Oakland Occupiers and Longshore Workers Shut the Port of Oakland
“General Strike” Delivers Warning Shot To Bankers: Your End Is Coming!
Business as usual was put on hold in Oakland on Wednesday the 2nd of November 2011, as 30 to 50,000 protestors dominated the streets, and, in cooperation with International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU), longshore workers, shut the 5th largest port in the country on both the day and evening shifts. The Oakland Occupy, dubbed the Oakland Commune by some, called for the November 2 general strike the day after vicious police attacks on the City Hall occupation encampment, and on protestors in the streets. Over the objections of some that not enough time was available, a 3,000 member General Assembly (GA) voted overwhelmingly to shut the city down. It was a bold act, but the Occupy movement is not given to timidity. They voted to strike while the iron was hot, and they weren’t disappointed.
Longshore workers took the lead in the morning of the appointed day, even though the GA’s plan said nothing about the day shift: their idea was to shut the port on the night shift only. But rank-and-file longshore workers were already fired up about a general strike to oppose financial capitalism’s domination of everything. With a few exceptions, the longshore workers refused to take dispatch from their hiring hall to jobs in Oakland. With jobs mostly unfilled, operators couldn’t work, and the port was shut. The Port of Oakland employers (with top union officials by their side) claimed the port was open, of course, and that’s what the mainstream media said. But that, with only a few exceptions, was a lie.
Media reports about the size of this Oakland mass action were more lies. There were two massive marches from the 14th and Broadway Downtown center to the port, to shut down the night shift. A reliable observer personally known to me, situated on a high overpass, reported that the first march was 10 to 15,000. I was there to see the second march coming over the Middle Harbor Bridge, which was easily well more than 5,000. So, was the real number 30,000? This was the figure reported in the Oakland Tribune the next day… but not the corporate TV news at 11:00 P.M. on the night. Amazingly, both the CBS and ABC affiliates reported this action as (only) 3,000, while their own video, shot from helicopters, being displayed in the background and depicting only part of one of the two marches, showed way more than that.
In fact, the whole of Middle Harbor Road was packed with tens-of-thousands of people, including dense crowds in front of every terminal. Normally, if any longshore workers had taken dispatch for jobs here, they would have arrived ten to twenty minutes ahead of start time. But even though the bosses pushed the start time back to 8:00 P.M. from 7:00 P.M., no longshore workers even tried to get through. At about 8:20 P.M., great cheers went up as it was announced that the company-union arbitrator had ruled that a safety hazard existed, and therefore the port was shut down.
Longshore workers weren’t the only ones fired up over this mass action. Word of this general-strike call spread like wildfire throughout most of the Bay Area. Flyering for this event beforehand was almost as rewarding as the event itself. Tens-of-thousands came out and took over the streets of downtown Oakland for the entire day and evening. Three separate marches headed off from the 14th and Broadway center to shut down banks, and all of them (Wells Fargo, Chase) were either already closed, or closed their doors as we arrived. Only the Bank of America at Lake Merritt was open, and this was the site of the most militant protest. We were packed in so tight in front that even a church mouse might have had trouble getting in or out.
Along the way we were joined by a 500-plus march of students and faculty from Laney College. Some 300 Oakland teachers took the day off for this event, and many businesses, including Rite-Aid, Tully’s Coffee, and the Foot Locker (famous for being the first target of protestors over the police murder of Oscar Grant) were shut. In Rockridge, many businesses took cash only, to keep the banks from getting their two percent on card transactions. And in the Grand Lake area, several restaurants and small businesses were closed, including the Grand Lake Theater, which proclaimed, “We proudly support the occupy Wall St movement” on its marquee.
It’s true that most of Oakland was not totally shut down, and that this was not a “real” general strike, in the sense that workers were not officially on strike. The “strike” consisted of people taking off work, some with permission and some not; and with businesses closing, some voluntarily and some not. The strike call made clear that this was a voluntary mass action, and that small, local businesses and non-profits were not targeted.
As longshore worker and former ILWU official Clarence Thomas explained on Democracy Now and KPFA, this was today’s version of a general strike. Union membership is way down, most workers in de-industrialized America are non-union, and unions are tied-up by no-strike clauses in their contracts, as well as the (1947) Taft-Hartley Act restrictions on solidarity strikes, mass picketing and secondary boycotts. Union leaderships have become totally compromised by their relationships with the employers and ties to the bought-and-sold-by-the-banks Democratic Party, including in the ILWU.
