Live Updates from the Oakland General Strike

by Isaac Steiner

November 2, 2011

Image: Cristy C. Road

11:45 PM

Some Final Thoughts

Considering that most entries in this “live blog” experiment were mainly episodic or impressionistic, I’ll end the day with some thoughts on the significance of the day.

The general strike and national solidarity actions, built in under a week and with the severe deficit of practical knowledge in the tactic that’s to be expected after a drought of over sixty years, has to be judged a success. That said, it didn’t literally “shut the city down” — although there were glimpses of the possibility, especially in the case of some OUSD schools that reported near total absenteeism. In raw numbers, it didn’t match the giant “Immigrant Spring” of 2006.

But the impact of this day on political consciousness and sense of the possible, in the United States and internationally, is enormous. Two months ago, it was unthinkable that there would be an open-ended protest organized around class polarization encamped in downtown Oakland. One month ago, it was unthinkable that the infant Occupation would muster a General Assembly of 2,000 – much less overwhelmingly pass an ambitious call for a general strike. One week ago, it was unthinkable that this call would be met with success.

Like the Occupations themselves, the general strike did not necessarily need a clear demand to make its goal clear (there were, in fact, demands). It was about the right to assemble and practice the novel form of organization used at this stage of the movement – securing and defending the democratic right upon which greater rights can be won. That right has been secured. It would seem that the failure of New York City to clear Zucotti Park and the failure of Oakland to prevent the retaking of Oscar Grant Plaza are two major tactical blunders on the part of the ruling class. The potential to crush and demoralize the Occupations while they were in a relatively immature phase was lost.

The Occupy movement as a whole has won a tremendous victory in reframing politics in the United States – identifying (or maybe revealing and naming) an enemy for the millions to target; trumping small “interest group” political logic with the empowering framework of a working-class super-majority, and linking this political vocabulary with similar ruptures internationally, each of which have primarily targeted their own ruling class. The Oakland general strike has introduced a new element – acting on the special social power of the working class to stop production, rather than just our numerical strength.

It was also the most successful example yet of bridging the physical occupation site with a mobilization of its widespread support in the city. A common feature of most city square occupations and the Wisconsin State Capitol occupation in the Spring is a “fetishization” of the physical occupation as a utopian space – ignoring its role as a symbol, motor for broader social forces outside the occupation itself, and potential organizing center for those forces. The general strike balanced this dynamic – recognizing the irreplaceable political role of the occupation (at this point) while not sucking all activity into maintaining the occupation.

As a strategic orientation begins to develop, political differences will become more clear. Judging by some thing I’ve observed today and at other Occupations, these differences may initially sprout from tactics-elevated-to-strategy (like “pacifists” vs “antipacifists” – which both treat the use, or abstention from using, physical force as some kind of holy principle). A broad movement will have both present, will be led by neither, and would make tactical choices that include “property destruction” as a means to an end (for example, mass squatting or workplace occupation).

Occupy Oakland is also, by far, the most multiracial and multinational Occupy I’ve seen yet (although not representative of the working class of the city). There are surely lessons in how to advance beyond “representational” and symbolic approaches to building an anti-racist movement into truly linking with, incorporating and strengthening movements that are already taking up issues of institutional racism.

In the short term, the main task for Oakland will be evaluating the successes and weaknesses of the strike effort, bringing in new leaders, and identifying a medium-term strategy for expanding the Occupation movement in the city. For the time being, Oakland make take a leadership role nationally, in the way that New York has provided. Whatever happens, the terrain is much more favorable for our side than it was just a week ago.

8:10 PM

I’ve eaten my quesadilla and am back on the scene. Here’s what’s happening now. Pickets are still up at each terminal. Although crane operators have all gone home, the workday is not officially called off. Bike messengers travel between different points, using the people’s mic to give updates on the situation. As of now it’s basically a waiting game although the outcome seems certain.

I believe many protesters will then regroup, enjoy an obligatory dance party, and march back to Oscar Grant Plaza. I’m pretty exhausted and thinking of heading home to type up some final reflections and upload a gallery of higher quality images. It was a historic day, and tomorrow is more unknown (and more in our hands) than it has been in my lifetime.

Thanks for reading and many thanks to my friend and comrade Ryan for his commitment to format these notes into a readable format. Solidarity!

