The mass strike…suddenly opens new and wide perspectives of the revolution when it appears to have already arrived in a narrow pass and where it is impossible for anyone to reckon upon it with any degree of certainty.
- Rosa Luxemburg, “The Mass Strike.”
Occupy Oakland has reshaped politics not just for this city or the West Coast region where its impact has been greatest, but for the US as a whole and has given hope of revolution within the belly of the beast to millions of people around the world. Significantly, Occupy Oakland has injected a clear anti-capitalist current with the broader Occupy movement and has been able to implement an array of tactics to galvanize those politics. What are the lessons we draw from our young movement? The following is Advance the Struggle’s reflection on the movement. Comments, critiques, and discussion are welcome.
Table of Contents
I. Fight for Space Morphs into Battle for Class Power
II. Context of Occupy Oakland
III. Political Origins
IV. Attack: OPD Raids Occupy. OUSD Closes Schools.
V. Counter Attack: November 2nd General Strike
VI. November 19th: Unpermitted anti-school closure march
VII. December 12th: West Coast Shutdown.
VIII. Class Struggle or Substitutionism?
IX. Our Future
I. Fight for Space Morphs into Battle for Class Power
Revolutionaries around the world often ask why the people in the US don’t rise up against its government. With the rise of the Occupy movement, a global audience has been glued to the unfolding events surrounding this struggle, and tens of thousands within the US have participated in perhaps their first political protest. Like most movements, Occupy has its contradictions; in fact, its contradictions have largely been celebrated as diversity of political opinion. Working out the political contradictions through action, movement, struggle – in short, through practice – is the only way that masses educate themselves, becoming more clear in their critique of existing social relations and participate more fully in the implementation of strategies for change. Occupy has been a success just as much for the learning process it has unleashed as for the victories it has gained against “the 1%”. In what follows, we attempt an overview of developments at Occupy Oakland and refer to some debates within the movement. We aim to preserve the tone of unity and broad inclusion that has made Occupy so remarkable. What will be explored below is the relationship between Occupy Oakland’s class composition, the tools it uses to formulate strategy and the tactics implemented in practice.
II. Context of Occupy Oakland
The surplussing of Oakland’s proletariat has been a racialized process, with Blacks and Latinos bearing the brunt of unemployment, often resorting to sub-legal employment in the criminalized sectors of drug and sex trades. White proletarians moved out decades ago, to new suburbs that offered capital low to zero property taxes, incentivizing “white flight” and the related Tax Revolt that is epitomized by the notorious Prop 13 which undercut funding sources for social services that California’s working class relied upon for survival. Prisons have become the capitalist solution to spatially fix our rising surplus populations, with over a million Black people incarcerated in the US. Loren Goldner states in Theses for Discussion that capital “must either devalue existing commodities, whether labor power or capital plant or consumer goods, until a new general rate of profit can coincide with some real expansion, or else the working class must destroy value.” In the context of Oakland, capital has used the first two strategies (devaluing labor-power and closing factories) with impunity. The 30% dropout rate of youth of color is an intuitive reaction of the young proletariat to defunded schools and public sector services alongside evaporating employment opportunities. Black and Brown youth are forced by circumstances into prison, unemployment, underemployed, or low skill minimum wage jobs, the informal economy, etc.
The Bay Area’s main sectors of economic growth have been in high tech industries like Pixar in Emeryville, tourism like Jack London Square, eco-businesses like solar panels, and non-profits that sell labor-power maintenance services to the state and private capitalist foundations. All of these sectors favor college educated people with “middle class” cultural traits, not urban youth with low-quality underfunded training. With property values decimated by the crisis, hordes of “employable” white and/or college educated people of color have moved into ghettos, being channeled back into the cities that a generation ago were abandoned by these very strata. This racial and intra-proletarian tension between mostly (by no means exclusively though) white (semi-) professionals and exclusively Black and Brown largely unemployed has been demonized as gentrification, but it is probably more a reflexion of white and college educated professionals’ rapidly increasing precarity. In August 2011, Oakland’s unemployment was officially at 16.5 percent, a stark condition in a local economy where, according to a 2009 report, African American workers living in Oakland earned about 60 cents on the dollar of their White counterparts, while Latinos earned about 47 cents. Oakland’s social problems are not isolated, but working class conditions in urban centers around the US, and the world, have also been severely declining. Some have used the term ‘planet of the slums,’ the rise of a large surplus population, to define the millions of people thrown out of the work process, which leads to jail, precarious work, and a complete uncertainty regarding the future. The Occupy movement’s slogan of “We are the 99%” came out of the declining college-educated, professional, largely white upper strata of the working class, reflecting their fear and anger at capitalism’s 30 year stagnation and sense of unity with those who have long inhabited precarious, dangerous, devalued niches in the class structure of the US.