Hip Hop artist, Boots Riley, of The Coup, an Occupy activist and self-declared communist, perhaps expressed it best when he called this action a “warning shot” against the capitalist class: despite all obstacles, “the working class will be moving soon.” A revolutionizing of union leaderships, organizing drives, and a fight-back against the anti-union constraints such as the Taft-Hartley anti-labor legislation are clearly on the agenda.
Oakland Occupy’s decision to call a “general strike” defied the conventional wisdom that it is a leaderless movement completely lacking in demands. Clarence Thomas, Boots Riley, John Reiman (a former carpenters union member expelled for leading a wildcat strike), and the on-going facilitator’s committee clearly played a leadership role in bringing off this impressive mass action. More important was the virtually unanimous vote on the purpose (if not demands per se) of the “general strike.” It is acknowledged here that this one-day action did not have “demands” as such, but had goals befitting a protest action. These are worth quoting in full:
“Statement from Occupy Oakland strike assembly on Friday, October 29
“On Wednesday, November 2, tens-of-thousands of Oakland residents, students and workers will be participating in a general strike to shut down Oakland and the one percent. By a general strike we mean a work stoppage and a blockade of the city as well as school walkouts and occupations. As part of the global occupation movement, people in Oakland are also fighting to take back our lives, public resources and the spaces in which we work, study and circulate. The general strike in Oakland will be a collective citywide action against the corporate domination over every aspect of our lives and against the growing gap between the rich and everybody else.
“We recognize that not all workers will feel able to strike in their work places on November 2, and we welcome any form of participation which they feel is appropriate. We urge them to join us before or after work or during their lunch hours.
“We call on the occupation movement of the United States and globally to organize general strikes and to take back what is ours.
In Solidarity...We will see you in the streets.
- Solidarity with the worldwide Occupy movement!
- End police attacks on our communities!
- Defend Oakland schools and libraries!
- Against an economic system built on imperialism, inequality and corporate power that perpetuates all forms of oppression and the destruction of the environment!”
The shut down of the Port of Oakland on November 2nd may be the biggest turning point in the Occupy Wall Street movement so far, but it’s not the only one. This is an amazing if unformed movement, which has spread worldwide to maybe 1500 cities in six weeks or less. The attacks on this movement, such as the arrest of 700 who were trapped by police on the Brooklyn Bridge; and the attempt to destroy the Zuccotti Park encampment, which was stopped by a mass mobilization of thousands in an early morning in New York, were milestones of a movement that has been formed in struggle, and continues with great determination despite all adversity. Police raids on Occupies around the country have dented, but failed to quash this movement.
On Tuesday the 25th of October, another turning point came when police attacked the Oakland encampment and then assaulted protestors, wounding several and almost killing two-tour Iraq veteran Scott Olsen. It was after this attack that the general strike call was decided upon. But on the same day as the “general strike,” Oakland may have provided another turning point, almost as important as the port shutdown.
In recent decades, the U.S. ruling class has engineered what is undoubtedly the largest upward transfer of wealth since the days of slavery. Along the way they virtually de-industrialized the U.S. in order to break the unions and realize higher profits from low-wage workers internationally, and trapped millions of working and middle class people in fraudulent mortgages, which caused them to lose their homes. Now they’re forcing cutbacks and layoffs across the board in schools, libraries, hospitals etc, so that cities and states can “service” their debts to the same financial barons that caused the crisis in the first place.
The foreclosures, leaving perhaps 11 million empty properties in the U.S., affecting countless families, has hit home with Occupy encampments. Many occupies have become a refuge for the homeless, who find a safer and more welcoming environment in these encampments. And in New York (and other places no doubt) extreme cold, snow and slush have raised questions about the survivability of encampments. Discussions of takeovers of abandoned property—foreclosed residences, closed schools, other abandoned properties etc.,—have been on-going in New York and elsewhere for weeks.
In the Oakland Commune, a decision was made for a take-over action, which made perfect sense, from the standpoint of the oppressed and exploited. Right next door to City Hall’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza, the site of the Oakland Occupy, is a foreclosed property, which used to be the home of the Travelers Aid Society, a non-profit that serviced the homeless. This organization lost its lease because the city was unable to continue servicing the loan of the private owner of the building. Oakland occupiers decided to take over this empty office and restore it to its original purpose. On the night of the “general strike,” occupiers took over this space, hung a banner that said “Occupy Everywhere,” and began to move in books for the new library site. That’s when the cops moved in.
News reports have emphasized the “violence” that occurred at this time (“Protest in Oakland Turns Violent,” New York Times, November 3, 2011) without explaining what really happened. But the Occupiers had a distinct plan, which they explained afterwards in a statement. They intended to use the space for its original purpose. They were surprised by the “ferocity of the police attack.” (Quoted on Flashpoints, November 3, 2011, kpfa.org).