7:22 PM

Q: Where were you during the historic Oakland port shutdown?

Me: Ah, y’know, waiting in line at El Patron taco truck. They ran out of ingredients for bean burritos…

Hey, this is the “human touch” of social movements! If you’ve been to an occupation where the “people’s mic” has been used, you can probably imagine what happened here:

Mic check!
(Mic check!)

Tacos rule!
(Tacos rule!)

True story.

7:03 PM

It’s 7 PM–the moment of reckoning–and I’m still at #OccupyTacoTruck. Just heard some clapping off in the distance. A woman came to report that three scab (?) trucks are blocked in down the road, requesting permission to leave.

6:58 PM

Long lines at two taco trucks seem to be the only things moving at the port tonight.

6:41 PM

Now we’re at the point where it’s time to sit and wait. The brass band is playing lovely, appropriate music as the sun dips below the container cranes.

Of course it’s also the time to catch up on reports and rumors. Like, that we’re 20 to 40,000 strong…I believe it. There’s more back at the site and, I believe, some other parts of the city (but I could be wrong about that).

Elsewhere, there are rumors that Occupy San Francisco has blocked the Bay Bridge and I heard similar rumors earlier in the day about the Brooklyn Bridge. True? False? Either way these kind of word of mouth reports are a part of the experience. Rampant, conflicting rumors ran amok during the Wisconsin State Capitol occupation earlier this year. (I also had the “Forrest Gump” luck to be in Madison for that… what a year!)

Here at the port, production has been at 50% or lower due to a wildcat strike by rank and file port workers.

What a day! What a year! My new favorite sign: “We should do this more often”. No shit…

6:19 PM

The pickets at each port terminal are holding general assemblies to discuss how to move forward with a resolution passed earlier this week. The resolution called for reclaiming and occupying bank owned properties.

Also, we’ve heard that more of our people are still entering the port, one and a half hours later!

6:09 PM

Quick question: Would you want to shut down the Port of Oakland without a dance party grooving out to an anarchist marching band’s rendition of “Bella ciao”? I didn’t think so….Bella, ciao, ciao ciao!

I think reinforcements have arrived. Our reinforcements. No police in sight. This port is hella shut down!

6:00 PM

I believe there are pickets at each terminal entrance now, with a second wave of reinforcements that left downtown at 5 PM arriving within an hour. We need solid pickets in place by 7 PM when a union arbitrator will arrive to determine whether they constitute a “health and safety” hazard for the longshore workers reporting for their shift.

The ILWU has a contract clause which facilitates this loophole. Since the 1940s, federal labor law has prohibited “solidarity” or “political” strikes not related to negotiations with an employer, but the ILWU has kept alive a militant tradition of social movement unionism. In the past they’ve shut down the port in support of many causes, from saving Mumia Abu-Jamal to stopping the Iraq War. My guess is that this is probably the largest such action in a long time…by far.

Today the fifth largest port in the United States will be shut down during the first general strike in generations. The future is not written!

5:38 PM

Small groups have climbed on top of the container trucks, raising fists and flags.

I was wrong before; the port isn’t yet shut down. At least not the cranes, just the trucking section. We’ve now entered the area with the actual terminals after a rally at the entrance where Boots Riley shared our plan, using the people’s mic. We’re congregating at each terminal entrance to set up a picket, so the incoming shift of ILWU members can cease work.

Although my cell battery is low, I’ve been taking photos with a “real” camera that I’ll upload into a gallery of the port closure later tonight.

5:07 PM

We’re in the port! Loud, continuous honking from the port truckers, people hundreds of yards in front are approaching the cranes while the end of the march is still out of sight. It’s 5 PM and a second march from the plaza is scheduled to begin…

The Port of Oakland has been shut down!

5:02 PM

Many, many thousands filling the bridge to the port. It’s not possible to see the end…or the beginning.

4:54 PM

And a huge roar as we pass under the I-880 bridge, closing in on the port. “Whose city? Our city!”

4:42 PM

This is fantastic. We just passed an elementary school playground of children chanting “Occupy Oakland!”

4:39 PM

We’ve stopped right in the intersection of 14th and Market to reorganize a bit. Now, in honor of Scott Olsen, a group of veterans is in the lead, behind a banner that I can’t read.

Photo from the “Save Bradley Manning” Facebook page.