On top of these developments, Oakland has suffered from a permanent state of police violence, when in the 1950s, racist Southern military personal were intentionally recruited by Oakland and Los Angeles Police Departments, a big factor giving rise to the Black Panthers in 1966. Killings of Black and Brown people have continued all the way to the present. One of the movements that shadows the Oscar Grant struggle was the 2007 death of Gary King Jr in Oakland, killed by Sgt. Patrick Gonzales in a neighborhood that was historically Black Panther territory, as their original office was a few blocks away from the murder. Sgt. Patrick Gonzales also patrolled the rally against BART Officer Mehserle, who was being released from jail after his murder of Oscar Grant, and helped lead the shutting down of the Oakland Occupy camp October 25th. These figures continued to patrol Oakland streets and protests virtually unpunished from their crimes, and led the suppression of protest.
Beyond Oakland’s Bay Area bubble, in the national landscape, the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation and California’s anti-budget cut student movement were opening shots against the capitalist crisis. Workers in Chicago inspired from the South American factory occupations heavily present in Argentina, and the class struggle traditions that were maintained within the EU (Electricians Union), were combined into the action against the Chicago Windows and Doors Company. The California student movement, organizing an array of marches, occupations and strikes, began a movement against austerity climaxing on March 4th 2010, inspiring the Puerto Rican general strike shortly after. New York brought forth its Occupy Wall Street movement, inspired from the combination of Madison, Egyptian, and Greek struggles, and very quickly several cities in the US and around the world followed suit. Wall Street, a symbol of American and even global capitalism, is a serious political target where our movement is no longer bashing the evil greedy CEO, but rather the 1% that rules capitalist society and benefits from the economic cuts of the last 4 years.
Occupy Oakland is a genuine reflection of the working class of Oakland and its affiliated radical community. It has gained strength in its inclusion of everyone, but with this inclusion also come limitations. Occupy Oakland’s space was open to all; homeless people and those shut out of the workforce were heavily present at the camp. Part of this is due to the technological character of production which reduces the amount of workers needed for capitalist commodity production; another part comes from the related assault on public infrastructure and services, leaving millions with little recourse. Occupy Oakland has been a movement of surplus students, surplus professionals, surplus low-wage workers, and the ultimate surplus population: the homeless. This is a cross-section of the proletariat, with representation from all strata within it. The contradictions between these working class strata, thrown together in structural unity sharing an as yet unarticulated class interest, have manifested in contradictions within Occupy Oakland. The product is a diverse social movement propelled by the diversity of the oppressed layers of the working class, mobilizing incredible actions with the language of class struggle but without the ability to push class struggle into real motion because many of the protesters’ social niche lie outside of any stable or formal workplace. Occupy Oakland’s limitations in all this diversity can be summed up in the question: “Here is the working class, where are the workers?”
III. Political Origins
From its beginning, Occupy Oakland has demonstrated a different political character from most other Occupy movements. This one was initiated by a self-consciously revolutionary milieu of Anarchists, Marxists and Black nationalist radicals, many of them talented activists. These activists taken as a whole have organized building occupations against the 2009 budget cuts, marches (and riots) against police brutality and gang injunctions, alternative media, immigrant rights demos and the list goes on. Some had decades of political work in Oakland with roots in the community, while others had recently moved to Oakland bringing organizing experience from other key places like Santa Cruz and New York. These latter have been wrongly demeaned as “outside” agitators by the media, local bourgeoisie, and some political non-profiteers.
Many in the informal networks that helped start the Occupy Oakland movement were steeled in the experiences of the Oscar Grant movement of 2009-2011 and the budget cut movement leading up to March 4th 2010, but an array of other struggles were also represented, such social justice activists for housing rights and employment programs. The collective experience embodied in these overlapping circles of organizers offered skills, political intuition, strategic-tactical thinking, and a tendency away from sectarianism and towards horizontal camaraderie against a common enemy labeled by Occupy Wall Street as “the 1%”.
The early October struggles of Occupy Oakland began building inclusion of a broad, diverse, cross-section of Oakland’s poor and working class, within anti-capitalist and anti-state parameters. Many (but by no means all) political divisions within the left were temporarily eroded away in the period of October 25th to November 2nd, 2011. Marxists, Anarchists, Black Nationalists, unionists, media and social justice activists, and independents of all sorts found themselves working side-by-side in political processes and decision-making spaces, building a comprehensive yet still incomplete radical social movement. This political diversity is a sharp departure from the normal “one-tendency” and “single issue” projects that tend to go on around the Bay.
