On November 2, Oakland saw one of the biggest demonstrations in years with different sectors of the working class coming together to make their voices heard and successfully shutting down one of the biggest ports in the United States. It was a clear indication that the U.S. workers are reaching the limit of what they can take. However, the media did very little to report on these actions; instead it focused on the graffiti, smashed windows and confrontations with the police that involved a small minority, a small and unaccountable group at its fringes. This is a blatant attempt to demonize the movement and to present a violent image of it as a movement headed by anarchists and ruffians.
The city of Oakland, California, has become a glittering focal point for the national occupy movement, setting a new precedent for the struggle by launching a hugely popular call for a general strike which paralyzed the downtown economy, halted the Port of Oakland’s operations, and brought an estimated 30,000 people into the streets. This experience has deeply affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and youth living in the San Francisco Bay Area, from the discussions going on at all the campuses, workplaces, union halls and Occupy camps, to the flood of media coverage and the reaction of public officials at all levels of government.
Early on the morning of November 2nd, protesters began to fill the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway. Banners were hung all around the intersection and around the Occupy camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza. Some of the banners included slogans such as “Death to Capitalism,” “Occupy everything,” and of course the slogan of “General Strike!” By 11:00 am, the intersection was packed. The Occupy camp was buzzing with the frenzy of activity. As more people began to arrive, demonstrators started rallying in the plaza’s amphitheater.
By noon, several marches were happening in downtown Oakland. A large march composed mainly of students, with a big contingent from Laney College, proceeded toward the city center. Another march made its way up Franklin St. towards the banks in Lakeside. Yet another march headed toward the State building. It seemed that for the first half of the day marches were just coming out of everywhere as people saw other people join the demonstration and contingents joined the main rally at 14th and Broadway. The mood was nothing less than electrifying.
Reflecting the various elements that have sprung up and played a part in the Occupy movement from the beginning, all shades of political activists were present, although the vast majority of the demonstration was composed of ordinary working people and youth who had probably never felt the need to participate in these kinds of political events until now. Also present were large numbers of trade unionists including from the Teamsters Local 70, SEIU Local 1021, the longshoremen from ILWU Local 10, UNITE-HERE, California Nurses Association, California Teachers Association, the Oakland Education Association, and the UAW among many others, each of them carrying their respective union banners. There were many protesters carrying the typical picket sign in support of the 99% but you also had many with picket signs displaying slogans with a clear working class character.
At around 3:30 people with megaphones zigzagged through the plaza and the intersection rallying everybody to head to the Port of Oakland. That day, many long shore workers had not shown up for their shifts, but the port remained open. The intent of this march was to close down the port entirely for the evening shifts. A large contingent from the OEA met those rallying from the march shouting the slogan, “We are the 99%! We teach the 99%!” After that the march headed down 14th Street toward the port. As the march progressed through the streets, people came out of their homes with signs of support. All the businesses in the downtown area and along the course of the march were closed for the day, from the small shops and convenience stores to the large banks and chain stores like Walgreens, Subway, McDonalds, KFC and many others. As the march passed underneath the tracks of BART, train drivers honked their horns in a show of solidarity. Everywhere we turned there were shows of support for this event. It was awesome.
As the march reached the port, picket lines of a few hundred people were set up at every entry point. Occupy-style General Assemblies with “people’s mikes” were held. This effectively led to the port being shut down for two entire shifts. A long line of freight trucks stood by idly as the port remained closed with some drivers even moving their trucks to block the road leading toward the port. Jubilant protesters climbed on top of the trucks in celebration. One protester shouted, “this is a historic day! We’ve showed them the power that we have!” Throughout the march to the occupation of the port there was not a single incident of violence. The police remained almost completely absent. This was in stark contrast to what had happened only a week ago.
Upon returning to the Occupy camp there was a carnival-like atmosphere. Some people played music while others engaged in discussions about what the movement had accomplished and how it could go forward. Others waited in line for food that was provided by the Occupy camp and the Alameda Central Labor Council. Although the city was not 100% shut down, everyone felt that what the movement had set out to do that day had been accomplished.
