The Oakland Commune

photographs: Michael W. Wilson


A band of 0%ers within #OccupyOakland’s 99% allowed the encampment to distinguish itself nationally by declaring a commune. The import of this banner must not be underestimated. It signifies the passage from protest to resistance.

Obviously, “The Oakland Commune” refers to the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Shanghai Commune of 1927 and not to the private, hippy communes of Marin County and points north.

The Oakland Commune does not exist as a population or a group. It exists as a series of actions. Cultivating powers and capacities as collective positivities makes the Oakland Commune exist.

The Oakland Commune doesn’t grow by seducing public opinion in order to enlarge its membership. It grows by showing what it can do. The Oakland Commune can make Oscar Grant Plaza habitable for a large number of people; it can run a library; it can resist assault by the police; it can fight other factions in the 99% for the right to actively defend itself against state violence; it can retake the territory from which it had been evicted by the brutal force of the police; it can spark direct action by 0%ers as far away as New York City; it can declare a general strike.

The General Strike and the actions that will issue from it bear the potential to spread communization to other parts of the city, to enact many communes — within a re-imagined Oakland and beyond.

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Capacity means the power to care for a territory — to replace the organs of capital and the state with our own flows.  The creation of positivities means learning how to do things so as to move beyond the need for government or private institutions. The commune does not need to co-operate with the city and state government to feed itself — they have proven their ability to feed themselves and the homeless. The commune does not need city workers to come in and clean Oscar Grant plaza, they have learned to keep it sanitary together.  The commune does not need the Oakland police department for safety — together they have learned how to create a zone of safety in downtown Oakland, even at night. The commune doesn’t need permission to take back the plaza from the chastened mayor or from outsider activists supposedly committed to non-violence — they have learned to reclaim the territory together despite interference from Jean Quan and counter-revolutionary elements within the 99%. The commune doesn’t need external mediators for its various factions to make decisions — they have exercised their decision-making power so successfully that they have created the conditions for a general strike, with participating unions joining in; without the commune, organized labor would not dare to strike. These activities prove the power of the commune.

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We must not neglect our capacity to defend ourselves, our comrades and our territories. The Oakland Commune has started to develop these capacities. An internal dialectic between non-violent white activists and young men of color who face violence daily resulted in the dismantling of the fence around Frank Ogawa Plaza and the return of Oscar Grant Plaza. The passage from protest to resistance means not submitting to arrest or eviction notices. The will to resistance cannot be distinguished from the willingness to fight with police and with those who wield peace signs and arrogate to themselves the right to forbid combat. If some within the 99% tell us that the cops are our friends, and the police announce that they too are part of the 99%, then we must separate ourselves. Resistance does not mean passively submitting to the violence of capital’s attack dogs or acquiescing to arrest. As the communards have shown, resistance means struggle on all fronts.

The current series of occupations can be traced to anti-austerity activism in California two years ago. It should come as no surprise that the occupation would be re-imagined there again — in the form of a commune — and with intensified positivities.


18 Responses to

  1. josh

    the simplicity of – people of color=not submitting to arrest – is quite clear as a message in your piece but not historical or even contemporary. Strategy is not identity and certainly not essential. Choose your strategy but dont pretend it is inevitable.

  2. Louis-Georges Schwartz

    the passage to which you refer is not about strategy or inevitability. it’s merely an account of what happened on that day based on multiple reports from people who were there. The inference that people of color as a rule “do not submit to arrest” should not be drawn because it’s not based on on a legitimate implication of the passage. Even less should any inference that such as “people of color have a responsibility not to submit to arrest.” (Not that you were reading that into the piece, but just to be clear.) The above isn’t a plan, a program, or a strategy, it’s a celebratory report. plain and simple. According to me, people must learn to strategize for themselves. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

  3. henry chan

    WTH are you guys doing to oakland and the rest of the world?! Democracy is MOB-rule! We have a constitutional republic, that means there are represetatives that answer to us, “we the people.” If anything, We the People are to be blamed for allowing those politicians for running amock. If you want anarchy, go to Europe. If you want socialism/ communism, go to the Former Soviet, China or Cuba. I was once a liberal just like yall, but I have matured and seen the light through my radical History Professor in the Bay Area, I hope yall will do the same.

