Oakland and After: Lessons from the General Strike

Media coverage focused on violence and vandalism, but what’s the real legacy of Occupy Oakland’s big day?
side of love by Okaland Local

Photo by Oakland Local

After reporting on Occupy Oakland’s large and overwhelming peaceful protest yesterday, I woke up this morning to read about arrests, tear gas and vandalism. Yes, some property was destroyed. In the afternoon I saw a black-clad group smashing the windows of a Chase bank and a Whole Foods. Later in the evening, some occupiers took over an abandoned building that once housed a homeless advocacy group (since closed due to funding cuts). At some point, a bonfire was set, cops arrested plenty of people and more property destruction occurred. But the title of USA Today’s article, “Port of Oakland reopens after violent OWS protests,” misses what mainly happened, as did most of the mainstream media’s coverage.

There’s a lot to be said about the general strike yesterday in Oakland—in which thousands of people shut down banks and the fifth-largest port in the country—but here’s what I found especially striking about the strike: extreme message discipline. We usually think of message discipline in relation to political campaigns and the conscious attempt to mechanically repeat talking points. But here I found another kind of message discipline—of a more organic variety—in which people spoke about the same issue not out of a pre-designed plan but because their shared experiences were remarkably similar.

It’s worth repeating: those advocating property destruction were an incredibly small minority, whose actions alienated many of their fellow members of the “proletariat.”

City workers complained about pay cuts; parents cited the recent announcement to close several Oakland schools; striking teachers highlighted the challenge of teaching without sufficient materials. All placed blame squarely on giant banks and the unchecked power of corporate America. As the protesters marched through downtown to shut down the banks, the mood was equal parts anger and joy: anger at the banks and joy at the prospect of finally doing something to vent their pent-up frustrations.

“I’m in foreclosure right now, and Chase is trying to take away my home the week of Thanksgiving,” Brenda Reed told the marchers as they gathered in front of a Chase office. “But I am not moving!”

Under Reed’s instruction, hundreds whipped out cell phones to call Jaime Dimon, the CEO of Chase, while others wrapped crime-scene tape around the bank, which had already shut down in anticipation of the protests. Someone scrawled, “Withdraw only” on the ATMs, and a large banner was unfurled that read, “Occupy the Banks.” 

city shut down by Oakland Local

“too big to fail” doesn’t mean too big to shut down.

Photo by Oakland Local

From there the march moved to Bank of America, which was open when the crowd of many hundreds descended upon it. For a few minutes bank employees attempted to carry on business as usual, but the deafening roar of “Shut it down!” soon sent people scurrying. By the afternoon, every major bank in downtown Oakland, including Citibank and Wells Fargo, was shuttered. On the other hand, local financial institutions, like the Community Bank of the Bay, were not picketed and remained open.

The scene back at Frank Ogawa Plaza was festive, with non-stop musical acts and dozens of booths passing out literature and offering various kinds of support. The crowd was remarkably diverse, ranging in age from newborns to a 101-year-old man and including teachers, construction workers, high school students and plenty of the unemployed.

One of the more popular booths encouraged people to “share your 99% story.” When I stopped by, dozens of people were writing accounts of what led them to participate, and the stories—moving accounts of homes lost to foreclosure and healthcare bills leading to bankruptcy—were posted around the tent. People have been quietly suffering through the economic crisis, and one sensed that the experience of publicly sharing private struggles with thousands in the same situation eased the burden.

“They told us to stay with the march, but I teach fourth graders, and I tell them that if you’re with someone that’s doing something stupid, leave.”

For those hoping for an entirely peaceful day, however, things turned sour during an afternoon “anti-capitalist” march that passed many of the same banks. I was standing alongside the Chase bank when someone rushed out from a crew of masked folks dressed in black and smashed the windows. The march went on for another hour, breaking various windows and shouting, “We are the proletariat!” Mainstream media, of course, rushed to document the scene, while many in the group shouted to remain nonviolent. Later, the black-clad group started heaving chairs at the windows of Whole Foods—a notoriously anti-union company—until other protesters chased them away

It’s worth repeating: those advocating property destruction were an incredibly small minority, whose actions alienated many of their fellow members of the “proletariat.”

“They told us to stay with the march,” one union member told me, “but I teach fourth graders, and I tell them that if you’re with someone that’s doing something stupid, leave.” She ended up joining the hundreds who left the original group and staged their own peaceful march. When I returned to the broken Chase windows, someone had posted a sign that read, “We’re better than this.”

At 4 pm the first wave of people set off for the Port of Oakland, led by hundreds of Critical Mass cyclists. The strategy was to amass enough people to shut down the ports, and by 5:30 pm the crowd numbered in the many thousands. It seemed obvious that activists had achieved their biggest goal of the day, as vehicles certainly weren’t going to get in or out; it was hard enough to maneuver on foot through the crowd at a certain point. Ten minutes later, a spokesperson for the port announced that it was shut down.

David Korten
Wall Street Occupiers, the Future Depends on You

David Korten, who has worked to curb Wall Street's power for 15 years, has a video message for the occupiers.

So the general strike accomplished its primary goals. It shut down the major banks and the Port of Oakland. It brought thousands into the streets. (Crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable. The LA Times placed it at 7,000, and I’d say it was at least that big; at one point I biked for fifteen minutes past a steady throng of marchers.) And perhaps most importantly, it showed ordinary people—precisely those that have suffered most from the actions of giant banks—that “too big to fail” doesn’t mean too big to shut down.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Obviously reconciling two groups—a small minority advocating property destruction and the vast majority opposed to such vandalism—will be a source of tension. In the immediate future, peaceful Occupy Oakland activists hope their nonviolent example will spread to other occupations. As for Oakland itself, they were already planning meetings the day after the strike, and there will be a workers committee meeting this weekend. As organizers like to remind each other, what you do the day after an action is just as important as the action itself.

Copyright © 2011 The Nation -- distributed by Agence Global


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