Thursday, November 3, 2011

Oakland 2011—Reviewing a New General Strike

Marching to the Port of Oakland from a TV helicopter screen shot.
Yesterday on the NBC evening news cast they seemed much more interested in Herman Cain’s sexual harassment scandal—they spent the first 10 minutes of the broadcast examining it in exquisite detail with a lot of footage of the Republican candidate wandering through throngs of reporters declining to comment. 

After the 15 minute mark, Brian Williams finally got down to what he called the widening protests in Oakland.  I strained, but am not sure he uttered the words General Strike.  Even trying to downplay the events, however, it was apparent that something major was happening on the West Coast.

The question is, was it really a General Strike?  Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  Depends on your definition.  American labor unions have been prohibited by law—the Taft-Hartley Act—from engaging in sympathy strikes of all kinds, including General Strikes.  So although most major unions in Oakland and even a state labor body endorsed the “aims of the Occupy Oakland movement and protest” they could not officially call their members out on strike.  They did encourage members who “are able” to participate in the demonstrations.  Plausible deniability was the rule of the day.  The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) made a point of issuing a statement that its members should report to their scheduled shifts—but that they might choose not to cross picket lines.

NBC carried footage of the president of the Service Employees (SEIU) festooned in his purple union shirt and standing by an official union table.  The City of Oakland, desperately trying to make amends for the fiasco police raid that nearly killed an Iraq War vet, had given permission for its employees, many of who are represented by the SEIU, to take off work for the protests.  The local president was at pains to say that the union was not describing the event as a General Strike.

A significant percentage of Teachers Union Members stayed away from the classroom but called in sick or used personal days.  The same was true of a large contingent of Nurses. 

How many people, unionized or not, actually walked off the job or who were affected by numerous “voluntary” closures of down town businesses is impossible to gage.  What we do know is that thousands took the streets for a day and night of marches, picketing, and protests that effectively ground business as usual to a halt.

Things got underway in the morning with a large rally where the principle speaker, at least according to the press, was veteran activist Angela Davis.  By all account she gave a rip-roaring speech that got the crowd fired up.  Of course as a well documented and public former member of the Communist Party of United States (CPUSA) her prominent role will undoubtedly be the big news in right wing attacks on the movement.
After the rally the crowd divided into several smaller marches criss-crossing the city to different targets. 

Teachers and parents marched on the School Board issuing them a symbolic eviction notice for failing to protect the interests and education of children against budget cuts.  A Children’s March kept in the vicinity of the Occupy Oakland base at Oscar Grant Plaza carrying chanting “Play nice and share.”

Large groups of marchers headed to the downtown locations of major banks, moving from one to another.  The banks locked their doors and announced that they were closing “for the safety of our customers and staff.”  At one location “black clad, masked” individuals pushed forward and shattered a window.  The vandals may have been the determined anarchist street fighters who seek to make every demonstration violent, agents provocateurs, or in all likelihood both. Other protestors intervened to stop the damage as the crowd chanted “no violence, no violence.”  But there were reported fist fights between the “militants” and other protestors trying to restrain them.  In the end, except for a few isolated incidents during the daytime hours, the marches and pickets were remarkably peaceful.

Oakland police virtually abandoned the streets—just as they did in 1946 (see yesterday’s post for detail).  Demonstrators policed themselves with some considerable discipline.  They also directed traffic away from and around areas where they were in the streets and occasionally cleared the way for emergency vehicles.

Despite the fact that a march to close down the Port of Oakland was not scheduled until early evening, ILWU members were refusing to off load ships or handle cargo.  By mid morning observers said the port was effectively closed.

Around 5 PM the major march to the Port took off with thousands of participants.  Crowd estimated varied widely, but images from helicopter news cameras clearly show thousands completely filling a long bridge to the port.  Demonstrators arrived in time to put up mass pickets to “dissuade” second shift workers to enter the port.  ILWU members asked folks from Occupy Oakland to extend their picket for a full 24 hours and a request went out for more volunteers to return to the port at shift change this morning.

It was a reportedly jubilant crowd.  After most left the Port many went home, including a lot of exhausted Occupy Oakland regulars who returned to their tents in Oscar Gant Plaza for rest.  Several smaller groups continued to march in the city center.

Around 9 o’clock a group stormed and “occupied” a vacant building hanging a banner from a lit second story window.  The building was reportedly the former location of the Travelers’ Aid which ran programs for the homeless there until budget cuts ended their funding and they lost the building to foreclosure.  Ranks of heavily armed and armored police made their first appearance of the day and ordered the building vacated.  Most demonstrators removed themselves from the immediate area while a couple of hundred “militants” rallied “to the defense of the building.”  Violence erupted.  Police once again used teargas, pepper spray, flash bombs and those “non-lethal” projectile weapons that caused such injury on Monday.  TV news crews made much of scenes of a makes shift barricade in the street and footage of dumpsters raging with fire.  Windows in surrounding buildings were broken.  A sign by one such window proclaimed that the violence was not condoned by the Occupy Oakland Steering Committee.

There was at least one other clash between police and protestors at another intersection before things quieted down.  Many reports of these clashes from reliable participants indicate a wide spread belief that they were caused by police infiltrators.  Indeed police infiltrators had been photographed and identified earlier.

But the violence was not over for the night.  After midnight phalanxes of police surrounded Oscar Gant Plaza where most residents were asleep in their tents.  Loudspeakers announced that the Plaza would be cleared.  Warnings of the use of “chemical weapons” were issued.  Gas was thrown and flash bombs, but most residents refused to leave.  Several times they were given “five minutes” to disburse and police advanced menacingly to the edge of the encampment.  But they never entered the Plaza.  At the end of the confrontation, protestors held their ground.

There were several reported arrests in these night time confrontations and several injuries.  But I have so far seen no exact reports from either authorities or protestors.  Early in the evening a man and a woman were injured when an elderly man drove his Mercedes into a crowd blocking a street.  Both were taken away in ambulances.  Rumors swept the streets, later shown to be unfounded, than one of them had died.  Demonstrators surrounded the car police arrived and “rescued” the driver who was allowed to leave with no charges being filed on the scene.

It seems likely that another outbreak of police over-reaction will only increase the determination of Occupy Oakland participants and undoubtedly lead to more protests.

The actions yesterday and last night, whether or not they represented a true General Strike in the most technical use of the term, must be rung up as a great success for the movement.  The objectives of the day were achieved—shutting down business as usual in the city and in the Port of Oakland in particular.  A general commitment to militant non-violence was maintained through most of the day.  The clashes at night, in my opinion as a distant observer gleaning information from various sources, will probably be shown to be mostly the work of plants and provocateurs with the possible assistance of that minority of mindless street fighters who, whatever their intentions, so often do the bosses’ work.  

Most of all the Occupy Oakland General Strike may become a template for actions in other cities.  May it be so.

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