|Police violence against Occupy Oakland. Photo from UWire.|
This article was written by my friend Scott Anansi Rossi, a queer anarchist living in the Bay Area in California. I'm posting it here as a guest post because it's such a vivid first-hand tale of experiencing police terrorism against the Occupy movement, but also because it communicates some of the many ways repression, indeed capitalism itself, attacks the core of our humanity. Scott bravely talks about the personal struggles awakened by his political activism, something I can completely relate to. And so much for all the sneering, dismissive contempt offered up by the media against Occupy: this has been a sea change moment, not only in terms of our willingness to fight back as people, but in terms of the willingness of the state to use brutality against its citizens. This testimony gets at why my own re-radicalization has been so vivid. As I return to calling myself a revolutionary, to calling myself a communist even, this story of survival inspires me. Thanks Scott!
Hey everyone. Thanks for reading this. I want to talk about the last 8 months. 8 months and 8 days to be exact. This is probably going to be the hardest thing I've ever written about in my life, but I need to do it. I'm not really writing with a structure here, I'm just going to write and write it all out until I can't write anymore. Some of this I've put in writing in one form or another over these last 8 months, so forgive me if you've heard or read this before or we've talked about it, and forgive the length here, this is one thing I can't edit for brevity. Indulge me this, so you can see the whole picture and understand.
251 days ago was January 28, 2012. I don't know how many of you remember that day, but for me, and many others, it's a day I'll never forget. It became one those days in your life that transform you, where one chapter ends and another begins. This started out as a really dark, sorry chapter of my life, but an important one, and one that deserves telling. So here goes.
January 28, 2012. Occupy Oakland organized an event called "Move in Day" and the goal was to seize an abandoned building and turn it into a community center. Feelings aside, there was a desperate need in the community, the city was unresponsive and there's a historical precedent. I didn't plan on going because I had to work and I was convinced that there was some "bacon in that sandwich" as I put it when I fear police infiltrators are in the mix or shit's been compromised. About 2,000 people that showed up that day, which really was amazing. Elderly, children, parents, families, everybodies. It was a good cross section of Occupy Oakland. I was sitting at work watching the livestream, and just ... I don't have words for how I felt when OPD attacked the protest. It was a fucking massacre. (Breaking the narrative/4th wall here, I've got goosebumps and tears in my eyes already just remembering it) The cops started shooting less than lethal projectiles at the march as soon as it neared the convention center they had targeted for Liberation. At first it was smoke bombs, but as the march retreated to a nearby street, OPD launched rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper ball rounds and other things into the crowd. If it wasn't for the protesters with shields, dozens of people would have been wounded. As it was, quite a few people were hit and hurt pretty badly. This culminated in a running street battle for a few blocks which basically cemented my decision to go to Oakland as soon as I got off work. I just couldn't sit there all comfy and safe, knowing that innocent people were being brutalized by the very force that was supposed to protect and serve them. That day, for myself, and a lot of people, we learned that the oaths the police swear come secondary to the concerns of Capital. Those with money and power will have their property and privilege defended and the worse abuses will be heaped upon people to preserve that. I mean, I knew that on paper, I read all the books, this wasn't my first venture into anarchist or radical theory. But knowing on paper is different from seeing. I would come to rue that realization over the next few hours.
As some of you may remember, I posted a picture of me just before I left my house that night. The look on my face makes me cry sometimes, because that was the last time I was "me". I knew I was going into a charnel house, I knew I should have just stayed home and raged into Twitter and dumped revolutionary screed into Facebook, but that wasn't the right thing to do. The right thing to do was go out there and help the innocent; the people who were getting a face full of broken social contract and trodden civil rights and OPD brutality. As a famous leader* once said, "the right thing is not necessarily the smart thing". And so I went to Oakland.
The BART ride was the worst. Everyone I knew was kettled by the Oakland Police Department at my old apartment complex at 19th and Telegraph. Kettling is where the cops trap you and give you dispersal orders but no exits, and on that day, they decided to tear gas everyone while they were trapped, also gassing everyone in that apartment complex. So again, I knew I was going into the mix. To this day, every time I cross the bay on BART and come out of the tunnel into West Oakland, my throat gets tight and I get this rush of adrenaline and fear and bile in the back of my throat. EVERY TIME. I was trying to prepare myself for the worst via Twitter, but there's just no way you can do that. My brain reads shit on twitter as though it's a video game or crap on the internet. I'm mad, or I feel sad, but there's not much substance to it. It passes with the next cat video or funny picture. What I walked into was real and it changed my life and it will be with me until I die and now that I'm putting these words out there, it'll be around long after I'm gone.
