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Scenes From Oakland’s General Strike

Even if a full General Strike and shut down of the city did not happen, the sheer audacity of Occupy Oakland’s reach drew international media attention and inspired activists around the world, spotlighting the imaginable if the not-yet achieved.

The Occupy General Assembly hadn’t consulted local unions or the county’s Central Labor Council before overwhelmingly voting for the General Strike action. At the same time, the unions couldn’t decline such a tempting invitation. The previously unthinkable became more of a logistics problem than a political one, as they scrambled to figure out how to participate.

The deliberate, turtle speed of normal union processes geared up to overdrive even while constrained by the messy requirements of democratic organizations and the legalities of contracts. By the day before the events, all of labor was on board policy-wise, even if not totally engaged on the ground.

The Morning March

The day began with a few thousand people overflowing the newly rechristened Oscar Grant Plaza (named after the young African American man shot in cold blood by a transit cop in Oakland a few years ago) where the Occupy Oakland encampment in front of City Hall was reestablished after the police riot the week before. Their numbers completely occupied downtown’s main intersection at Broadway and 14th Street. But that was just a foreshadowing of the crowds that would show later in the day.

After a few inspirational speeches and a little Comedia Delle Arte street theater from atop a flatbed truck parked on one corner, the Liberation Brass Orchestra broke into a rousing version of the old disco hit “I Will Survive.” Energized and dancing, the crowd marched up Broadway toward Latham Square, where the 1946 General Strike had begun. Looking back down the blocks the marchers could see their own size, every square foot of the wide street and pedestrian walkways 99 % filled. The chant was passed down the street like the human mic: “Oakland, Oakland, represent. We are the 99%.”

Nearly as many cameras, handheld video cams and iPhones as marchers recorded the history. Mac laptops were held aloft, skyping the scene live around the world. The revolution was being televised and streamed on the internet.

A contingent of Oakland teachers from the Oakland Education Association were visible in their bright green t-shirts and audible in their chant: “We are, We teach the 99%.” The student turnout was obvious, their young faces shining as bright as any union t-shirt.

The crowd was pure Oakland, the most diverse city in the country, reveling in their differences and unity at the same time. They marched around the downtown area, stopping at a new Wells Fargo branch. The big sign on the building read “Open during construction,” but like so many businesses in the immediate area, it was closed today. 

The noon March on the Banks 

The event at noon was planned to highlight the role major banks played in crashing the economy and creating the foreclosure crisis. Oakland has been hit hard by foreclosures, especially in the poorer neighborhoods of East Oakland. The results are easily observed—more homeless on the streets, kids going to school hungry, people unemployed and beaten down by poverty looking for somewhere to turn. But the eroded tax base means fewer city and county services to help.

So many banks litter the downtown area (“Around here you can’t throw a rock without hitting one,” a local anarchist opined) activists divided into smaller groups to cover them. At one Chase branch some foreclosed-on people set up furniture in front of it, saying that since Chase had taken their home, they were moving in here now. A few derring-do activists climbed up a couple of buildings, hanging a huge “Occupy the Banks” banner over a busy street between banks. Other Wells Fargo and Bank of America branches received visits, all scurrying to lock their doors and shut down business.

The Anti-Capitalist March

Next up on the day’s full agenda was the “Anti-Capitalist March,” a loosely planned general venting against the economic system that allowed and maintains the 1%’s control, or what the mainstream media politely calls “income inequality.”

The activists regrouped and consolidated, their numbers larger than ever, snaking through the streets of downtown to the wider boulevards near Lake Merritt, chanting: “From Cairo to Oakland, the 99 have spoken.” Even though the snarled traffic backed cars up for blocks, the marchers were greeted with blaring horns and raised fists in support.

This is NOT what democracy looks like

The value of popularizing the notion of the class divide—the 99% mantra—wasn’t enough for some self-proclaimed “anarchists.” Even though 99% of the marchers didn’t want vandalism and graffiti to mar their message, these masked marauders decided they knew better than the rest. As the march approached a B of A branch with big plate glass windows, one of them went up, broke one and ran off.

So a few bits of shattered glass gave the corporate media the excuse it loves most to avoid talking about themselves as a ruling class—a little mindless adolescent vandalism.

To the Port—Shut it Down!

After grabbing a quick meal provided by the Alameda Labor Council at the encampment, it was off to the day’s most ambitious effort—marching en masse to the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest port in the country and known locally as the economic engine of the area, to shut it down.

The longshore workers of the ILWU have been the radical vanguard of the Bay Area labor movement since the 1930s. Officially the ILWU, like the other unions, endorsed the goals of Occupy Oakland, but did not call on its members to join the General Strike. Still, when the job orders came into the dispatch hall that morning, most longshore workers made the individual decision not to work, in solidarity with the General Strike. Eventually the few jobs ordered were filled, but work started late and slowly.

The marchers’ plan was to arrive before the second shift and picket the terminal gates. The longshore workers’ contract allows them to claim a mass picket a safety hazard they need not cross. It is an effective tactic that has been used numerous times before. The questions were: Would the police, alerted so far in advance, blockade the street entrance to the port so they couldn’t get to the terminal gates, and would there be enough pickets to create a “safety hazard?”

After the previous week’s police brutality debacle in which an Iraqi War veteran, Scott Olsen, was nearly killed, the cops and embattled Mayor Jean Quan, pilloried from the right and the left, had no appetite for another confrontation. So as the would-be pickets approached the overpass bridge onto Middle Harbor Road, the bottleneck police had barricaded in the past, they found it clear. As they came up, over and down the bridge, marching into the setting sun, the few trucks on the road were swarmed and, unable to move, just parked and turned off their diesel engines. Looking back at the bridge, more and more people kept streaming in. The police estimated the crowd at 7,000, so it had to be more than 10,000.

The mood on Middle Harbor Road was festive, like a big street party, with music and dancing, meeting and greeting old friends, people climbing atop parked big rigs and waving banners. The joyous sense that this much people power was undefeatable was palpable.

As 7 pm, the time for the second shift, approached, and there was no sign of police or dispatched longshore workers to picket. So people began to leave. Tired but high on their victory, they headed back to the encampment to prepare for another day.

STEVE STALLONE was the editor of the ILWU’s newspaper The Dispatcher from 1997-2007 and worked with Jack Heyman on the Neptune Jade, Mumia and Charleston 5 campaigns. The union’s International Officers fired him for his politics in violation of his union contract. He won his arbitration against the officers and continues working as a labor journalist for Northern California’s largest public employee union, SEIU 1021, as President of the AFL-CIO affiliate the International Labor Communications Association and as Secretary of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, TNG-CWA 39521.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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