This may be the second time today where there’s been tension between groups about the route of an unpermitted march. The other was during the education march this morning. Both involved a contest between different ideological groups (I believe the anarchist Black Bloc was directing this one). To me, these scuffles seem like a waste of energy–save it for the important strategic divides around keeping the movement politically independent!

4:24 PM

In case anybody cares, they ran out of posters just as I reached the front. We’re now headed to the port (the first of two waves headed there). Several dozen cyclists are leading, in order to enter intersections and block cross traffic by circling around for a minute.

Behind them, thousands are marching and chanting, “Rise up, shut it down! Oakland is the people’s town,” and “The role of the police, is to serve and protect–not us, but the one percent.”

The pace is fairly quick. We’re on the bridge over an interstate that’s alive with honking horns of support.

3:49 PM

There are some really beautiful posters around. Right now I’m in one of the world’s three longest lines (the others are for the port-o-potties and hot dogs) to get one hot off the printing press that’s been set up in Oscar Grant plaza. Then, we’re off to the port to shut it down!

3:35 PM

The anti-capitalist march is now heading back to the main encampment. Its final “stop” was the large Bank of America office on Harrison Ave, which had been pretty much trashed by the time I arrived (whether recently or this morning I’m not sure). Of course this sparked the old debate on the merits of property destruction, familiar to anyone who was around the global justice movement of the 1990s (and many previous movements, but this was my own entry point). This is what I’d consider a tactical debate, but proponents of property destruction consider it some kind of strategic principle. For many in Oakland, there’s a clear moral dimension: the most common argument I heard was along the lines of “I was born, live, and will die in this city. You’ve been here three years and will probably move on. What gives you the right to destroy it?” (So much for ‘ igniting the masses,’ at least in this case.)

I feel that this type of property destruction is something that has to be defended from police and right-wing attacks but also argued against as a basically ineffective tactic. Rather than destroy their offices, why not instead take back the houses and workplaces they’ve seized?

2:49 PM

Several blocks north of city hall there’s another group of banks shuttered from the morning’s action. A couple have smashed windows, almost like a foreclosed house…

One highlight so far: as I was walking alongside the anti-capitalist march, I happened to walk next to two guys who might’ve been plain clothes cops. One says to the other, “How many do you think there are?” and, just as the other is about to answer we round a bend and see a huge mass of people. He says, “Oh shit. Jesus.”

Meanwhile, along with the impromptu scraper bikes, we have our own police force, wearing clown outfits, to direct traffic. Of course there are no permits here so there’s gotta be a system for that, right?

2:33 PM

I’m now on an anti-capitalist march of maybe a couple thousand. A contingent of anarchists, socialists, and communists with red flags are in the lead but it’s far larger and broader. Towards the front, you can smell vinegar-soaked handkerchiefs in case of tear gas, but it seems unlikely that we’ll need them (for now).

A colorful “Occupy the Banks” banner is suspended above Webster.

2:22 PM

Midday here in occupied Oakland was divided between a number of cultural activities: I saw one crowd listening to political speeches and announcements, a group listening to live music in the Oscar Grant amphitheater, and a dance line getting down to Michael Jackson.

There is no telling how many thousands of people are out here…but what’s glaringly obvious is the lack of cops, who have retreated (for now), no doubt to strategize on how to deal with this movement. I happened to be in Madison for much of the month-long upsurge there and the police, along with the state Democratic Party, effectively tamed some of its militancy through clever manipulation. Here, they will likely have a tougher time, not only due to the notorious recent assault on Oscar Grant plaza (word is, Scott Olsen has brain damage) but the lingering anger over the murder of Oscar Grant himself. Two years later, the paint can’t fully cover the “JUSTICE FOR OSCAR” slogans on walls around the city. I saw one that said something like “FREE MEHSERLE – SO HE CAN GET WHAT’S COMING.”

The left-liberal mayor Jean Quan is pretty thoroughly discredited as well. I’ve noticed many signs with calls for her resignation. I am unfamiliar with the full situation, but it appears complex; a bizarre letter from the OPD claiming “confusion” over her administration policy reflects a city in flux, but also the long-time animosity held by the extremely reactionary OPD toward Quan.

Banks update: All the big banks downtown are closed. Seems that most voluntarily obeyed the demand from Occupy Oakland, but an obstinate Wells Fargo branch remained open until 1:30. So, we walked over, surrounded the doors, and they closed. Protesters decorated it with chalk slogans.

