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High Noon at the West Coast Docks

HIGH NOON is a 1952 morality play about people deciding whether or not to stand up to the forces of corruption and criminality.  Scenes from it often come to mind, since I’ve repeatedly seen people around me facing up to analogous situations here in Oakland, at the docks and also in the plaza.

The setting for this movie is a western town around 1880, and the bad guy, Frank Miller, has just been released from prison.  He’s a nasty, hands-on, in-charge figure who previously controlled everything that went on in the town.  He’ll be returning on the noon train, and the townspeople will either have to stop him, or else resign themselves to living under his corrupt tyranny.

Such scenes were part of the real life of the screenwriter, Carl Foreman, formerly a member of the Communist Party.  Being a leftwing activist was not easy.  In the 1930’s he and his comrades walked picket lines under the threat of being clubbed or shot by police and company thugs.  Although he was no longer a member of the Communist Party, he was nevertheless later targeted by the vengeful one-percenters and their Congressmen.  In 1951, while he was writing the script for HIGH NOON, he was summoned to appear before HUAC and name names.  He refused and was therefore blacklisted by the Hollywood studio bosses.  The movie was, Foreman later said, “a parable of what was happening in Hollywood.”

This movie, made in the early 1950s and set in a small frontier town of the previous century, presents a relatively simple world where solutions are uncomplicated.  The characters are well-defined and the dialogue is concise.  The answer to the question posed by the movie, as the theme song puts it, is “to shoot Frank Miller dead.”

Will Kane, the town marshal, is stuck with the task of dealing with Miller and his trio of gunslingers.  It’ll be four against one, a very uneven fight, unless Kane can muster up a bunch of people to join him in the battle.  It’s Sunday morning, so Kane goes to the church to interrupt the service to ask for volunteers.  As he enters, the choir is singing Battle Hymn of the Republic, and they’re on the verse that goes: “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgement seat.”  In the course of the movie, all the people in the town get sifted as they decide to fight or give in to the bad guy.

Life and art often follow the same script.  I remember a scene here in the East Bay, shortly after the police had attacked antiwar protesters at the Port of Oakland, injuring fifty-nine people including demonstrators, longshoremen, and journalists.  That was in April 2003.  The message from the police, the shipping companies, and the mayor was very clear: “Don’t ever set foot in the port again!  Don’t even think of it.!”

Our 1st Amendment rights were at stake.  A rally was held at the Oakland Plaza to protest the police violence.  Each speaker spoke his or her piece, leading up to the last speaker, Sasha Wright, who said: “We’re thinking of returning to the Port to shut it down.  If we do, how many of you would go with us?”

I stood there, thinking at the time how much this resembled a scene from HIGH NOON, and was moved to see a substantial show of hands.  Five weeks after the attack, on May 12, 2003, several hundred people marched back into the Port of Oakland and set up a picket line at the terminal where people had been attacked and injured.  Thus the First Amendment rights of the community were reaffirmed; it was an amazing experience, an amazing day to be alive.

But that’s not at all how the movie script goes.  When the protagonist Will Kane appeals to the townspeople, they find reasons to decline.  They rationalize. Bad Guy Miller isn’t all that bad, they seem to conclude. They can reason with him, work things out.  Some are afraid of him, while others actually seem to be in cahoots with him.

Will Kane is on his own.  And because this is a 1950s western, the hero always wins, no matter what the odds.  Then, after having won, he looks scornfully at the cowardly, opportunistic, and undeserving townspeople and leaves in disgust.  That’s how it ends.

The ending seems simplistic, the weak part of an otherwise excellent script.  In reality, there are often at least a few brave men and women who’ll join together in standing up to the bad guys, to the Frank Millers of this world.  That I saw back in 2003, and again last fall (2011), when perhaps a hundred Occupiers linked arms at the Oakland Plaza on the morning of October 25th. And again that afternoon, and in the days that followed.  People faced those dangers together, even though several were injured.  Scott Olsen was injured critically.

Tens of thousands took part in the port shutdowns of November 2nd and December 12th — despite rumors and fears of more police violence.

Those actions energized rank-and-file workers in their struggles against the one percent, most notably the embattled dockworkers in the small town of Longview, Washington.  ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman of Longview told Occupy Oakland, “You cannot believe what you people did [on November 2] for the inspiration of my union members who have been on the picket line for six months.”

The outcome of the battle on that relatively small stretch of waterfront on the Columbia River would probably determine the future of the longshore union on the West Coast.  Both sides turned to allies.  The union-busting shipping company EGT had the backing of the police, and the Obama Administration was sending the Coast Guard.  This was the first time since 1970 that military units were intervening in a labor dispute. The dockworkers called out to other unions and also to Occupy for support in the upcoming showdown.

A struggle such as this isn’t won by a lone superhero; it takes large numbers of committed men and women.  Although that may seem obvious, it’s easy to overlook the obvious.  The myth of the superhero has been with us since Homer composed the Iliad; it survived the Middle Ages in stories of knights in white shining armor, and lived on to become a Hollywood cliché, particularly in Westerns.  In today’s world it fits perfectly with the concept of capitalist individualism, justifying the huge salaries and bonuses of greedy CEOs at the expense of the 99%–the supposedly undeserving townspeople.

There are indeed a lot of real-life heroes in this world, but not every player is a hero, and Carl Foreman did an excellent job of portraying those who are not.  They’re the town’s leading citizens, mostly well meaning people–but giving in to Frank Miller is the easy way out.  We see plenty of them in Oakland, starting with the Mayor, a former Maoist who waffled back and forth, finally caving in to the 1%.  In the weeks leading up to the West Coast Port shutdown of December 12, labor bureaucrats actually urged dock workers to cross picket lines.  And even supposedly “leftist” journalists adopted the one-percenters’ talking points against Occupy.  It’s in presenting those non-heroes, “leaders” who mislead, that Foreman’s script is at its best.

“If [Kane’s] not here when Miller comes in, my hunch is there won’t be any trouble, not one bit,” says a prominent citizen in Foreman’s movie script, and that’s essentially what a lot of liberals and labor bureaucrats have been saying of Occupy, first in December, and again this January regarding events up north in Longview.

Action in the movie focuses on the arrival of the 12 o’clock train, when Miller and his escort of gunslingers will make their move.  In the Port of Longview, the focus was on a ship, which was about to arrive, escorted by the Coast Guard.  Dockworkers had sent out a broad appeal for support, and Occupy and labor responded with caravans ready to rush to Longview to meet the present-day Frank Miller.  Mostly they’d be from Seattle, Portland and other cities of that region; there would also be a contingent from Occupy Oakland.

“We can expect cold weather and cops,” Barucha Peller told a meeting in Oakland on the eve of our expected departure.  Snow was reportedly on the ground in Longview.  People shivered visibly at the very thought of going north to do battle in snow, slush and freezing rain, but nobody seemed to be backing out either.  150 from the Bay Area had so far signed up for the caravan, and the list was growing.  Then, came the news: EGT, the shipping company, had given in and signed a contract that the dockworkers of Local 21 found acceptable.

The victory was won by the determination of a large number of courageous people who were willing to fight the battle.  This suggests another possible ending to HIGH NOON.  In this scenario, as the hour approaches, a dozen or so of the townspeople head out to the train depot.  Frank Miller sees them coming, gets back on the train, and sets out for parts unknown.

DANIEL BORGSTRÖM is a member of Occupy Oakland, where he was arrested along with 400 others on Jan 28.  He writes about progressive actions; his website is http://danielborgstrom.blogspot.com/

 

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