However, the day had not passed entirely without incident. Earlier that day the word “strike” had been graffitied over a Whole Foods grocery store. The windows of Bank of America and other banks had been shattered and were also sprayed with graffiti. After the successful shutdown of the port, more of these actions took place. At around 11:00pm a small group walked around the Occupy camp shouting that they were about to take a building.
The building in question was about a block away from the camp itself. The original intent of the occupation of this vacant building was to set it up as a community center for the Occupy movement. However, once the occupation took place the building was vandalized. Shortly after, Oakland police began setting up their lines along San Pablo Avenue and Telegraph Street. Protesters responded by setting up barricades with wooden pallets and trash cans. As police lines moved in closer to the occupied building, the barricades were set on fire. This action prompted the police to move in swiftly on the building. After that, the police moved in within a few feet of the Occupy camp and had blocked off Broadway Street completely. It was not long before police began firing tear gas and launching flash-bang grenades to disperse the crowd surrounding the building.
The confrontations with the police lasted until 4:00am. During that time many buildings surrounding the Occupy camp had been graffitied and their windows had been smashed. By the end of the night, over 100 people had been arrested. Many others had been tear-gassed and fired upon with rubber bullets. This included protesters who were not even involved in the occupation or in the acts of vandalism that took place.
The call for a general strike brought out many supporters to the Occupy movement. Students, trade unionists and different sections of the working class came out on that day to make their voices heard. However, we must recognize that what transpired on that day in Oakland was not a general strike as such. But it represented a significant show of force by part of the working class and was probably the largest demonstration that Oakland has seen since the immigrant workers’ movement march of May 1, 2006. The demonstration in Oakland has awakened the class instincts of many workers. It has given a face and a mass character to the slogan “We are the 99%!” It has demonstrated that workers and youth who have been under constant attack by the capitalist class have now gotten up the courage to start to fight back. It is a sentiment that is popular among all working people in Oakland and the entire Bay Area.
The shutdown of the Port of Oakland has been an historic event. It has given a hint of what working people can accomplish if united in struggle. On that day, marchers were able to disrupt shipping and transportation from the fifth busiest port in the U.S., causing millions of dollars in lost profits to the capitalists. Nonetheless, it would have been more effective if the long shore workers themselves had organized and acted in unison to shut down the port. That would have served as an even stronger example for the rest of the Bay Area and U.S. working class to follow.
Although the demonstration received verbal support from the leadership of many trade unions, and some even called on their membership to participate, the labor leaders were neither prepared nor willing to organize a genuine, all-out general strike. The widespread participation from rank and file union members demonstrates that the leadership was under the pressure from their own ranks to at least support the movement. If the call had been taken more seriously by the labor leadership, we would have had a much different event on November 2.
The main topic of the Oakland camp’s General Assemblies in the days following the demonstration dealt with the questions of violence and vandalism. Although no clear stance has emerged, what is certain is that it has created division amongst the occupiers. As Marxists, we recognize that small acts of vandalism and so-called “direct action” do nothing to further the cause of the working class, but rather, serve to provide an excuse for the police, the media and the city authorities to attack the movement. Even though the police attacked the protesters that night, they have not succeeded in expelling the Occupy camp. This represents not an act of strength on behalf of the police and city authorities but rather a weakness. We must take advantage of this weakness to further organize our movement for further mass actions with a clear orientation toward the mass organizations of the working class in this country: the trade unions.
As we have explained in previous articles, organized labor has the capability to mobilize millions of union and non-union workers onto the streets. The events in Oakland can serve as an impetus for organized labor to do so. It can also serve as an important step toward the unions breaking with the Democratic Party, which represents the interests of the so-called 1%, and for labor to form its own mass political party. The movement is still in its initial stages. As Marxists we will continue participating in it, helping it develop and strengthen while advocating the need for the socialist transformation of society and the need to create a mass labor party that represents the needs and aspirations of the working class.