Diversity of political opinion and social strata also made the task of creating political spaces for all – citizen, immigrant, employed or not, any (or no) gender and any race – imperative. Importantly Occupy Oakland left liberal tolerance in the dust, and moved on to openly attack racist, sexist and hetero-normative behaviors within the movement, grounding the attack on the insight that horizontal violence amongst the oppressed is a reflection of the vertical violence we are subjected to in the overarching system of domination maintained by capital. This militant anti-oppression politics, carried out inside the movement itself, is (for many a no-brainer) a prerequisite to any mobilization of many different types of people that plans to last longer than a week without splitting. The courage of those who raised their voices (led mainly by women and queers) to make sure the movement didn’t attack itself must be acknowledged and praised.
Occupy Oakland addressed oppression within the working class as a part of a self-defined anti-capitalist and anti-state movement. It is not calling for a new New Deal and does not believe the Obama Administration can fix the contemporary problems because Occupy Oakland condemns capitalist as untennable and unjustifiable in principle. The Occupy Oakland movement does not have demands that it asks the system to meet as a condition of demobilization, but it has demanded changes from government and private entities. Occupy Oakland has demanded, at individual actions and through specific literature, an end to school and library closures, housing foreclosures and police brutality, so in fact it has not embraced the “demand nothing” ethic. Occupy Oakland is challenging the traditional framework of laying out demands to the system to justify our organizing. Instead the spirit that animates Occupy Oakland is related to the slogan “Occupy Everything!”: that we should be taking back the world from the 1%, rather than pleading with them to treat us kindly. We are proving that the slogans, “Occupy Everything” and “Demand Nothing” can and should be uncoupled.
Occupy Oakland’s actions on November 2, November 19th, and December 12th created national and international media attention aimed at the longshore struggle in Washington, BofA’s relationship to Oakland school closings, and real estate profiteering off of Oakland home foreclosures. Before Occupy Oakland mixing such far-left politics with the intolerance of common blind-spots would have been denounced as going “too far” by some socialist and left organizations who justify watered-down politics on the pretext that “we have to meet people where they’re at.” But Occupy Oakland met a lot of people on November 2nd by doing just the opposite: leading a movement that draws people inward and onward, not just toward a New Deal, but toward a new society altogether.
IV. Attack: OPD Raids Occupy. OUSD Closes Schools.
Less than a month after Occupy Wall street exploded on September 17th, Oakland’s downtown administrative center, Frank Ogawa Plaza was renamed Oscar Grant Plaza and blooming with protesters’ tents. From October 10th to October 25th, a new radical space was created where anyone could make proposals to the general assemblies and realize their inner organizer. Homeless people, unemployed, and people of all walks of life were welcomed to this space, where all exchange was based on direct sharing, food and literature was all free. Its openness made the occupation strong with numbers, but also left it open to destructive from outside and within.
Aspects of the camp’s culture of openness left it vulnerable to degenerate actions, alienating many people of the more mainstream (99%) type, and those concerned about their physical safety. Reports were made that in Spain and Greece similar political camps were dealing with the tension between dispossessed workers and unionized workers. A young Black Panther Party member critiqued the occupation for encouraging a free-for all atmosphere, as he spoke from the center stage to a thinning, post-General Assembly audience: “Is this a party or a protest?! Are we protesters or squatters?!”
Too often, Occupy Oakland succumbed to a depoliticized unity that did resemble a concert more than a soviet. When discussing attacks on Occupy Oakland, the attacks coming from with in – most notably the sexual harassment and gendered violence – cannot be dismissed. This limitation was far surpassed, though, by the politicizing aspect of Occupy Oakland which generated the most sustained mass mobilization in decades. The generative dimension intersected the degenerative dimension at one GA in particular, where defense against sexual violence was made a priority by women and queer people fighting off the closest threat, those within.
The combination of raucous atmosphere with the potential for violence that patriarchal capitalist society tends to imbibe, with the soviet-like activities of building political power provoked the mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, ex-60s radical and darling of Oakland’s mainstream progressive community, to attack in the name of public decency. On that pretext, she collaborated with Homeland Security to shut down Occupy Oakland and other Occupies around the country. On October 25th, police raided the camp of Occupy Oakland at three-four o’clock in the morning.
Texts were sent out to re-mobilize the movement at the Main Library at 4:00pm that same afternoon. Over a thousand people showed up and marched without permits to the Oakland Police Station in an unexpected rebuke. Occupy Oakland now was confronting its most visible enemy, the one in uniform.
