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Oakland’s General Strike

As an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley in the late 1980s, I did not visit the nearby city of Oakland very frequently.  For the most part, I was ensconced in my own student circles and, to the extent that I got involved in politics, it was the local campus activist scene which drew me in with its focus on Central America and U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the region.  To be sure, Oakland had a radical tradition going back to the 1960s and the Black Panther movement, yet by the time I was in school that era was already a distant memory for many.

If there was any doubt about Oakland’s radical stripes, however, then yesterday’s general strike will certainly dispel any such notions.  Galvanized by tumultuous developments over the past several weeks, in particular a nasty police crackdown on a local “Occupy” encampment, activists moved to effectively shut down the city by carrying out a general strike no less.  Activists were particularly incensed by violent police tactics including use of tear gas and even grenades.  During nighttime unrest, an Iraq war veteran was hit with a projectile and suffered a skull fracture.

Spurred on by the need to end police brutality, defend schools and libraries against local closures, and put an end to overall economic inequality, Occupy Oakland called for a day of action in which the circulation of capital would be blockaded, students would walk out of class, and various occupations would be staged around the city. Oakland is particularly important to commerce as the local port is the fifth largest in the country, and though union officials did not authorize a strike many longshoremen voiced support for Occupy’s efforts.

The Unusual Weapon of the General Strike

General strikes are practically unheard of in the United States.  Indeed, the Oakland unrest marks the first general strike in the country in 65 years.  One notable exception to this pattern of labor docility was the Seattle general strike of 1919, which in my estimation holds profound historic lessons for anti-capitalist protesters in Lower Manhattan.  For the most part, however, U.S. labor has shied away from such confrontational tactics, and this has posed a great tactical dilemma for the left according to veteran organizers.

Over the past month or so, I have puzzled over the fact that most of the organizing and political activism has centered upon New York, which is a little unusual.  On a purely personal note, I have always been struck by the contrasting political cultures on the east and west coasts.  As a New Yorker observing the local scene in the late 1980s, I was taken aback by the greater militancy of protests in Berkeley and San Francisco.  In contrast to the Big Apple, where people were isolated from one another and seemed obedient and deferential towards the authorities, Bay Area protesters were less willing to play ball.

It is now Oakland, however, which has come full circle, providing a crucial missing link in the Occupy movement within the Bay Area and indeed farther afield.  Peer a little closer and it’s not too surprising that the city should be in the radical vanguard.  With its long and checkered political past, Oakland has been a path breaker in many ways including class struggle, women’s rights and racial justice.

Local Oakland Boy Jack London

It was the celebrated writer Jack London (1876 – 1916) no less who inspired future generations.  A local Oakland boy, London was a member of the Socialist Labor Party and to this day his presence can be vividly felt in the city.  Currently, Jack London Square is one of Oakland’s great landmarks and a symbol of the city’s maritime history.  Situated in front of a natural estuary leading to San Francisco Bay, the site lies at the heart of Oakland’s port operations.  As a boy, London spent much of his time on this very waterfront, later taking up an adventurous sea-faring life as an oyster pirate.  And it is here in the square that local residents continue to honor London’s heritage by observing the general strike.

Though he is most recognized for masculine adventure stories and such works as Call of the Wild and the Sea Wolf, London also penned political fiction like the Iron Heel, a futuristic, distopian story about America in which corporate interests are on the ascendant.  In the Iron Heel, London sought to consolidate his ideas concerning the working class and its struggle against the so-called shadowy “oligarchy.”  The central protagonist of the book, a socialist named Ernest Everhard, witnesses the fall of the American republic and goes into underground resistance.  A highly influential work, The Iron Heel exerted an impact upon George Orwell who went on to write two of the 20th century’s other great political novels, 1984 and Animal Farm.

Through Everhard, London was able to project his own political predictions for the coming decades.  In 1937, Trotsky wrote “Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution.”  In the Iron Heel, London presciently anticipated the growing power of money in politics.  Portraying capitalism as a “monstrous beast,” London foresaw Reaganomics and the rise of the Republican far right.

In an echo of today’s Occupy movement, London warned that the poor can only achieve a level playing field by uniting against the 1% who have inordinate access to the world’s wealth and resources.  Though the oligarchy kills strikers and citizens, Everhard endures as a kind of personification of the working class ideal.  “Far be it from me to deny that Socialism is a menace,” London once remarked.  “It is its purpose to wipe out, root and branch, all capitalistic institutions of present-day society.  It is distinctly revolutionary, and in scope and depth is vastly more tremendous than any revolution that has ever occurred in the history of the world.”

Today, London’s great granddaughter Tarnel Abbott continues to walk in the radical footsteps of the notable American writer.  During the recent Oakland police disturbances, she wrote “It is true that Jack London is my ancestor, he is my great grandfather, but more importantly, he is a working class hero and a visionary. I looked at the Jack London oak tree in front of City Hall and felt possessed by the spirit of the great man. I thought of him standing there on his soap box making socialist speeches and getting arrested because he didn’t have a permit. I thought of him writing RevolutionThe People of the Abyss and The Iron Heel. I felt that I was witnessing the Iron Heelof fascism being challenged. I knew that I too had to resist it.”

