The story of the Oscar Grant rebellions cannot be told without at least a modest attempt to sketch an outline of the anarchists who took to the streets during those early weeks of 2009. For the police and the existing left power structure in Oakland, (including a progressive mayor and an array of social justice nonprofits) the presence of anarchists within the riots was used to discredit the unrest as simply the work of opportunistic outside agitators who cared little for the struggles of poor and working class people of color. In response to this pacifying narrative of counter-insurrection as well as the very real threat of state repression, many radicals and anarchists publicly downplayed what roles they did play. It has thus been difficult to get a real understanding of anarchist intervention in this pivotal contemporary uprising.
Anarchists take an extreme anti-authoritarian position which fights for the abolition of all structures of domination and coercion such as the state, capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. Some anarchists extend this opposition to the foundations of civilization itself and others center their antagonisms on an anti-capitalist politics that rejects state power as a tool for liberation. Most anarchists seek forms of living and working together grounded in practices of self-organization, mutual aid, collective decision making and direct action that undermine hierarchical power structures. This almost always puts anarchists in direct opposition to professional activists and the nonprofit managers of movements.
For contemporary anarchists in the US, the Oscar Grant rebellions represented an important turning point of enormous proportions. Following the decline of the anti-globalization movement in which anarchists had played a significant and militant role a decade earlier, there began a relative dark age for American anarchy. This was a period characterized by an authoritarian and reformist anti-war movement dominating the left as well as a campaign of state repression against Anarchists engaged in ecological struggles that came to be known as the Green Scare. In the Bay Area, many anarchists allowed themselves to become subsumed within the larger reformist circles of progressive politics dominated by a vast array of local non-profits. Their politics became confused and watered down and their tools of resistance were blunted.
Yet in the months before the rebellion in Oakland, things had begun to change. As the remains of the anti-war movement and much of the left threw their weight behind the Obama campaign, anarchists struck out on their own, discarding the liberal baggage of the previous generation and em- bracing a militant street politics of insurrection. This new wave exploded in the streets of St. Paul during the 2008 RNC and to a lesser extent in Denver during the DNC. And then on December 6, 2008 on the other side of the world, Alexis Grigoropolous was gunned down by Greek police in Athens leading to a month long anarchist-led insurrection which prefigured the revolts that have spread across much of the world over the past year and half. Anarchists in the US and elsewhere watched this spectacular insurrection very closely and took Greek comrades’ words to heart when they proclaimed “We are an image from the future”.
This was the context for anarchists when videos began to be posted online of Oscar Grant’s execution on New Year’s Day 2009. Their participation within the subsequent rebellions helped solidify the ascendent and uncompromising trajectory of insurrectionary practices within local anarchist circles as well as those across the country. The riots exposed the contradictions inherent in working with non-profits for all to see and forced social rebels in the area to take a side. But what part did anarchists actually play in this early climax in the sequence of international urban unrest that continues to resonate across the globe to this day? The short answer is that their role was minimal. There were some anarchist affinity groups scattered throughout the streets during those days of unrest. A few did travel from afar to lend a hand but the vast majority lived and organized in the Bay Area. Either way, their participation was dwarfed by that of the crews of diverse Oakland youth who animated the rebellion and gave it the fierce energy that made the state tremble.
The longer answer is a bit more complicated and opens up important questions. As soon as the actual riots unfolded, Anarchists were relatively insignificant in the outcome of the street battles. But if it were not for their initial actions early on January 7, those riots would most likely not have happened. Anarchists helped instigate and protect the march that broke away from the vigil at Fruitvale BART. They made sure that no group could co-opt the anger or pacify the crowd. And when the march reached downtown it was the actions of a few anarchists that provided an initial spark which led to the first confrontations and the trashing of an OPD cruiser. They then quickly became lost in the crowd as the real anarchy took over and the full potential of the evening unfolded.