The energy of this action was powerful. The afternoon march turned into nighttime protests in the streets. That night, the general populus was stunned when Iraq War veteran, Scott Olsen, was struck at close range by OPD with a projectile causing a life-threatening skull fracture.
Olson was a member of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which later on November 11th, led an Occupy Oakland rally and march against police brutality. One Oakland teacher and political organizer reflected on his experience in the 1960s and reminded a new generation that he was convinced a revolution in the US was possible when veterans begin to revolt against the system.
Within a day of a police raid on the camp that almost killed a veteran and cost the city of Oakland $1 million, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) announced the closure of 5 elementary schools. The meetings announcing school closures had hundreds of working class families, mostly Black, denouncing the district’s decision and calling upon the power of Occupy Oakland to demand justice concerning the issue of keeping schools open. Here stood the objective basis of a dual contradiction between the state and the proletariat, namely the attack upon the heavily unionized public sector infrastructure – in this case, the closing of 5 elementary schools – and the violent attack upon the camp. This same contradiction is what causes so much confusion about our attitude to the bougeois state, as we simultaneously appreciate the public sector and hate the police even though they are but wings of the same apparatus.
State violence on the part of police agencies (and more broadly ICE and Homeland Security) has led many sections of the proletariat, particularly the brown, black, and more unemployed sections, to see this wing of the state as a clear enemy. The brutal actions of the Oakland police against workers and communities of color in general is enough evidence for anyone to recognize and anticipate the type of attack they would bring down upon an unpermitted encampment such as Occupy Oakland. But of greater importance is the recent legacy and memory of militant campaigns against police violence, as epitomized in the struggle for justice for Gary King Jr, Oscar Grant, and more recently, Raheim Brown.
Street battles have tested the ability of Occupy Oakland movement to master the art of street fighting tactics, while the ILWU’s one day work stoppages (including one to demand justice for Oscar Grant) helped the movement imagine the possibilities of a strategic fusion of the economic (e.g., the union) and the political (e.g., the anti-police brutality and anti-war) spheres through their tactical combination (battles in the streets and battles in the sites of our daily exploitation).
The brutal legacy of Oakland Police Department’s crack-downs on activists and the Left’s organized responses informed Occupy Oakland’s approaches to the OPD. While not as directly violent as OPD attacks on black and brown lower proletarian communities are, the closing of the 5 elementary schools, and the attacks upon public infrastructure generally, represent an attack on the institutions which, despite their severe deficiencies under capitalism, serve a useful purpose in the reproduction of working people’s lives.
To the extent that public infrastructure offers de-commodified use-values to the working class, subtracted from profits through taxation, these institutions represent one of the most increasingly privatized sectors of society as well as (or, because it is) the most unionized part of the working class. Due to these conditions, the public sector – and education in particular – represents a site of struggle on an international and local level, with high school students, teachers, and families playing defining roles in the battles against austerity in Greece, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Oakland itself.
In 2003, the State of California took over the Oakland school system because the district owed the state $37 million. During the course of the state’s takeover, the debt tripled to $100 million, and did so even as custodians and food service workers layoffs, library closures and attacks on teachers. Revealing that austerity does not solve The OUSD school board later decided it had to be “fiscally responsible” and close 5 schools in order to save $2 million, half of which could have been financed with the police bill incurred by the city in one night – the night it smashed the Occupation. For a moment the question raised by the struggle was, “why does the state fund its police but not their schools?” At the heart of this question lies the power, through debt, of Bank of America and other corporate structures over Oakland schools.
The School Board meeting at which the closure of 5 Oakland elementary schools was announced was attended by hundreds of mostly working-class Black and some Latino, Asian and White families who raised vocal opposition and referenced the Occupy Oakland movement as a positive example of the exercise of social power. Our goal was to build bridges between parents, students, and teachers in the public education sector on the one hand and the militant possibilities bound up with Occupy Oakland on the other. Our goal was to merge the process by which two promising movements might converge. In an effort to maintain her cover as some sort of representative of the people, the mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, criticized her own police force for excessive use of force in its raid against the Occupation. This amazing about-face was perceived by many in Occupy Oakland as a victory, a sign of our power to fight the police and win against the state. Eventually though, the question of where to channel this power would have to be confronted and the Occupation camp was not strong enough to fight the power of the state by holding the autonomous character of the camp.
The general assembly on October 26th manifested as a powerful body of thousands of occupiers chanting “strike!” and calling for a general strike on November 2nd. The energy, unity, and power were breathtaking. Participants all felt that they were a part of history and shapers of it.
