The Roots and Struggles of Occupy Oakland

Occupy Oakland is calling for no work and no school on November 2 as part of the general strike. We are asking that all workers go on strike, call in sick, take a vacation day or simply walk off the job with their co-workers. We are also asking that all students walk out of school and join workers and community members in downtown Oakland. All banks and large corporations must close down for the day or demonstrators will march on them…

Occupy Oakland

SCHEDULE FOR NOVEMBER 2nd:
Note: all events start at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant (OG) Plaza at City Hall unless otherwise noted (e.g. children’s events).

Morning
9am - Rally & Press Conference
9:55am - "I Will Survive...Capitalism" flashmob - (join us! http://on.fb.me/sOsdFb)
10am - March and Bank Actions/Mobilization
11 am – Rally at Laney College, March to OUSD and then to OG Plaza*

Afternoon
12 noon – Children’s Gathering @ Oakland Public Library (main branch) and march to OG plaza
12 noon - Rally & Press Conference
12-2pm – Lunch served by the People's Grocery, Farm to Table, Food First and others
12:30 pm- Bank Actions/Mobilization (note – different targets than 9am)
2pm – Disability & Seniors Action Brigade – short march, sit-in, teach-in (meet @ north/rt side of cityhall)*
3pm - Family Bike/Stroller Brigade, starts @ Oakland Public Library (main branch)*

Evening
5pm - Rally & LABOR COOK-OUT
5:30pm – Disability & Seniors Action Brigade – transport to Port of Oakland*
7pm- Action to shut down PORT of Oakland (march leaves Plaza around 5pm)

Last week, a resolution declaring a citywide general strike was overwhelmingly approved by a vote of thousands at Occupy Oakland. This ambitious decision was reached after demonstrators had retaken Oscar Grant Plaza from the police. The night before, riot police armed with flash grenades and tear gas cleared the park, firing on protestors and sending young Iraq veteran Scott Olsen to the hospital with a fractured skull. The call for a strike reflects not only a political defense of free speech and assembly without repression, but an effort to demonstrate and test the strength of connections between the Occupation, organized labor, and the whole working class in the city.

Occupy Oakland and the Roots of Bay Area Radicalism

The broad context for the developments in Oakland reflects the massive national and international Occupy movement that emerged last September in New York and spread rapidly to hundreds of other locations. But Oakland's militancy has roots in post-war radicalism in the East Bay Area (and of course the long militancy in San Francisco as well). It is impossible to discuss the recent developments in Oakland, including the police repression of the Occupy protest and the reverberations of a call for a general strike, without linking it to the earlier labor radicalism of the 1930s and 40s, the student militancy of the 1960s, and recent student protests in defense of public education.

All of this is anchored in the rise of a combatant, and even revolutionary, consciousness in most of the African-American community. This consciousness is not only linked to the emergence of the Black Panther Party, but inspired greater labor militancy and the development of a left-liberal/social democratic current in the local Democratic political establishment. In recent years, the emergence of a very active Latino-led immigrant rights movement and currents of feminist/LGBT activists gives some more explanation for the Bay Area's exceptionalism and political culture.

This is not to say, however, that the recent encampment is primarily due to this history; many participants probably are not fully aware of it. The immediate origins of Occupy Oakland began with alienation and anger generated by the systemic capitalist crisis, both the recent financial breakdown and longer-term deindustrialization, which heavily hit the working class here. Especially among the youth, there is a deep sense of disenchantment with our whole commodity culture.

Occupy Oakland formally began on October 10th, after a week of planning meetings which drew around 80-100 people per night. The initial encampment included roughly that number (mainly young people), and was supported by a kickoff rally which numbered around 800. Its location was at Frank Ogawa Plaza (ironically named for a local politician whose family had been sent to the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II), right in front of Oakland City Hall. The plaza was soon renamed for Oscar Grant, the Black youth who had been murdered in Oakland by the BART transit police in 2010. A large banner also proclaimed the area as the Oakland Commune.

Soon the number of participants grew to well over 200, in part because this location was also a refuge for many homeless people. Although it was only fitting that such an encampment would include the most displaced, this proved to be a source of tension with the political and business establishment. As time has passed, the homeless have been increasingly integrated into the encampment. Occupy Oakland developed the same infrastructure of many of the larger Occupy actions, including a child center, a library, a kitchen and of course, a medical tent. On some levels, it was a model for communal values. There were general assemblies every night.