  4. Shirley Ann Lutzky

    I am speaking as a participant, and someone who is thankful for this movement, but I want to say this: By conceptualizing, by using a loaded word such as “commune,” by setting up agenda and goal for restructuring a people’s society, you will lose the supporting numbers that are needed to put a real end to corporate rule. We already have a democracy “of the people.” Which this article implies you are trying to reinvent. The checks that are needed now: to guard the voting process, to support and run candidates and vote for people who will represent us and will outlaw lobbying and corporate support of government leaders, and corporate privilege to outsource jobs and ruin our environment; to secure a non-propagandizing media; these would be the same activities that would eventually be necessary in any other new-style society run by the people. Remember: every new world order of the last two centuries has been a disaster. Only peace and negotiation, and mindful evolution can succeed. “Hate never did dispel hate. Only love dispels hate.” A protest is successful only if it is thoroughly peaceful, as Martin Luther King’s and Gandhi’s. I hope that is your firm intention. Then peaceful men, women, and children will continue to stand and march with you. All other revolutions have resulted in too much suffering, for too long. New despots replace old ones, as happened in Liberia, until the women PEACEFULLY put a stop to the goals of their strategizing men. I taught in that country and experienced it’s old unjust pre-war conditions under a dictatorship. The revolution that followed brought far worse suffering. I believe, from first hand experience, that a peaceful but unjust society can become much worse, if people are not peaceful about attempting to make necessary change. There could have been a peaceful evolution, as was beginning to happen there, not a revolution – a coup brought unimaginable chaos and horror, not justice. Finally, totally peaceful women, and men who joined them, created justice.

  5. John Hopkins

    I agree with Shirley that peaceful protest is the only method for true revolution but I strongly disagree that framing this discussion with the admittedly loaded term “commune” will lose the movement support. I think the author makes an important point in pointing out that “the Oakland commune…exists as a series of actions.” We’re all quite familiar with the cliche “action speaks louder than words,” and this situation highlights just why that is the case. Perhaps at one point, Shirley, we had a democracy of the people, but when congress finds it necessary to consider a bill reaffirming our motto in the face of the worst depression since the Great depression it is clear that they no longer represent the people. I cant think of any of my acquaintances, even the most staunchly conservative ones, who would consider that pressing business in these dire times.

    That the protests have been met with violence, that protesters have been characterized largely as lazy troublemakers looking for a handout by the major media outlets, that a nationwide grassroots movement against the status-quo is looked at as a fluke rather than a genuine political movement to be reckoned with – all of these are reasons that we should consider that our democracy is broken and take the only patriotic course of action left which is to dissolve this government and replace it with government that is truly of, by and for the people. That “commune” is a loaded word only proves how thoroughly our democracy has been corrupted. What kind of freedom of speech is it that only allows words that haven’t been “loaded” by an overt campaign by the ruling class to enter into our discussions of what our government should be? McCarthyism has no place in a true democracy and I think Mr. Schwartz gives his readers their due respect in assuming that they can overcome the connotation of “commune” to understand the message that he’s trying to deliver. The people of Oakland have come together and created a new society in Oscar Grant Plaza and I for one sincerely hope that our city can serve as a model for others who feel similarly disenfranchised by our current form of government.

  6. Shirley Ann Lutzky

    To John: And I agree with you that “the protests have been met with violence, that protesters have been characterized largely as lazy troublemakers looking for a handout by the major media outlets, that a nationwide grassroots movement against the status-quo is looked at as a fluke rather than a genuine political movement to be reckoned with”

    I, too, have a “BUT,” though, to respond to your conclusion concerning the above situations. Which is this: in the sixties when we protested against the terrible status quo concerning Civil Rights, and against the wrongful War in Vietnam, all of those same reactions were there to the protestors. But both movements were very successful( though not completely.). It did not mean we had to establish an entirely new government, though I would say that the result of revolutionary actions in that time was a backlash by the right that continues to this day. For me the place that this protest should evolve to at this point would be to move on from the bank withdrawals to a movement to end lobbying and corporate campaign contributions and to a boycott by the 99% such as this poster (name unknown to me) outlines in a far better way than I will attempt to rephrase, so I’m quoting straight on:

    ” Next step is to stop buying from malignant profit-motivated corporations as they metastasize across the U.S. and the world: stop supporting the social illness. Corporations that sacrifice human & planetary health and freedom for corporate & personal gain are sucking the life out of every society they enter. Our government “of the people” has been relegated to a government that taxes “the people” in order to fund private profits. Obtaining profits through the U.S. government has become a system of legalized extortion.
    The corporations that most depend on government/taxpayer funds for research, unconditioned & unaccountable business practices/subsidies, government contracts, and reductions/cancellations to tax liability are the ones of which I speak: industries that produce unsustainable energy resources and the manufacturers that create demand for them, archaic medical practices and their symbiotic pharmaceutical partners holding patents obtained through bribes to the FDA & National Cancer Institute, a military industrial complex scouting for a war.. or two.. or three….
    As citizen consumers, we vote against this system when we stop buying products and services from companies that sacrifice people & planet for profits. This is how we stop feeding the social cancer. As citizen taxpayers, we can also stop the supply of tax dollars to a government that promotes and sustains this social illness with legislative policies, tax codes, and corrupt legal and judicial systems.
    Corporate bullies and their elected henchmen have made a mockery of representative government. The role of government to reflect the will of a healthy society is critical. Either we stop feeding the cancer of private greed and find a wealth of balance in those who perform the work and in the public good, or the social entity dies: the U.S. and the planet.”