Thousands of participants were drawn to Occupy Oakland’s movement and General Assembly and were motivated to reproduce the countries last general strike, which was Oakland in 1946. The class struggle memory was powerful as it was drawn to life producing a social movement energy, Oakland style. But with this powerful energy bringing thousands together in a powerful general assembly, workers of important workplaces were not discussing how their position and coworkers can contribute to a strike movement. The contradiction of Occupy Oakland’s composition with its class struggle language wanted to shutdown the system like in 1946, but the origins of 1946 and November 2nd 2011 are incredibly different. The former was started by women clerks at a retail store striking to form a union and having shuttle drivers joining the picket. Soon enough hundreds of thousands of workers joined the picket line creating a general strike from a particular workplace struggle generalizing into a struggle that incorporate the whole city. November 2nd was inspired by Occupy Oakland’s movement with the appalling attack on Scott Olson. Here lies both the continuity of the memory of past class struggle in the present, and the complete political difference between the form of struggle between 1946 and 2011.
V. Counter Attack: November 2nd General Strike
A New York Times article reported on the counter-attack of worker militants resisting the attempt by a transnational corporation EGT (Export Grain Trade) to hire non-union workers (as well as union workers of another union) to undermine International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) local 21. What was at stake? The EGT, a Forbes 500 global corporation undermining ILWU, one of the most militant contemporary unions, was a serious move towards a generalized attack on all union rights.
Since May, ILWU Local 21 has been escalating the fight in a two-year-plus battle to force the multinational conglomerate EGT to abide by the ILWU contract, while a new $200 million grain terminal was being built in Longview. This was the first new terminal built on the West Coast in the last 25 years. On September 1st, about 500 longshoremen stormed the new $200 million terminal in Longview carrying baseball bats, smashing windows, damaging rail cars and dumping tons of grain from the cars, police and company officials said. Later in the day, more than 1,000 other longshoremen shut down the ports of Seattle and Tacoma by not going to work. “It’s a wildcat and it’s unsanctioned,” said Craig Merrilees, the union’s chief spokesman. “Workers did not show up to work today at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. Piecing things together, it appears that folks voted with their feet and stood by their conscience to send a message and express concern about what’s happened in Longview.”
Like their worker counterparts in Longview, Occupy Oakland was not going to lay down easy. It looked to Longview as a counterpart in a common struggle against “the 1%”, and as it started to build the November 2nd General Strike, it included solidarity with Longview ILWU members.
Participants in Occupy Oakland were by and large students, former students, anarchists, lumpen, homeless, non-profit workers, union workers and non union workers . . . all “proper” revolutionary subjects. But the general assemblies at Occupy Oakland did not have workers representing industry that they, as workers, could shut down only because it is they who keep them running – by compulsion of wage slavery. Only a few ILWU rank-file were active in these general assemblies, while the attempted general strike implored longshore workers as a whole to shutdown the port of Oakland. The surplus populations in political motion are legitimate revolutionary subjects, but workers struggling in vital structural institutions- the ports, airports, schools, transportation- are necessary to really fight capitalism. On the one hand, the movement could be seen as a diverse grouping of the working class, some thrown out of work, other being students with no future in the professions, fighting EGT because the ILWU union is legally handcuffed. On the other hand, one can see this movement substituting itself for longshore and port worker class struggle to gain media attention and political hype. There is truth to both of these interpretations, which taken together express a real contradiction the movement. However, we see the contradiction resolving itself in the development of an advanced part of Occupy Oakland putting, for the moment at least, the battle of Longview, Wa. port workers at center focus. It is not true that Occupy movements represent a new tendency of proletarians alien to a workplace forcefully blocading a workplace or industry with little coordination or consideration for these particular workers’ will.
From October 26th to November 2nd, Occupy Oakland was at its most dynamic. It’s dynamism was best represented by the incredible energy, ever-present through the participants’ and supporters’ unity, the language of class struggle and memory from the Oakland general strike of 1946. All of this was couched in the “99%” rhetoric of the Occupy movement. People of all walks of life came to Oscar Grant Plaza to pick up thousands of fliers to put out in every available space. The act of building for November 2nd was in itself transformative in a way similar to the lead-up to March 4th 2010 which was a watershed event in the struggle against austerity. In both cases, 100s of people become confident in their role as organizer, identify as an activist, and engage in theoretical questions brought up in the process.
The improvised form for building a general strike bore social movement fruit. November 2nd was massive. Estimations vary between 10,000 and 100,000 people.
The mayor said 200 of the city’s civilian workforce numbering 2,500 called in sick or took the day off through other means. It was also reported that 18% of Oakland’s teachers took that day off as well. ILWU reported that 40 out of 325 stevedores failed to come to the morning shift work and a third of longshoremen were opposed to work that day. Several businesses shut down. A 4pm rally produced a march headed to the docks and a 5pm rally backed it up, with both marches including over 10,000 people.
