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Victory in Oakland buoys Occupy movement

Published Nov 9, 2011 11:32 PM

'Shut it down!' Oakland, Nov. 2.
WW photo: Bill Bowers

The call by Occupy Oakland for a general strike on Nov. 2 came after police from agencies across Alameda County brutally assaulted people trying to return to their encampment on Oct. 25 at Frank Ogawa Plaza (renamed Oscar Grant Plaza) after police had ousted them and ransacked their belongings.

Videos show what resembled a war zone as police attacked demonstrators with pepper gas, “flash-bang” grenades and disabling projectiles. A 24-year-old Marine veteran, Scott Olsen, was severely injured when a projectile launched by police hit him in the face. Dozens of people were arrested and injured and more than 500 cops from 12 different police agencies were involved.

The call for a general strike on Nov. 2 was a bold move.

The attempt to crack down on the occupation in Oakland was not an isolated event. Similar actions by police have occurred in Washington state, Denver, Atlanta and elsewhere.

Each time the state has stepped in, the movement has grown larger and attracted more attention. Its primary target, as evidenced by Occupy Wall Street, has been the banks and financial institutions and the wealthy. Each attack has made it ever clearer that the fundamental function of the state apparatus is to protect the interests of the ruling elite.

The Oakland General Strike came at this juncture.

Even four months earlier, it would have seemed impossible to launch a large action in a week’s time. When the South Central Federation of Labor in Wisconsin, which represented 45,000 workers, endorsed a call for a general strike last winter in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to curtail collective bargaining, labor, progressives and revolutionaries held their collective breath. A tremendous uprising was underway in Wisconsin, but labor leaders did not heed the call.

But in Oakland, the occupation movement, spurred by the police attack and the lies emanating from city politicians, wasted no time. The proposal for a general strike, made by Marxist and cultural artist Boots Riley of the rap group The Coup, was supported by more than 90 percent of the General Assembly in Oakland. Support poured in from around the country. A national call was put out by Bayan USA, Bail Out the People Movement, and other groups and individuals.

Day of the strike

This writer was able to participate in the general strike action. The call was ultimately supported by the Oakland Education Association, California Nurses Association, members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, Service Employees Local 1021, United Auto Workers Local 2865, United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 713, who voted to go on strike, and the marine division of the ILWU, the Inlandboatmen’s Union.

City workers were allowed to take the day off.

Starting at 9 a.m. people began amassing at Oscar Grant Plaza and from there marched to downtown banks. They forced Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Chase to close. Young people tied a banner that read “Death to Capitalism” between two lamp poles.

No police were in sight. Though police agencies across Alameda County were put on alert and fully mobilized, they were not a visual presence as young people took streets, sealed off bank doors with caution tape, taped eviction posters to their doors and banged on the windows while chanting.

The noise was deafening. It is estimated that at least 50,000 people took part in numerous protests that wound through the streets of downtown Oakland. The activists directed traffic and ultimately ended up at the port of Oakland — the fifth-busiest port in the country. Earlier, a march explicitly against capitalism included as many as 5,000 students, children, teachers and homeless in a multinational crowd.

The march to the port began to assemble at 4 p.m. Several busloads of people were also driven the two-plus miles to the port. Earlier in the day, the port operated at 50 percent capacity, with at least one-third of the jobs unclaimed. Because many high-skilled positions weren’t filled, whole crews were idled.

Three groups of marchers left from downtown Oakland between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Still there was no visible police presence other than helicopters. It was later revealed that there were plainclothes police in the crowd, but no cruisers or uniform cops on motorcycles, bikes, horses or foot could be seen.

As the march neared the docks, it became clear how large it was. Tens of thousands were participating to stop the unloading and loading of ships by the night shift.

No trucks were allowed to leave. Barricades were erected and protesters blocked trucks with their bodies, asking the drivers for solidarity. In every case the trucks turned back.

Protesters blocked every gate and waited until nightfall, when an arbitrator was supposed to come and determine whether or not the workers could “safely” cross the picket lines at each gate. The thousands who marched on the port remained, sitting on cold concrete or standing, talking politics, getting acquainted with one another. The mood was electric.

ILWU Local 10 has a history of dynamic action, going back to one of its founders and leaders, Harry Bridges, who helped lead the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 that ended with all the ports on the West Coast being unionized. ILWU Local 10 has led solidarity actions against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, against apartheid in South Africa and in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. ILWU Local 21 is currently leading a valiant effort against EGT grain terminal in Longview, Wash.

Demonstrators waited as the start of the shift was moved from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Finally, word of the shift being canceled was greeted by cheers. The marching band that had participated in all the day’s actions continued to play, energizing the crowd.

Marchers began leaving the port, stopping to talk to people at the barricades. It was under an overpass, just off the docks, that the first police cars were spotted: rows of them from Oakland, California Highway Patrol and other agencies.

Some people remained to make sure no trucks left to deliver their cargo. Later in the evening a group of a few hundred tried to take over a building and were met with police violence. Again, a thick cloud of pepper gas wafted over downtown as cops battled the protesters who had chosen a more confrontational action.

The day was a success and has inspired other calls for general strikes around the country.

Consciousness is indeed deepening. The crisis is not going away.

Now is a time for boldness and action. The Oakland General Strike proves that much is possible and can be achieved.

This is a time when revolutionary ideology is needed more than ever. The fundamental contradiction is between the oppressed and working class, on the one hand, and the ruling wealthy class and their system, on the other. The only way to end the increasing misery is to do away with this capitalist system and build socialism.