London’s Radical Heritage

If he had lived to see the day, London would surely have been proud of his great granddaughter as well as Oakland’s militant and combative post-war labor movement.  In 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, workers gathered in Oakland’s streets to support the struggle of women department store employees.  The move formed part of a larger national strike wave designed to ensure that demobilization did not serve to erode workers’ rights.  The epicenter of the Oakland strike, which quickly developed into a general strike, was none other than Latham Square at the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph Avenue, which today serves as an organizing point for the Occupy movement.

Very soon, the strikers instructed all stores except pharmacies to shut down.  A carnival-like atmosphere took root in the city with couples dancing in the streets, and Oakland was effectively shut down when 100,000 laborers joined the effort.  What distinguished the Oakland general strike from other labor unrest was that it spread from the bottom up without much evidence of official union leadership in the streets.  In this sense, the events of 1946 are reminiscent of today’s Occupy movement, which is not being formally directed by the rank and file [indeed, since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act one year after the 1946 Oakland general strike, unions have been barred from participating in strikes “in support of other workers,” though to be sure many local unions endorsed Occupy’s actions within the local vicinity].

Though certainly impressive, the general strike unfortunately collapsed after just 54 hours, called off by a wary and conservative American Federation of Labor.  In the end, the city promised to stop sending scab delivery trucks to businesses where workers had been on strike, but female retail clerks didn’t get any of the concessions they had sought.  Nevertheless, four labor candidates were elected to Oakland’s city council in 1947 and the strike had important psychological and symbolic consequences. Put simply, labor demonstrated that workers were willing to take big risks and rebel against top down control, even going so far as to essentially take control over the city itself.

Oakland’s 1960s Legacy

Though the 1946 strike was an important forerunner of the Occupy movement, it would be a mistake to view recent disturbances in the city within a strictly labor perspective.  Judging from some recent online videos, Oakland’s Occupy activists are fairly diverse in a racial sense, perhaps more so than the Occupy Wall Street crowd.  In this sense, what is happening in California harks back to the previous activist wave of the 1960s.

Founded in Oakland in 1966, the Black Panther Party played an important role in furthering the growth of black liberation movements.  Guided by Oakland’s earlier socialist politics, the Panthers espoused revolutionary goals and called for a radical and, if necessary, violent transformation of society.  The movement was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, who had met as students at Merritt College in 1962.  Their friendship was solidified by a desire to tackle issues such as racism, police brutality, housing discrimination and inferior quality of education.

By the 1960s, Oakland had changed dramatically in a racial sense.  Though numerically small in the early twentieth century, Oakland’s black population had always displayed a tradition of radical political organizing.  In the 1920s, for example, the city had one of the most active chapters of the UNIA or United Negro Improvement Association, an organization headed by the infamous Marcus Garvey.  Later, Oakland served as the headquarters of the powerful Sleeping Car Porters Union.  Though the city was overwhelmingly white in the early 20th century, World War II accelerated the pace of change by drawing in new workers to the shipyards and defense industries.

By the 1960s, the growing black population had grown incensed by the overwhelmingly white dominated city government and cases of police brutality, which all served to spur on the likes of Huey Newton.  Though the Panthers were subjected to FBI harassment and imprisonment, eventually splintering in the early 1970s, the movement had an important impact on Oakland politics.  Indeed, Seale himself went on to garner a full 37% of the vote in the city’s mayoral election of 1973, and eventually African Americans succeeded in wresting the entire political machine from white Republicans, occupying all major elected positions in Oakland.  Moreover, the Panthers inspired other marginalized groups such as Native Americans, Chicanos and Asian-Americans who in turn launched their own struggles for racial equality.

Political Impact of Wednesday’s Strike

As of this evening eastern time, it’s still a bit early to assess the practical impact of Oakland’s general strike.  Some reports suggest that activists have not succeeded in shutting down the entire city let alone Oakland’s important port, though some businesses remain shuttered.  It’s unclear moreover how many city workers joined the strikers but local coverage indicates that many teachers have joined the effort as well as thousands of students from the University of California, Berkeley.

Whatever the case, yesterday’s actions represent an important milestone for the Occupy movement.  Just a couple of weeks ago, as I penned my latest article outlining how a general strike might unfold in Lower Manhattan, I wondered how many people might take my writing seriously.  And while it’s still probably a stretch to think that activists can shut down the Wall Street area, the protests now seem to be accelerating at an exponential rate.  Already, solidarity marches with the Oakland general strike have been organized in Boston and Philadelphia, for instance.

It is perhaps fitting that it was Oakland, home to radical socialists such as Jack London as well as later black liberation figures like Huey Newton, which pushed the unique weapon of the general strike.  Though it was New York which initially provided the spark for the Occupy movement, Oakland is now nationalizing this struggle and inspiring other cities to take more decisive action.  Already, the familiar call of “Oakland is New York, New York is Oakland!” is gaining traction amongst the demonstrators, much to the chagrin of economic elites and the political establishment.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010).  Visit his website, http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/

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NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.

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