The train stopped at 19th Street BART, and right here, I'd love to say that the story stops, I came to my senses and got the fuck out and went home. But I'm not going to say that. As soon as I stepped out of the train, I saw two older women from OccupySF. Veteran activists I respected what they had to say and loved hearing their stories and learning from them. Instead of hugs and smiles, these women were in tears, warning me not to go up top, that the cops were "going crazy and gassing everyone". As they were telling me what they had been through, I could hear what I assume were flashbangs going off in the distance. We talked for a few minutes until their train came and I went upstairs. It was eerily quiet. By that time, the march had broken out of the kettle at the Uptown Apartments and was moving up Telegraph or Broadway towards the YMCA. I spent some time talking to people at the bus stop, one woman had thrown up because she couldn't stop coughing and crying, a few others were in various stages of grief and anger and had the telltale white splash of LAW on their faces. LAW, in case you're wondering, stand for Liquid Antacid + Water, whcih is the Street Medic's answer to Tear Gas and Pepper Spray.
|Scott Anansi Rossi|
I decided I'd try to catch up with the march, since the people told me I had just missed it. I went back to Broadway and ran into another OccupySFer who I had worked with on the Welcome Team, a real solid, stand up guy who I won't name for security issues, but you know who you are. At that point, I was already scared because the steady stream of people heading towards 14th street were saying the march had been kettled again, and everyone I knew was up there, so it was great running into this guy. Even though he wasn't a Medic, he was a buddy and I wasn't alone. You must not Medick alone if at all possible, because the police, especially Oakland Police, target medics for arrest.
The kettle at the YMCA was one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life. So many police, so many screaming, crying people and confused onlookers who wondered why the cops were going crazy. Happily, I ran into another friend, who had the luck to run into a compassionate officer who let a few women through the lines. I kept hoping that they'd let everyone out and we could all go home. This is where things get a little foggy and things got a little dangerous for me. What happened next is pretty much why a lot of things went the way they did and what allowed the second half of this blog post to even happen.
A few minutes after I got to the police line, I ran into a medic who was non-marked and didn't have any supplies. He was also at work and heard about what went down, so he came to do some bike scouting. Based on what he told me, we figured I was the only marked medic not kettled, which really bothered me. I had one bottle of LAW and enough water and milk of magnesia for one more bottle. What the hell was I going to do if the crowd got tear gassed again? I had a few bandages and ice packs, but what the hell was I going to do if the cops shot the crowd that was building at 23rd and Broadway? The projectiles are called 'Less than Lethal' rounds, but they will shred you if you get in their way. They are metal wrapped in a little bit of hard foam or rubber. Your guts are pudding if you don't have enough padding. I wasn't worried about myself, but about the bystanders and the smaller statured protesters. It's the United States, we shouldn't have to deal with this. I find the State out of date and increasingly unable to deal with realities of modern life. That's why I'm attracted to radical politics and anarchy. That's why people came out last fall, because many of them realized it as well. Even those who came to work for reform of the state knew it couldn't continue what it was doing in its current form. Does that mean we deserved to get tear gassed? Shot at with rubber bullets?
I'm not sure how long I was standing, mostly in disbelief, at the police line. There's a lot of black holes in my recollection that may or may not ever come back. Such is the nature of trauma and the psyche and based on what I do remember, I'm ok if it never comes back. Really. Oblivion keep those memories, please.
The Alameda Sherrif sent over their nice big army tank infantry assault vehicle for "crowd control purposes" the one cop bragged to what looked to be a reporter. Purchased with delicious DHS dollars, the sight of it caused worry from some, anger from others, and I remember one black woman just crying out with her hand out towards the tank, almost pointing at it.
