The Port Shut-Down, Occupy, and Decision-making

by Barry Eidlin

December 16, 2011

With a few days to think through Monday’s West Coast Port Shutdown, I would say that the action was successful overall, although not as inspiring as the November 2 action (a high bar, admittedly). I was there in the evening, and the mood was good. I got to hear ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman’s message of solidarity, which was heartening, although it still leaves unresolved the issue of how Occupy can and should relate to labor. But that is for another post.

My main concern here has to do with the decision-making process I saw unfold in the course of the GA at the port. For me it was a rather jarring object lesson in the tyranny of structurelessness (for more on that, see Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structureless). On the outside it seemed as if the GA was an open-ended forum where all viewpoints could be heard. In reality, the assembly was clearly designed to ratify a decision already made by an unknown group of people to “extend the blockade” to the 3 am shift.

By the time the GA was convened there was probably around 1,000 people around, maybe more. We were told as we gathered towards the stage (conveniently set back in an area surrounded on three sides by tall fences, perfect for kettling, incidentally) that the GA was to decide on “what to do next,” but it quickly became clear that the question of “what to do next” concretely meant “whether or not to extend the blockade to the 3 am shift.” Nobody knew where that idea had emanated from, but whoever came up with it clearly set the agenda for the entire discussion. After a bit of milling about, the word went out that we were to find/create groups of 10-15 people to discuss the proposal. We were given ten minutes, with no mechanism provided for reporting back or in any way assuring that the information discussed in our group would get transmitted beyond the group.

In my group, we went around with first-name introductions and got down to the business of discussing the proposal. As we were going around, it was clear that many people in our group had questions about or problems with the proposal. Many had already been there for a long time, and had not prepared to stick around for several more hours. Several people raised questions as to what extending the blockade through the night would accomplish beyond what had already been accomplished that day (we all agreed that it had been a success in showing the Occupy was very much still a vibrant presence). Others began to discuss the merits of extending the blockade, whether this would cause real economic damage or just be symbolic, etc. But, just as we were starting to really assess the merits of the proposal, were were told to reconvene, and people moved through the crowd making a lot of noise so that we could no longer continue our conversations even if we had wanted to. I’m not sure how long our group discussion lasted, but I’m pretty sure it was less than ten minutes.

Once the larger discussion began, it was clear that the decision had been made. People on the stage invoked acts of police violence against protesters in Houston and San Diego, which apparently triggered a provision decided on at a previous GA that any police violence would be met with escalation. It was unclear who from that previous GA was at this GA, or how widely the decision made at that GA was known among those who were at the port GA. It was also unclear what exactly was meant by “escalation,” but those speaking from the front clearly interpreted it to mean extending the blockade to the 3 am shift.

Around this time the crowd began to thin out considerably. I left, along with most of the people I was with. I certainly didn’t need to stick around to know what was going to happen though. It was clear that the blockade would be extended. I didn’t hear any voices in formal opposition speak during the GA. Given the tone of the statements being made, I imagine that any of the thoughtful considerations or questions that people in our small group were weighing would have been denounced as an expression of retreat, an unwillingness to fight. I can’t be sure of that. What I am sure of is that many people spoke with their feet, and just left.

Fortunately, it seems that enough people stuck around to keep each other safe, and that we were able to continue the port shutdown without anybody getting hurt and/or arrested. So perhaps we can consider the extension a success. Nonetheless, for me the experience left a bitter taste in my mouth.

We can debate the tactical merits of extending the blockade. Personally, I think it was ill advised. We had already successfully shut down the port for the entire day. We had had a spirited march from Oscar Grant Plaza down to the port, where people reached out to community members and had plenty of discussions with workers directly affected by the port shutdown. We had received word that our comrades at other ports up and down the West Coast had succeeded in at least partially shutting down their ports. We had received messages of solidarity from unions and community groups. We had dominated the media coverage for the day, with much of the coverage at least neutral, or at least not completely negative (say what you will about the corporate media, but I’m pretty excited to be part of a movement that it can’t simply ignore). We had participated in a festive celebration with thousands of people down at the port, complete with live bands. It seemed to me and many around me that we could have easily declared victory, gone home, and begun planning our next move, according to what had been the announced plans.

It is unclear what was gained by sticking around for a few more hours. To be sure, as several people mentioned at the GA, the shipping companies rearranged their delivery schedules in anticipation of the blockade, so it is likely that there was some excess inventory that they were expecting to clear out over the course of the 3 am shift. But the idea that this extra few hours spent blockading the ports somehow inflicted extra economic punishment on the shipping companies simply strains the bounds of credulity. Indeed, the idea that the coast-wide blockade in its entirety somehow inflicted meaningful economic damage on the shipping companies strains the bounds of credulity. These companies build into their financial models delays and disruptions far greater than a one-day shipping blockade. For them, the blockade was just an everyday cost of doing business.