After avoiding protestors for the entire day, police were mobilized 300 strong that night. Who were they to take on the longshore workers and 30,000 supporters at the port? But now, as only one or two thousand remained in downtown Oakland, they moved in to protect bank-owned property. Beanbag projectiles and tear gas were used in a brutal crackdown, in which cops had their names and badges obscured. Some 65 were arrested. It was at this time that protestors fought back, some using shields, some throwing rocks, and some lighting fires on barricades.
Earlier in the day, some vandalism occurred on the third march of the day, the so called the anti-capitalist march. 50 to 60 “black bloc” anarchists fully clothed in black, with hoods, masks and black flags, traced the route of earlier marches, leaving shards of broken glass in their wake. They attacked banks such as Chase and B of A, but also hit a dry cleaning business. At a local Whole Foods, they picked up chairs and threw them through windows while people were still inside. Some of the occupiers formed a defensive line against them, and others denounced them to the media.
The main source of violence in the world and at home, is the U.S. imperialist state, right down to the Oakland cops who attacked on October 25th and November 2nd. Self-defense, by any means necessary, against this, the most violent capitalist state in the world—and a revolution to overthrow this state—is an absolute necessity, but it must be a mass working-class phenomenon. Many in the occupier movement do not understand this yet, but these anarchists are not helping to explain that, nor do they have the slightest idea of how to achieve that. They are not seen in the Oakland Occupy or at general assemblies, and are not part of the occupier movement. Their chants of “destroy capitalist property,” heard on their march, have nothing to do with a program of action to overthrow capitalism. A small band of window smashers, isolated from the movement, is worse than useless: it is a provocation. It is known that police infiltrators are among this movement, and may be prominent in the black bloc.
The system itself has caused
While the media has managed to keep the Republican primary debates (read: advance of the four horsemen of the apocalypse) on the tube, the Tea Party, at least, was pretty much driven off the front pages by the spreading Occupy movement. But the occupiers are very wary of co-optation, and are not pro-Democratic Party or pro-Obama. This could change as the 2012 election approaches, since there is not yet a conscious, definitive break with the two-party system of war and capitalism. Yet the occupiers do reflect the deep-going disillusionment with Obama, which is based on the experience of a generation of youth and working people, who see that Obama has done the exact opposite of almost everything he promised. Indeed, The lesson of the 2008 election of the first Black president seems to have sunk in: No matter who the president is, this is a reactionary, racist, capitalist and imperialist system. No president can change that.
In fact, NO executive office-holder can change that, including local ones, such as Oakland Mayor (and former Maoist/leftist) Jean Quan. Much as she might (and does) want to run the other way, Jean Quan owns the brutal police attacks on the Oakland City Hall Plaza encampment, and on the subsequent street demonstrations, that took place on Tuesday, October 25, 2011. These unprovoked attacks injured several, and almost took the life of Scott Olsen, Iraq War veteran, and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. This was the second major turning point in the international Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, and it put Oakland on the map. (The first came earlier in October, when 700 New York protestors were trapped and arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge by police.) Solidarity immediately came in from New York, where OWS protesters marched in support; and from Egypt, where Tahrir square militants also marched to support Oakland protesters, under the slogan, “We Are One Hand.”
The Egyptians also sent a long letter (read in its entirety at the Oakland Commune’s General Assembly on October 28th), which justified the torching of police stations and government-party headquarters during the struggle to oust Mubarak. “It is not our desire to participate in violence,” said the letter, which was signed “Comrades from Cairo,” “but it is even less our desire to lose.” To the Oakland Occupy, their message was “continue, keep going and do not stop.” This letter was met with cheers by the three thousand gathered in the amphitheater in front of City Hall that night in Oakland.
The Occupy movement’s principles are as much about process as they are about politics. The movement is into passive resistance, and “leaderless” consensus decision-making, by a general assembly open to all. A couple slogans could be said to be the most prominent reflections of the overall sentiment of the movement: “We are the 99 percent” and “tax the rich.” But many slogans are raised by groups and individuals within the “umbrella” of the Occupy movement.
The question circulating in the Occupy movement of what demands to raise is secondary to the more general question of, what is the real goal of this movement? Demands reflect the goal. This movement hates capitalism, but doesn’t know what to do about it yet—reform, or revolution? Now, it is a militant reform movement, but it is better characterized as being in flux, a work in progress. The pressures on it are great, and the answers are not easy to come by.
Capitalism cannot be fixed. It must be overthrown and replaced with workers rule: socialism. The Occupy movement’s openness to ideas, and its willingness to learn from its own struggle are positive signs on a long road of awakening consciousness.
—November 3, 2011