The marches went through parts of Oakland that have not been completely integrated or involved with the Occupy movement, like West Oakland as the crowds marched to the port. This improvised march, collective collaboration and eventual port shutdown was a massive success, yet the improvised form contained its own limits: a dynamic social movement protest calling itself a general strike.
In order to have multiple, successful and collaborative general strikes, it would have to take more than just spontaneous calls for action. Occupy Oakland has been engaged in organized and spontaneous action for a while now, a process of reflection and growth that is important to long-term struggle. The reflection part is extremely important, but so far limited in Occupy Oakland. What people have started and continue to do, is think through long-term strategy to sustain struggle in working or study groups. Spontaneous calls for shutdowns or strikes can be empowering and offer quick political responsiveness, but to maintain and build class struggle, including under an “occupy” rhetoric, we need long-term class-struggle collectives rooted in working-class communities.
The night of November 2nd ended in a flaming barricade blocking access to an occupation of a shuttered homeless services center. Open police antagonism against Occupy Oakland reasserted itself that night and continued again on the morning of November 14th where OPD shut down the camp again.
The closure of the camp was a major setback for Occupy Oakland, but not the death of it. It became obvious that the camp could not militarily defeat the state, contrary to those who focused on camping as political resistance.Occupy Oakland’s strength lies in a movement that was and is in active opposition to state policies and capitalist austerity. The Occupation would have to find a way to spread beyond the canyon walls of the downtown complex of government high-rises.
That same afternoon, over a thousand people congregated in a powerful and well-attended general assembly at the Main Library. The next day, UC Berkeley had a powerful public general assembly with 6,000 people in attendance. A radicalization was sweeping the Bay Area, with an Oakland-Berkeley cross-fertilization of political energy reaching a new generation. Debates erupted about next steps. Some argued for focusing on the fight for space, maintaining the camp. Others argued for decentralized occupations. Neither proposal seemed powerful enough to jump-start Occupy Oakland against state attacks. Some organizers proposed to organize a mass un-permitted march to either a foreclosed home or a school getting closed. Organized labor approached some organizers of Occupy Oakland to build a vigil or other forms of soft support.
Ultimately, the idea of a mass unpermitted march to the banks and a closed school was most popular. The march was intended to be a combination of organized labor and Occupy Oakland, in defense of the Occupy movement and public schools and against the financial sector profiting as the working class suffers cutbacks and terminal debt.
VI. November 19th: Unpermitted anti-school closure march
On November 11th, as Occupy Oakland was being cornered by the state, the November 19th march was proposed at the general assembly. The Mayor was coordinating with homeland security to shut down the occupation. Two days later, Occupy Oakland was attacked by police on November 14th. Occupy Oakland reconvened at the main library with a powerful body of over a thousand people, and organizers started building November 19th as the next major action to challenge the state offensive.
The march was proposed to unions who wanted get involved in Occupy Oakland, including UNITE-HERE 2850, the California Nurse’s Association, and the Alameda Labor Council. Once it was proposed and passed, concerns were immediately raised that the trade-union bureaucracy could use this opportunity to take over the movement. In the building of the march, Occupy Oakland organizers including AS cadre were constantly discussing what role the Alameda Labor Council should play on the day of the march. At least one person criticized merely working with union leaderships and staffers as inherently inviting corruption into the movement. A large group of Occupy Oakland organizers, including us, didn’t abstain from working with union bureaucrats, but instead worked to prevent union leaderships from bringing their Democratic allies with them. To this end, the terms for speaking on the march were set at 3 Occupy Oakland speakers, and 3 from the participating unions, no Democratic Party speakers or promotion allowed. On the day of the march all of the predictions, positive and negative, were tested by reality.
On the day of the march, organized labor was hardly present besides small showings from ILWU local 34, and 10 and the Oakland Educators Association due to their earlier participation with Occupy Oakland. Alameda Labor Council sent an email out to all their members the day before, but did not organize to bring out the membership. The union workers who came out did so through member-to-member organizing, informal networks of union workers reaching out to friends.
The first portion of the march put bills on Banks demanding the forfeiting of profits made from Oakland foreclosures. The second part consisted of an un-permitted rally of thousands in front of Lakeview Elementary. One parent said that in his 30 years living in Oakland, he had never seen such a massive rally for public education. The head of the Oakland Educators’ Association spoke at the rally along with several parents, all in favor of a recall campaign they were organizing against the school board.