At some point, these two kids dressed for a black bloc came up to me and told me to watch myself, that the "fat cop" was pointing at me. And sure enough, a few seconds after they said, it, five or six cops came at me. They didn't run, but they weren't walking either. I'm not gonna lie, I ran. I may have made some weird whimper/groan in fear. I remember thinking "I CAN'T GET ARRESTED, I WORK TOMORROW!" and "I CAN'T GET ARRESTED, WHO IS GOING TO TAKE CARE OF ALL THESE PEOPLE?" at the time, I was somewhere between 330 and 340 pounds. I had lost weight during Occupy and was happy and keeping that weight off, and I outran those cops. In retrospect, they didn't seem too interested in pursuing me, as when I got to Grand and Broadway, I looked back, they were walking back from the halfway point and it looked like their friends were arresting people where I was just standing with those 2 guys. Did people get arrested instead of me? Because of me? Would they have been arrested if I wasn't standing there? Jesus fucking christ.
There was a small woman. I'm not sure for what, but the cops grabbed her. She probably weighed 90 pounds, maybe 100 pounds wet. Five or six cops, it's hard to tell how many, because they were acting as a mass, basically enveloped her and I heard her scream and then she was on the ground, not moving, and clearly in pain. 3 of the cops, easily two or three times her weight, had their knees on the back of her knees, her stomach (Gods I pray she wasn't pregnant!) and ON HER FUCKING NECK. the whole time she's not resisting and they're cuffing her and she's scream-weeping. Do you know what that sounds like? Sometimes at night, that noise will come back to me in a random dream, or I'll hear a child scream while playing or seeing a butterfly and I'm right back there that night, chills and tears and everything.
There was a guy, maybe 150 or 200 pounds. Restrained and sitting on the curb. I remember it looked like he was asking one of the cops something and this other cop hit him in the chest with his baton and I watched him fall over and watched his head bounce off the pavement. This point was all blurry to me, because I kept walking back towards the kettle, leaving when a cop looked or walked my way, twice I started back towards Oscar Grand Plaza at 14th and Broadway, because I heard that there was a reconvergence, but I was alone by that time and didn't feel it was safe with all the cops on the road and in the way. They were arresting people at random at that point in the night, snatch and grab bullshit and that scared me more than getting arrested by the kettle. There were no livestreamers, there was no crowd. This was some dark back alley arrest shit and I was scared for my life. This is when cop gangs beat the shit out of people, and how funny a story that'd be in the locker room; about how they beat the shit out of the fat gay guy who was crying when we kidnapped him on Broadway. I'm thinking this about the police, ya know? The ones who are to 'protect and serve' us? Crazy you say? What I saw was crazy. What I remember was crazy.
By the time I finally got to OGP, City Hall had been entered. They didn't break in, because the doors were left open. It was a trap and they fell for it and an American Flag was burnt and Jean Quan was more upset about the smashed snack machine that the egregious abuse of power and violence that they had unleashed on their own people. There were rumors of another medic showing up, people wanted to organize a "Fuck the Police" march and there was a standoff at 14th and Broadway with the cops threatening tear gas and physical violence and injury. They really do say "chemical weapons" and "serious injury", and I knew they meant it. That girl's bloody face told me all I ever needed to know.
Then this wave of realizations hit me. I never got badge numbers. The cops were too far away for me to even do that. I'll never know who these people are, what happened to them, I'll never be able to thank them for what they've done or hug them and tell them we'll do our best to make sure everything would be OK. Survivor's guilt. Grief. I've never felt grief before in my life because I have a peculiar outlook on death and the afterlife, but suddenly I was awash in it. I remember I left Oakland and headed back to San Francisco, but not remembering much about the trip. I wasn't unconscious, but I wasn't here either. I remember being at the Stud at some point, in my stinking and dirty Medic Gear, showing up just to say hi and so my friend knew I was at his party. I remember some twink looking at me going saying some snotty comment about "fat doctor" and laughing with his friends like he said something witty and I remember wanting to punch, but not hit him, just punch so hard he stopped existing.
And then the fun started.