A CitiBank was covered in educational material about the details of their theft from workers: low wages to their own tellers, the bail outs, tax cheating, and other tricks.

2:05 PM

Now the Wells Fargo is closed. Written on the walls in chalk: “DON’T FEED THE GREED,” “THEY SPONSOR DEFORESTATION,” and “THE 99% WON’T BACK DOWN”.

1:47 PM

A Comerica bank branch in downtown is closed for “an emergency.” In the window reflection you can see protesters rallying in front of Wells Fargo across the street to shut it down as well.

[Chalk reads “The American Autumn thanks the Arab Spring”]

12:46 PM

It’s a big festival in the city center. I broke off from the Laney College march to get a picture of the giant “Long Live The Oakland Commune” banner and it seems they’re headed north…I guess to meet up with the march from Cal?

Like any good party, I’m running into friends and comrades all over. Shout out to Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, International Socialist Organization, Advance the Struggle, and others I’m surely missing…

Gonna take a break and hunt down another electric outlet–check out the #OccupyOakland feed on twitter.

12:33 PM

As we approach OG plaza, the scraper bike brigade is directing traffic and closing intersections ahead. Well, there’s another reason the OPD is unnecessary…

12:27 PM

Chanting: “OPD’s got nothing on me, I’m a re-vo-lo-tion-ary!”

12:10 PM

I just ran into Tim, a teacher from Bridges Academy. He told me almost every teacher from his school joined support staff and parents in a three mile feeder march to Laney College!

The march is really spirited and high energy now…This being Oakland, a small contingent of scraper bikes is tagging alongside.

We’ve stopped for a rally on the steps of the Oakland Unified School District, chanting “Save our schools!” Last Wednesday, 800 students were evicted from the building protesting school closures–five so far this year, with 30 more on a list of proposed closures.

Can’t wait to get back downtown and see things converge!

[At the steps of the OUSD Building]

11:41 AM

A contingent from Alameda College just joined us! We’re listening to a rap song made by a Laney College student called “Chop from the Top” and chanting “No Cuts, No Fees, Education should be free!”

The president of the Oakland Education Association, a veteran of the movement against the Vietnam War, says she hasn’t felt this level of solidarity since then until now, adding “This is the beginning of a global movement against capitalism and imperialism!”

Checking Twitter and Facebook it looks like other things are going on throughout the city. The march from UC Berkeley just took Telegraph Avenue on its way to Occupy Oakland’s Oscar Grant plaza. There’s also, of course, the various flying pickets at banks and feeder marches. It seems we’ll rally here until classes let out, then meet more students to bring the march back to OG plaza.

But for now, it’s time to take a break, charge my cell phone, and enjoy some pan dulce…

[Later that day, a children’s contingent marched, chanting “Play Fair, Learn to Share!”]

11:31 AM

Not being from Oakland, I got a little lost but eventually found an Oakland Educators Association contingent (about 50 or so) headed to Laney, a nearby community college. The school board is threatening five school closures!

Now at Laney College where a multiracial crowd is listening to speakers…Apparently a Dia de los Muertos event will be happening at noon when we head back to Oscar Grant plaza.

I also heard an announcement that the downtown Wells Fargo location was just closed down after being met with crowds chanting “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!”

11:07 AM

At the “March for Public Education,” teachers are chanting “We Are, We Teach, The 99 Percent!”

10:57 AM

Clarence Thomas (our Clarence Thomas, from the ILWU longshore union, not the Supreme Court Judge) just addressed the crowd, calling for a picket that will close the Port of Oakland this evening. He’s telling us, “you have made history. Never before in this country have people mobilized for a general strike in just one week.” And it’s true–although the numbers aren’t yet overwhelming, downtown is fairly shut down for several blocks (many businesses have closed in solidarity). There’s lessons to be learned, but not bad for one week.

He’s reminding us youngsters that the big and militant California student movement to defend public education, of a few years back, is partially responsible for this momentum (the slogan “occupy everything, demand nothing”–which I hated then–originated with a wing of that struggle).