The third part of the march ended at 19th and Telegraph, taking over an abandoned lot in a planned expansion of Occupy Oakland’s space. Masked occupiers tore down the fences around the lot and set up camp, but when the thousands from the march filtered away the police moved in and evicted the camp, confiscating material and arresting many. The main stream media didn’t pay any attention to the anti-school closure character the march had and only focused on the establishment of the new camp.
So what about the concernse about threat of Democratic Party co-optation through the unions? At the end of the day, working with union bureaucrats had no apocalyptic consequences for Occupy Oakland. The OEA leadership did push a recall campaign, but were not allowed to pair that push with support for Democratic Party nominees to fill the seats. For many listeners that next step is implied of course, but Occupy Oakland as an audience had already been politicized to such an extent that people were much more likely to sympathize with kicking politicians out than bringing them in. In fact, we think that a recall campaign is a good strategy for the current level of consciousness and organization of Oakland parents and teachers. A recall is a real threat to the school board members’ personal power.
OEA, CNA, UNITE-HERE and the Alameda Labor Council did almost nothing to bring out their memberships, and it showed. But in our opinion union affiliation provided some needed working-class cred at a time when Occupy Oakland was beginning to get isolated by bourgeois media attacks and support among Oakland residents was dropping quickly. The march was massive, overwhelmingly radical in speeches with the (in no way reactionary, but also not radical) exception of the recall campaign, and very empowering for the embattled Occupy Oakland movement.
A few days before November 19th, December 6th and December 12th had been proposed as the next political days of action. On December 6th, the anti-foreclosure organizers of Occupy Oakland, along with non-profits, ACCE and Causa Justa / Just Cause, Occupy Oakland two houses for evicted families and community use. One of the houses has been up for a few weeks, occupied by a group of people who allow for the house to be used for political meetings other community activities. But on Dec 29th the house was shutdown by OPD and 12 people were arrested.
Occupy Oakland continued through the storm, even though it did not solve its own contradiction of being a dynamic social movement with class struggle language but still not developing actual class struggle from the workers of Oakland against their immediate bosses and that class’s policies of austerity within the workplace.
VII. December 12th: West Coast Shutdown.
On November 18th, a proposal was made at the Occupy Oakland General Assembly to coordinate a West Coast shutdown of all the ports against EGT (Export Grain Trade) and Goldman Sachs. At the November 19th march, thousands of flyers were distributed for the December 12th shutdown. Occupy Oakland made informal links with ILWU local ten rank-file workers and President of ILWU local 21 Dan Coffman (who has been arrested 6 times fighting law enforcement during the current battles with EGT). These political connections have created an alliance with the Occupy movement and the ILWU to fight the EGT company.
In Los Angeles and Long Beach, Latino immigrant truckers have been fighting for workplace and political rights for some time with a history of having wildcat strikes (strikes with no union support). The Long Beach truckers militantly struck in 2005 against high gas prices, and 2006 with the May 1st movement, stopping a serious amount of commerce at the port of Long Beach. On April 15th 2006, independent truckers from LA called for an “immediate SALARY increase of 25%” and stated, “WE have to begin an era of strikes until the Ports and Rails enter into collective bargaining agreements with us. Until then, we must continue to form collectives at every company and support each other at the terminal, port and national levels. We ask all truck drivers to meet at the ports, rails, truck stops, and usual gathering locations.” On May 1st 2006, the truckers did just that and had a massive strike stopping incredible an amount of commodities. Several business papers took notice of the strike. The same group of truckers decided to have an action on December 12th, the birthday of the Virgin of Guadalupe in response to the 26 truckers fired for immigrant rights while sporting their Teamster jackets. Goldman Sachs was identified as the corporation connected to such attacks on the Teamsters. Through these events, we can see the build up of momentum against large corporations like Goldman Sachs and the heavy anti-union sentiment workers faced since 2006.
As momentum generated towards December 12th, the ILWU Longshore international sent multiple communications distancing themselves from this action. Political distance for some of the ILWU was a necessity, since the political structures, finances, and political positions constricted by their contract made it impossible to openly engage in the shutdown. But the bureaucracy went farther than this; they consciously attacked the December 12th action: “To be clear, the ILWU, the Coast Longshore Division and Local 21 are not coordinating independently or in conjunction with any self-proclaimed organization or group to shut down any port or terminal, particularly as it related to our dispute with EGT in Longview (Wash).” Another ILWU communication states that “[t]he ILWU considers its dispute with EGT, which is attempting to open a grain terminal in Longview, Wash., with the use of non-ILWU labor, to be a crucial issue for the union, but the ILWU does not want outside groups using that issue to attract support from the union rank and file for a ports shutdown.” But these positions do not necessarily represent the political thinking of the rank-file ILWU workers. No rank-and-file came out against the action; on the contrary, a small militant minority were actively engaged, pushing their coworkers to join the December 12th shutdown in order to give it the character of a strike within the Oakland Occupy social movement.