    Another, further down the road, idea would be to establish competitive co-op worker/customer owned businesses

    • Shirley Ann Lutzky

      One thing i very much want to add concerning the quote that I posted, is that while I totally agree with the boycott on purchasing from toxic corporations, there is one sentence in that quote that I accidentally did not delete – Ido not agree with it at all: the part about withholding taxes, which is NOT what we need. I believe we need a stronger government, and right now we need more, not less revernue, fairly coming from those, especially, who have the most. The primary danger to our government is the decision that corporations can contribute as much as they like to campaign ads. Only by re-electing President Obama can we have enough justices who would reverse this before it is completely too late for American democracy.

  7. Joe Motor

    I have seen paper copies of a new document at Occupy Seattle and Portland, It’s titled “The New Common Sense” Many people are supporting this. Please read:
    http://pastebin.com/gm2UV08D
    The Occupy movement seems like a last ditch effort to save our country and people seem to be reaching for something. I think this (new document) is our best non- violent answer. But it will take people getting involved in government and forcing change using the Constitution. It is all we really have, holding it up and making our leaders embrace it (the Constitution) or admit are not doing their duty and upholding it as they swore to do is a good starting point, I have sent this to everyone imaginable. The big boys are ignoring this and won’t even email back. We need to be relentless in getting this out. Soon, I hope they won’t be able to ignore this and publicly acknowledge this (New Common Sense) and then start dealing with the grievances of Occupy and everyone else.

  8. Shirley Ann Lutzky

    Thank you Joe, for passing this link on. Have browsed through some now, and so far it looks impressive. And I agree with what you just said here,

  9. Charles Burns

    I am very impressed with the movement that has sprung now globally regarding those who insist on occupying asking for a fair share. Whereas I am impressed by the initial response to the knowledge of having been cattle all these years and now desiring to be included in living, I challenge with a question “what is your next move?” A gathering or a march alone without a contingency plan is “IMPOTENT”. Certain ethnic groups look for equal inclusion and find solace in mouthpieces like Al and Jesse to bolster their cause with words but absent of action ignoring the roots of their own history which affected change that they benefit from today which was “the boycott”.

    Sure, there are many people charged up at the moment but without steering them in a direction of action once after the whole world has come out to occupy it will certainly fizzle from what began an undaunted mission of ground troops.

    Truly, truly comrades, the ground is fully laid out and the question now is how to erect the walls? While there is protest in the streets still the employers who are the 1% have their oxen to plow their fields or manpower to drive their riches and why should they consider giving the 99% any more than they have? After all, what are they going to do, Quit? Doubtless! The thing that Big Industry has capitalized on is the masses being unorganized! NO, I’m not talk about gathering as a organized bargaining unit (Unions), No; what I’m submitting to the “Occupy” movement is PHASE TWO and “Boycott the MACHINE” while, at the moment, having need to be attached to it.

    Take the funds that your current employer pays you and collectively invest in a home based business. Find a reputable Network Marketing Business and use your massive network to generate wealth that you would never get from a raise while working as “Cattle” for your current herdsman. Your employer [herdsman] hopes that you remain asleep and not come to recognize the economy that exist within you in order for them to remain in control over it. This is the opportunity that you have been waiting for. This is the dream that you have dreamed to be financially free and independent. The only thing standing in your way is your fear of the unknown and your comfort on the pastures. The path I follow is in my website. The path you search out and find is up to you. In order to go to a level beyond talks and demonstrations is language that those you protest against understand and respect. This is the model that Robert Kiyosaki calls the “Business of the 21st Century” (look it up on Youtube). My name is Charles Burns and I AM MONA-V-IE! [for Vendetta]

  10. EDpeak

    David,
    Would you like to govern your own affairs? Then you believe in self-government. Which, is one kind of government. Don’t let the word “government” be taken or stolen to mean only the top-down version we have today in countries. If you have associations fromt eh bottom up and together we decide to create a new food garden, that is a case of us using various self-governing modalities, so that is a kind of government.

    “Don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater” isn’t exactly what I want to say since it’s impossible to throw away “all” government precisely because self-management of affairs, self government, is a one kind of government. Reminds me of people who say “let’s abolish ALL money” Well, a means of storing value, a means of accounting, meets the definition of money and society doesn’t want to be without any of those things, hence due to this, we will still have a kind of ‘money’ though we can (and should) aim for a complete overhaul, from the roots (“radically different” therefore) of what kind of money systems we have and use (search online for “Contents of The Ecology of Money”) Same for “government”.