A good segue to head over to Laney College and check out the education march…

[Sign reads “Closed in Solidarity”]

10:44 AM

Another local rapper, Mistah Fab, says he’s out representing “the 99% of the youth” who get profiled as criminals on their way to school because of the clothes they wear. Recalling the biblical Tower of Babel parable, he says “the system has set it up so can’t speak the same language and work together”. But, reporting on occupations in other cities he’s seen while on tour, he says that’s starting to change. He kept up with Oakland via Davey D’s tweets – cool!

“We’re not here to destroy Oakland. I love Oakland!”

10:34 AM

This is a very, very “Oakland” general strike. Marchers headed away from the main intersection chanting “This system is gonna die, hella hella Occupy!” while Boots Riley from The Coup (probably one of the more influential individuals in my own radicalization) prepares to take the mic.

[This sign features a quote from Lenin: “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”]

10:27 AM

More pictures from the march…

10:15 AM

Like OWS has set up the “Occupied Wall Street Journal,” I’ve seen an “Occupied Oakland Tribune” broadsheet in a few people’s hands but haven’t located the distribution point yet to pick up a copy.

It’s just past 10 AM and the crowd is splitting in two. One march is heading down Broadway for actions on the banks while a second march will be gathering at Laney College to demonstrate for public education (this is what I’ll probably attend).

9:59 AM

SEIU 1021, a local representing 50,000 workers, has urged members in Oakland to join the day of action.

9:53 AM

Pablo Parades from the group 67 Sueños is speaking now about a Saturday action led by undocumented youth standing up to Wells Fargo, “to tell them you can no longer profit from our detention, deportation and separation of our families.” 67 Sueños, like the “99 PERCENT” slogan, stands for the majority of undocumented youth who would not have benefited from the DREAM Act.

The next speaker is reading a resolution in support of squatting empty homes and community centers. “Occupy everything, long live the Oakland Commune!”

9:45 AM

The crowd gathers before the first march of the day.

9:32 AM

Next to the press conference and rally, the park is filled with people preparing for today’s activities: literature tables of radical and socialist organizations, dress rehearsals for street theater and flash mobs, and an informal James Brown dance party. As in other locations, the occupation includes sites for childcare and food distribution, a lending library, and other services for the tent city residents.

9:24 AM

Following a moment of silence to recognize Frank Ogawa, Oscar Grant, Scott Olsen and all victims of injustice, Angela Davis is addressing the growing crowd (around 1,000 at 9:20).

9:15 AM

We’re passing the Port of Oakland, where a picket to shut down all container traffic is planned for this evening. Now more and more of the other passengers boarding the train are discussing the strike and today’s agenda of events.

9:10 AM

I’m boarding the BART train to Oakland City Hall, ground zero for events related to today’s general strike. As luck would have it, the trip I planned to visit my brother in SF for the first time in six years coincided with the first U.S. general strike in six decades (the last, also in Oakland, opened the city’s department stores to unionization).

This time, the spark was widespread outrage over a brutal police eviction of Occupy Oakland that sent hundreds to jail and put US Marine Scott Olsen in the hospital. In a tragic irony, the occupiers had named their park in memorial to Oscar Grant, a young Black father murdered by a shot in the back.

Of course this strike was also called in under far different circumstances. In the 1940s, organized labor was riding a 12 year wave of increasing strength. Today, the routing of unions, public education, and social services has weakened our strength and confidence. Until now.

In a discussion with a friend last night, we identified the multi-city and international character of Occupy as a key dynamic. In each city, protesters are buoyed by an awareness of similar demonstrations around the country. They can’t shut us ALL down. Indeed, for now each attempt to clear the occupations has only made them stronger.

Less well recognized in many cases is the hidden power of broad public support and identification with occupations. Actions like this strike call are an important new step in mobilizing that power.

The train just surfaced from beneath the Bay tunnel and entered Oakland. I’m getting excited…

* * *

All photos by Isaac unless noted otherwise.


4 responses to “Live Updates from the Oakland General Strike”

  1. Laura Price Avatar
    Laura Price

    amazing photos and commentary – thanks Isaac!

  2. Caitie Avatar

    Loving these updates!

  3. Matt Avatar

    Thanks you for sharing this day with all of us who are there in spirit Isaac. You know things are happening when we start making new reference points of our own.

  4. Dana Morace Avatar
    Dana Morace

    I am the North Carolina 99% and stand in total solidarity with you in Oakland! I would be there in person if I were able!