Last week, organizers from San Francisco’s Occupy met to go over what exactly happened during a May Day eve protest that turned into a riot causing upward of $150,000 in damages.
“It’s like a murder mystery,” said David Solnit, an organizer with OccupySF, speculating about who may have been responsible for the smashing of Valencia street last Monday night.
The group concluded that no one knows for sure who vandalized the neighborhood businesses, but some believe the riot was organized and that the people who were involved didn’t know the area well.
At last week’s meeting, organizers said that Monday’s events started with a few flyers that were passed around online, announcing a march that seemed to be against gentrification.
Members at the meeting said the gathering wasn’t organized or supported by the Occupy movement. On May 4, OccupySF issued a statement via its website denouncing the actions of the protesters on April 30.
“We consider these acts of vandalism and violence a brutal assault on our community and the 99%. Many Occupiers are your neighbors. We, too, live and work in the Mission, and were saddened and angered by what happened. So, we offer you our hearts and, most importantly, our hands to help repair the damage to your homes, your businesses, and your trust,” the statement read.
The flyers that were handed out before the May Day eve protest gave no hint as to who was organizing the rally, Solnit noted.
Chance Martin, another OccupySF member, said he first saw the flyer on his Facebook wall. “It said, ‘We are all undesirables.’”
Another Occupier who declined to give his name said that the poster he saw simply read, “Start May Day Right,” and that he had heard that Food Not Bombs would be there. So he went.
So did Scott Rossi, a medic and an activist with OccupySF. He expected the park’s gathering to be fun.
Although Rossi didn’t attend last week’s meeting, he spoke to Mission Loc@l about what happened on the night of the protest. He was surprised to see how aggressive protesters became right away, he said. He later found out that someone had posted the flyers to Bay of Rage, an alternative radical organizing website.
“If you read between the lines, you knew — ‘Smashy smashy,’” some of his friends told him after the fact.
Twenty minutes into the rally at Dolores Park, Rossi overheard a man making death threats against another attendee because he was taking pictures.
“I could tell that within 10 minutes this was going to get hot fast,” said the protester who wished to remain anonymous.
Rossi said he recognized a lot of people from previous protests, including some dressed in Black Bloc garb.
When people started marching down 18th Street, Rossi said, things changed fast. Rossi, who has attended many marches, said, “I have never seen a march fall apart faster in my life.”
He counted around 400 protesters at the beginning, he said, but when a smaller group started paint-bombing businesses and smashing windows, the number quickly dropped to 50 or so.
Even protesters dressed in Black Bloc-type clothing quickly bowed out when things turned ugly, Rossi said.
“There were five guys in Black Bloc standing with me and the other medic on that night — two were from Oakland and three were from SF — and they were just shocked,” Rossi said.
The organizers didn’t understand why small businesses were targeted, and neither did business owners who spoke to Mission Loc@l last week.
In the past, when Black Bloc tactics have been used to destroy property, such as at the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, they have been specifically targeted against large corporations or the state.
“There was a Black Bloc in Oakland during the general strike last year, but they only targeted corporate targets; what was so striking about this was that it was only small businesses,” Solnit said.
Solnit stressed that Black Bloc is a street tactic, not a specific group.
“It involves people dressing in all black so that they remain anonymous and the police can’t single them out and snatch people,” he said. “It’s just like the military dresses up, or football teams — it is street theater.”
The people Rossi saw inciting violence were dressed in Black Bloc attire, but none of the other protesters knew them.
According to Rossi, these men were not typical anarchists. Instead of the lanky, thin, almost nerdy men that he’s used to seeing, these men seemed, he said, like high school bullies.
No one he knew took part in the attacks, Rossi said.
Solnit, who has been an activist for over 30 years, said that typically the organizers of non-Occupy protests will show up at OccupySF meetings to ask for support.
“Nowhere did I hear anyone who came to announce the event and say come and support [us]. I didn’t know anyone who was involved. It was weird.”
Occupy protesters are also confused by the inaction on the part of the police.
“We couldn’t fart sideways without riot police showing up,” Rossi said, referring to the last six months.
The police, for their part, told Mission Loc@l that they did not expect the violence and had to wait for more personnel to confront the protesters.
Although Rossi is hesitant to use the term, he believes that the vandalism was the work of “agents provocateurs” — people engaged by the police, government, or other entity acting undercover to incite violence or other destructive acts.
“I’m not some tin-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist; I don’t like using this term,” Rossi said.
Whoever was behind the violence, Rossi said, it’s clear that they weren’t familiar with the neighborhood. People who know the Mission would not have attacked Valencia Gardens, the housing project at Valencia and 15th streets, “just because it looked nice,” he said.
As talk about the night of April 30 drew to a close, organizers brought up the recent arrest of five anarchists in Cleveland, where the role of an FBI informant has been criticized.
OccupySF organizer Craig Rouskey has had experience with surprise property damage ruining what was supposed to be a peaceful march. During a march he organized on Jan. 20 of this year, a rogue stranger dressed in Black Bloc attire broke the window of a Bentley dealership. For months after, Rouskey tried to discover the man’s identity.
“You won’t find who did this,” he said. “I’ve tried before.”