While insignificant from an economic perspective, it was clear to me that the entire coast-wide port blockade was extremely valuable at a symbolic level. With numerous Occupy movements evicted from their encampments, it was vitally important to have the action as a means of showing the movement’s continued vitality and ability to mobilize, which it certainly did. It was also important to have the action as a means of continuing to build the sense of community that keeps the movement going. I’m not sure that any of these very real symbolic benefits were advanced by extending the blockade. To the contrary, by turning what could have been a mass “cap-off” march into a slow trickle of people strolling back to their cars and the BART station in small groups, the decision to extend the action in Oakland may have detracted from this unifying effect.

But, as I said, we can debate these tactical merits. I can certainly appreciate the point of view of those who stayed, and I am glad that those who did decide to stay were successful in doing what they set out to do. My concern is with the decision-making process that led to the decision of that smaller group to stay. Tactical considerations aside, I had no problem with that group deciding to stay and continue the blockade. But to portray the process that led to that decision as somehow “open,” “non-hierarchical,” and “democratic,” let alone as an example of some sort of pre-figurative politics, is to engage in self-delusion. By framing the questions up for discussion and setting the agenda, an unidentified but clearly organized group was able to control the proceedings from start to finish, and obtain precisely the outcome they desired before the assembly even began. That there was no recognized leader and no established hierarchy at the meeting did not change the fact that there was a very clear, if unacknowledged, leadership hierarchy at work in the planning and execution of this General Assembly.

I appreciate that this sense of pre-determination and unacknowledged hierarchy may have been at least in part due to the sheer size of the meeting. I have certainly participated in smaller consensus-based decision-making groups where these dynamics were much less evident. I am also willing to concede that it may have been in part due to the special urgency of the decision at hand. But I am concerned that it may be indicative of a broader trend within the Occupy movement. This is not the only time I have personally encountered such a decision-making process, and I have heard similar concerns voiced by other fellow comrades.

For now, I am willing to withhold judgment and simply appreciate the gains that we have achieved as the Occupy movement in just a few short months. None of what we are now witnessing would have been conceivable even this past summer, and the transformation in the political climate has been nothing short of amazing. That said, the apparent lack of accountability and transparency in the movement’s decision-making structure remains a real source of concern for me, and is something worth discussing as we continue to build this movement in the months ahead.

Barry Eidlin is a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley, and a rank and file member of UAW Local 2865.

The Real News reports on the December 12th West Coast actions.


One response to “The Port Shut-Down, Occupy, and Decision-making”

  1. Mark Lause Avatar
    Mark Lause

    I think this hits the nail directly on the head: “the apparent lack of accountability and transparency in the movement’s decision-making structure remains a real source of concern for me, and is something worth discussing as we continue to build this movement in the months ahead.”

    From roughly a thousand we had in the intial action here, Occupy Cincinnati has winnowed itself to a sincere but tiny coterie of people, capable of mounting episodic small but spirited residue for rallies, etc. The issue here isn’t who has the biggest pom-poms and can posture most noisily but how we can reverse this trend and make the movement as big and powerful as we can.

    I’ve repeatedly argued that we need a serious strategic discussion, but there seems to be remarkably little interest. Even the members of local socialist groups have rather shrugged this off as part of what they see as an innately unstructured movement. However, as with the old SDS, an ideology of structureless doens’t mean there aren’t a range of structures and assumptions. It just means that we’re pretending that we have a consensus that places them beyond discussion. We don’t.

    The group schedules five meetings a week–three GAs and two for committees–and this does not count optional meetings on the weekends. Any one of these may make–and has made–major decisions, like that to reoccupy a park and which park to occupy, which relates directly to how many arrests will take place and how much of time and attention defense work may demand. There are no clear agendas posted or announced beforehand (or afterwards). Democracy isn’t measured by the number of meetings but by their quality, transparency, and participation.

    Regardless of anyone’s intentions, almost nobody with a job or a family or responsibilities of any other sort is going attend these, the few excpetion being those who work or see themselves as professional activist. Again, regardless of intentions, this approach reduces what should be a large and growing movement trying to reach out and engage as much of the 99% as it can to rather small circles of people who, for one reason or another, have the spare time to do this but dont’ have the numbers to constitute more than a brief bit of filler in the local news, when the media’s bored covering local scandals.

    Two things we could do RIGHT NOW that would improve our prospects of building a movement habitable by the very peoples we MUST involve. First, there needs to be transparancy with real agendas, reports, and priorities. Second, the number of meetings must be commeasurate with what we are actually doing or going to do. In the grand strategic sense, we have to measure our successes and failures first and foremost with how well we are able to engage and mobilize as much of that 99% as we can get.