workers Party, which positioned itself to the left of the Panthers, also ran candidates for local office that year. In the 1980s, the Oakland Progressive Political Alliance pushed progressive candidates and, back in the Stone Age, the Socialist Party ran Jack London for mayor.

I’m not saying that the left must run candidates for local office. Electioneering often slides into pandering and it is not clear what a left candidate could actually accomplish if he or she were to win office. What I am saying is that we can’t afford to ignore City Hall.

The City presides over an annual budget of approximately a half billion dollars and exercises enormous influence over what happens here. Much of this has to do with development—where it occurs, what it looks like, and who pays for it—and it also has a big impact on policing, schools, among other issues. On a broader level, the City is the main institution that ties us together as citizens—a key point of reference for democracy in the city, or at least the idea of it. Whether or not we choose to engage the city through elections, we do need to engage it.

At the very least, Oakland leftists should start talking about how to transform the city. What would Oakland look like if it was restructured around social justice and emancipatory ideals and linked up with worldwide movements for change? What policies would we implement and why? What policies would we abandon and why? These are tough political questions. We need to start wrestling with them.

As Oakland’s mayoral election heats up, we can expect the candidates to debate who can create the most “business-friendly” climate in the city and, above all, who can put more cops on the street. While this happens, we should start laying the foundation for a real alternative. There are thousands of us here, and we can draw upon what’s going on in cities elsewhere, from elements of local history, and maybe even come up with some bright ideas of our own. Oakland is a great place. It could be awesome.

~ Chuck Morse

Oakland Streetscape: These Benches are Revolting!

(First published on Project Oakland on March 28, 2012)

Social struggles occur in diverse places in Oakland: at street protests, in debates at City Hall, and sometimes even where you plant your butt! Take the benches in this photo: though modest and unassuming, they are actually a salvo in the battles over public space that are presently unfolding in Oakland and cities worldwide.

They sit steps from a West Oakland park known as a hangout for the homeless and super-poor. At this park, it is common to see a half-dozen shopping carts full of belongings, people drinking from paper bags, and to smell pot smoke wafting through the air. Those present are almost always black men, middle-aged and up, with a sprinkling of younger adults and women of assorted ages. I have only seen kids there twice during the dozens of times that I have passed by and the absence of swings or play gear of any sort suggests that no one expects them to show up more regularly. I have never witnessed the police harassing people there, though surely it would not be hard for them to come up with  reasons to do so if they wished. It appears that authorities have decided that it is okay for the uber-marginalized to congregate at this site. Something similar would not be allowed in Berkeley or San Francisco, which rank among the “meanest” cities to the homeless in the United States.

An inspection of these benches yields insights into their origins (click the photo above for a larger view). First of all, we can see that they are not city-issue products. Local authorities construct benches out of steel, or a mix of steel and composite wood, whereas these are simply painted wooden planks bolted to the sidewalk with cheap “L” brackets. We can also conclude that they are not the work of a business hoping to accommodate its customers—they lie in front of a trash-strewn lot, not a store or restaurant. Everything indicates that some guerrilla decorators installed them surreptitiously, presumably under the cloak of night and inspired by the outrageous thought that poor people also have a right to sit down.

The built environment is inherently political. This is obvious in the case of things like monuments and palaces, but seating and politics also have a particularly strong connection. In Home: A Short History of An Idea, Witold Rybcznski sketches the long evolution of approaches to seating and argues that what has changed over the years is less the technology of seating than its cultural use. He points out that seats are often means of articulating and representing power. We see hints of this in our everyday language: the head of an academic department is the “chair,” a judge “sits” on “the bench,” the center of authority in a country is the “seat” of power, a monarch occupies “the throne,” etc.

But what does it mean when someone covertly builds seats for the marginalized in a city like Oakland, with its vast quantities of public space that have been privatized and in which thousands have been stripped of their right to assemble due to encounters with the Prison Industrial Complex? It is an act of compassion and also an act of resistance. To write the needs of the impoverished into the physical structure of the city itself, even in a small way, is a gesture toward reclaiming public space, toward reopening the commons.

Changing society and changing our practices of domesticity and comfort have always gone hand in hand. The Black Panther Party housed its members in austere, barrack-like “Panther pads,” whereas hippies built kaleidoscopic homes in the form of geodesic domes—their larger social visions influenced their sense of space and decor, and vice versa. Whatever forms we might invent in the future, these benches point to a politics of seating in which the purpose of seats is not to bolster authority and coercion but to recuperate the city for the oppressed. While plain and easy to overlook, they are among the many signs that rebellion is alive and well in Oakland.

~ Chuck Morse