Connections with the Labor Movement

While all this was occurring in the park itself, many community and labor forces were attempting to build support. This included my own union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), which provided the port-a-potties and publicized Occupy Oakland in our work (one of our members was in the encampment for the first week). In addition, there was a “Jobs Not Cuts” march the October 15th (the first Saturday) from Laney College to the Plaza. While this march was planned before the emergence of Occupy Oakland by a coalition headed by MoveOn and the Alameda and San Francisco Central Labor Councils, it clearly intended to show support for Occupy Oakland. There was tension around the presence of Democrats – including Mayor Quan speaking at the front end rally – but the march generally helped show solidarity. It numbered again around 800, with Danny Glover as a principal speaker.

The potential for conflict with the city began to sharpen as the local press denounced “unsafe and dangerous conditions”, and an eviction notice was sent on Thursday, October 20th. In response, there was a march of over one thousand people on Saturday, October 22. Following the demonstration, representatives of key unions (the OEA, ILWU, IBT, SEIU 1021, and others) held a meeting with the mayor and one of her aides who’d been a former head of the Alameda Central Labor Council. At that meeting, the labor representatives stated their support for the Occupation and willingness to help protect the encampment; many believed that they had reached some common ground with the mayor. At the same time, the internal situation in Occupy Oakland was improving and getting more functional.

City of Oakland Cracks Down

This brings us to the events of the last week. Comrades in Solidarity had/have been present in Occupy Oakland, including at GAs (and in Occupy SF, where one of our comrades is participating) and have played an important role in the labor solidarity work. Nonetheless, we (and many others) were somewhat surprised with the rapidity and massiveness of the eviction/arrest action on Tuesday morning, which included police from 20 jurisdictions throughout California (as well as the California Highway Patrol). This parallels the mobilization of gendarmes for the Oscar Grant protests, where in one case 30 police departments were represented. One cannot overstate the impact of the Oscar Grant actions over the last two years on the consciousness of many of the youth involved in Occupy Oakland; the rebellions this outrage engendered are and will be a point of reference for activists for the foreseeable future (one good summary of this struggle comes from Advance the Struggle).

Mass anger at the eviction was amplified by its viciousness in trashing the tents and whole main encampment as well as a second satellite camp. The Alameda Central Labor Council called for an emergency picket on Tuesday and released a statement the next day, saying that Mayor Quan and the City Council “are on the wrong side of history”.

The political establishment was thrown into disarray: the mayor was away (in DC, actually seeking more funds for the police) even while she faced the initiation of a recall campaign, based on the charge that she was soft on “law & order”. While it may be that she was “blindsided” and that pressure may have come from above (including Homeland Security), her responsibility, especially as a former activist in the left, is undeniable. Her inability to “choose sides” only makes her current denials and requests for "working together" more pathetic.

Outrage spread throughout the whole East Bay and a rally was called for 4pm the following day at Oakland’s Main Library, followed by a march to City Hall where police began to harass/attack activists along the route. Despite this, there was no massive trashing of stores (as with the Oscar Grant protests) or any action that could be construed as provocative (outside of a few fires in trash receptacles). At just after 8pm, the police forces launched their assault with flash grenades, tear gas, and, we strongly believe, rubber bullets – which the OPD used against protestors in a 2003 antiwar action at the Port. More arrests brought the total to well over one hundred. During this assault, Veterans for Peace member Scott Olsen was hit in the head with a tear gas canister and critically wounded.

From Oscar Grant Plaza, the call for a General Strike

The next day, we retook the plaza, swept away the police fencing, and held a mass meeting of over 3000. Later, with over 1,500 activists still present, a vote was taken to call a general strike for Wednesday, November 2nd (1,484 voted in favor). Since then there have been ongoing meetings to attempt to implement this plan. Several unions have passed statements of support such as the Carpenters and the Oakland and Berkeley Federation of Teachers. The OEA is actively organizing to get major participation of our members; some schools will be completely out and most others will have majorities taking personal days. We are also seeking to link up with militant students to have a unified presence (This occurs while we are also in battle against significant school closures).

Critically important, the ILWU will likely shut the Port of Oakland, as they have done many times in solidarity with death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Palestinian movement, and opposition to wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. There will be a march to the Port, as well as actions at key banks. We are hoping other important unions like CNA, HERE 2850 and SEIU 1021 will play an active role. The CLC will have an activity although predictably they do not advocate a “strike” but mass support. Nonetheless, the boldness of the call and the seriousness of the discussion reflect a totally altered frame of action for both organized labor and the community. Hopefully, this will include more dialogue with those in Occupy Oakland, who must also consider where this movement is headed.

Finally, it is clear that this mass mobilization is a catalyst for further actions in the near future. Not only have a significant number of occupiers returned to the Plaza, but there are new plans for an Occupy UC to begin on November 9th. Mass actions are planned at the UC Regents meeting on the 16th. A variety of other activities targeting the banks, taxing the rich, and defending social security are all in the works. We are emboldened by solidarity actions from NYC to Cairo. These are historic times.

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