  11. Charley

    There are some themes in this thread- especially posts from Louis-Georges, the author, with Shirley, John, and Charles especially- themes that I see running through most of the left right now. Vital questions that don’t really have answers yet.

    I’ll admit that upon first discovering this occupyeverything, something that leapt out (alongside the obvious intelligence of the writing) was the use of the terms ‘commune’ and ‘comrades’ on the first page. Some of the Oakland folks seem to have taken up the name ‘commune’ themselves- I don’t know if there was a GA proposal or how this came about. Upon seeing the sign on the Oakland streets, together with all the other signs, songs, chants, and conversations pouring out, the ‘Oakland Commune’ sign seemed part of a very fresh, thoughtful, creative force amongst a community of activists. I tend to agree with Shirley, though, that taken up by itself the term confuses. I think it appears at least to be imposing an intellectual frame from the past, onto what is going on now. I personally find the Paris Commune story inspiring, taking it with a ton of historical events that prove at least that all efforts to really change things are a thousand times harder than we think. But here we all are today: why not use fresh terms that will confuse fewer people?

    But I’m taking time to write, because it gets at a deeper issue much in discussion now. Much of the conversation is to this point- that the occupy movement/spring/summer excitement needs to have x y and z that it does not have. It needs an overarching strategy. It needs a list of coherent demands. It needs some items that can become legislation. It needs to achieve electoral results. And like similar arguments I see in a lot of places lately, it seems to posit that we, the writers, are just the ones who could lead this movement to achieve real change.

    I am not writing to object to any of these observations, certainly not to all of them. But our situation is, these folks have gone off and done all these things already, mostly without our help, and there is no conspicuous reason they would or should turn their movement over to someone else, regardless of how well qualified we might be. Even if they are making mistakes, or failing to do some critical things (and I think they are).

    So I’m writing to share some of what I have seen as I walked with them. There really aren’t handy demands, because there are not a few simple things going badly. There are problems that are vast constellations of profit and pain. There is no activity taking place within any government or agency anywhere, that is the least bit likely to fix any of these problems. Not the US federal government, not the United Nations. To give three examples: 1-there is negligible progress on the complex realities we call climate change, 2- there is not even clarity on the economic problems, to say nothing of clarity of solutions or even an attempt by officials to look for solutions, and 3- there is not evidence to support the suggestion that any change whatsoever is to be expected, in the part money plays influencing elections and legislation. If we are rational, only, there is every reason to conclude that change is not even possible. What I see, as an old guy walking along with occupy folks, is that they are choosing hope and action. They do not believe our government is capable of bringing this change, even if it wanted to, and the fact is- it does not want to. Some of them might say, the government of the United States is a wholly owned subsidiary of K street and Wall Street and it does what it’s told to do. I don’t need you to agree, but just consider their point of view. Alright, I voted Obama and volunteered for him. But I will just freely admit, I don’t have an answer for the folks I’m marching with. They’re not stupid or crazy. The November 2nd march and Oakland port closure was one of the best actions I’ve ever seen, just as a tactical proposition. Creativity and energy everywhere. And work, preparation. I don’t think they know in very specific terms what an acceptable solution would look like (though they have a lot of the pieces). They don’t know how they will get there.

    Maybe they can’t. Maybe it will all fizzle out from a lack of strategy and goals, a lack of organization, or just the overwhelming force of the tactical police (a whole other subject) and the mainstream press. I don’t claim to know myself what would bring about change. I read in a book on climate this week, a researcher pointed out that before slavery was abolished, it did not appear possible to end it. Likewise with child labor. It was accepted as part of life, and then it was not. I have read Marx and Gene Sharp and Gandhi and such, but change still looks pretty mysterious to me.

    But here is my suggestion. I think the best chance for us to help this young movement succeed is to join them and earn a place in their community, in their store of actions, opinions, and ideas. Join them on their terms, with their processes. Yes I’ve led spokes-council groups toward consensus decision-making and these were some of the most annoying hours of my life. I just don’t see it working, to propose how the movement should go.

    I hope I haven’t offended quite everybody. I haven’t posted anywhere else, and chose here because of the quality of discussion, the thoughtfulness and the excellent writing. I regard the Louis-Georges article and all the comment posts highly. I do believe some things need to appear on this scene, that are not there yet. It needs all our energies, our ideas, our talking and also our listening.

  12. David Anderson

    “Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the black and red unite”… (Bismark)

    Now is the time: BLACK AND RED, UNITE AGAIN!