I have panic attacks at loud noises sometimes, I get edgy and aggressive when cops are around, especially in public settings like a coffee shop or bookstore. I don't feel safe anywhere. I'm depressed. Nihilistic at times. I wonder if anything I've ever done or will do will be worth the sacrifices some of those people made that night. I have survivor's guilt. If only I could have done more, was smarter, was faster, was thinner and more athletic. If only I could have broken through police lines somehow and rescued those people! This triggered an eating disorder that I'm in treatment for. I went from 340 to over 400 pounds and I'm only just able to talk about this now, after six months of pretty intense therapy and support groups. The night I realized I needed help was when I had blacked out from binge eating, and I had a night terror reliving that night and I woke up running to the bathroom pissing myself and whimpering. It's not always the visuals that haunt me, but the sounds too. The sounds of that woman screaming with all the cops on top of her. The sounds of the guy grunting after his head bounced off the pavement. The sound of me whimpering because I couldn't help them without getting arrested, I couldn't help them even if I was arrested, and it was happening too far away to see badge numbers or faces. I continually break down whenever I feel helpless. I used to be strong! I used to be a rock people turned to in their tough times. Now I have to pep talk myself into getting out of bed every goddamn morning. I don't feel safe around my friends or even my lover, I worry that somehow I'm going the horrors in my brain crashing into their life. It's an everyday battle not to overeat, to battle that food addiction, that compulsion to bury myself in a carb coma or swill pints of ice cream until that hole in my heart goes away for a while.
I'm angry. All the time. I'm angry that this happened. That people laugh about it or don't get it. I would never wish this on my worst enemy, but I wish I could share my pain and memories so you could get it. Because you can't get it until you've lived it. And people have been living this for decades. I'm angry that the State uses violence as a tool to repress political movements and keep people in line. I'm angry that it works. Some people are afraid and don't come out anymore. Some people are too shell shocked and are still dealing with the emotional and spiritual fallout from this. People I know and care about have PTSD from the police. People were mistreated in jail. Hell, two months ago I had to leave an innocent and tame march in Oakland, barely breathing down a panic attack because there was a cop car and a truck at an intersection next to each other and I just couldn't deal with that. When you see me posting angry screed into facebook and saying "REVOLT!", "Fuck the Police!" and the FTP/ACAB stuff, it's because I really feel that. I don't have my life anymore. I'm not that Scott you used to know and love. That hopeful innocent part of me died that night, and I'm not being histrionic about that. It's gone and hard as I might try, good works and faith and love that I might have, it might not ever come back, and that's part of the reality of this struggle and the reality of state violence. This is why they do it, because people just go away. There were times when, while I wasn't suicidal, I was definitely thinking it'd be better to just die than carry these memories. And you read what I'm going through and all I saw was some kids gettin beaten. Imagine what some Iraq or Afghanistan Vet is going through? When you see me rail against rape culture and patriarchy, try to imagine what a rape victime is going through. If you take one thing from this, let it be compassion. It's extremely important you remember how to feel and you don't lose that. Don't let this system make you see suffering people as Unpersons. They're Us's. They're you.
So after all that, I don't want to end this on a bad note. While it seems all bad, there's a silver lining. The need for therapy actually helped me address the eating disorder that alwas creeps into my life when I'm stressed or depressed. This has got me writing and reading and organizing against police brutality and violence. Rather than be another victim, I chose to be empowered by this, and I recognize that I have the privilege to do so. I found Feminism and am learning to be a better person and smash Patriarchy which keeps us all down. I choose to find ways of organizing and working around, and in recognizance of state violence against protesters, people of color, women, trans, gays, lesbians, sex workers, all of the Others and Underdogs and Everybodies we should be celebrating this one life we get with. Everyone has the right to speak your mind, to assemble. You have the right to housing, food, water. These are not entitlements, you cannot live without these. No, Mr. Piggie, I will not go home thank you. Not while children go to bed on the streets, while they go to bed with no food in their stomachs, while schools crumble and people have to suffer and die without health insurance in the richest nation on the planet. I'm going to keep on fighting, and I'll fight until every last battle is won or until my final breath is drawn, because you don't get equal rights and social justice by asking for permission and waiting. If there's one thing my parents taught me growing up, through all the viewings of Red Dawn, Legend of Billie Jean and Return of the Jedi, it's that you absolutely must fight. Fight for yourself and your loved ones, and fight for those that can't fight for themselves.
So I was going to write a big sappy ending about how thankful I am and how much I love everyone, but you know what, it's 3:15 AM, there is a spider dangling over my computer monitor and I fucking hate spiders. They're almost as bad as cops. So I'll leave you with a smile and the knowledge that I'm doin' alright, so let's all try to make sure we're all doing alright and then smash shit up until the world works better.
Thanks. Seriously, you have no idea.
* RIP Laura Roslin
PS -- As always, with any and everything I post, feel free to share far and wide. Especially with shit like this, because you never know who is suffering in silence.