While the ILWU bureaucracy openly attacked December 12th, the mainstream capitalist media capitalized on their comments, publishing hundreds of articles that attempted to reinforce a division between the union and the occupy movement. The mainstream media was reporting that the “ILWU [was] asking Occupy protesters to call off the action,” but what the mainstream media did not investigate was what section of the ILWU was pushing this. Craig Merrilees, Communications Director for the ILWU, was going to meetings to tell people that December 12th was not passed through the union’s democratic process, claiming that the union was to have nothing to do with it. However, other radical rank-and-file ILWU workers commented that the international was doing the work for the capitalists, producing confusion and eliminating confidence within the movement. Occupy Oakland didn’t flinch, and moved forward with December 12th.
Mayor Jean Quan threatened the movement, stating that Occupy Oakland would not shutdown the port. December 12th, however, ended up as a partial success.
There was enough communication between ILWU local 10 and independent truckers, eventually building worker sympathy when workers respected the community picket lines at the port. However, only one ILWU rank-and-file worker was publicly engaged with the shutdown while most other port workers were passively engaged. There were too many rank-and-file longshoreman and truckers passively engaged in the movement. Speaking about port-related struggles on the bullhorns on the picket lines are effective ways to show support.
Nevertheless, as shown through the action at December 12th, mass picketing works in terms of national collaboration and security against police repression. Secretive occupations often lack forces to fight the state, but mass militant picketing on December 12th stopped police cop cars from breaking the lines. Approximately 1,000 people in the morning and 5,000 in the evening shutdown the port during two large shifts, and a later shift at 3:00 am. 500 protestors shutdown the port of Portland, with 300 people on terminal 6 and 200 people on terminal 5, and 60 people shutdown the port of Longview Washington. 800 people shutdown the port of Seattle, specifically Terminal 18, the busiest terminal, and terminal 5 with a large presence of working class youth of color blasting politicized hip- hop freestyles. Los Angeles had hundreds of people meet at 5am to shutdown the Long Beach terminal against Goldman Sachs. A report stated that Goldman Sachs stocks lost 5% of value that day. Several other ports staged solidarity actions as well, in San Diego, Houston, and Vancouver Canada.
In an article written by Cal Winslow’s December 5th Counterpunch article, Who’s Speaking for Whom: The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen’s Union, Winslow investigates the problem of the Occupy movement politically representing the needs of union. Winslow’s overall argument assumes a deeper separation, rather than mere surface tension, between ILWU and the Occupy movement. Winslow states;
And if Occupy Oakland is serious about EGT, it can still mount a campaign against these union busters in Longview, and against Goldman Sachs, a player here, apparently, and do this in coordination with the ILWU, or do it with the longshoremen themselves. And look around, there is no shortage of battles, surely not here in California; they are all around us, on the campuses, in the hospitals, hotels, in the factories and fields. Support them…Occupy Wall Street, including Occupy Oakland, can continue to inspire the 99%, get them involved. Inspire them to be actors in history, not subjects.
The class struggle current within Occupy Oakland, conscious of the movement’s own contradiction and limitations, has been working constantly towards developing relations with workers at the port, in order for them to be their own agents of change in the movement. Occupy organizers made numerous visits to the port and ILWU local ten to build a common movement of workers and activists for the December 12th shut down. A limited but attempted coordination took place. The contrary political angle which led people like Winslow to make such an argument came from the idea that street protests equate with class struggle.
Contrary to Winslow’s argument, our comrades in Bay of Rage, who should be respected for their instrumental work in making Occupy Oakland happen and keeping the movement totally independent of the state and overtly anti-capitalist, have argued the following:
The subject of the “strike” is no longer the working class as such, though workers are always involved. The strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or even sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it, and perhaps to wage-labor entirely. We need to jettison our ideas about the “proper” subjects of the strike or class struggle.
A closer association of social movement street activity with class struggle is positive, but we feel it too easily dismisses the untapped revolutionary potential of workers at the workplace. All sectors of the working class are “proper”, but their agency must be harmonized and integrated if it should result in the construction of a democratically planned society in the future.
As folks like Winslow write off our movement for not fitting neatly in a 1930s class struggle framework, others are actualizing the potential of workplace struggle. Both sides contain a political limit in their outlook. They do not lead to a strategy of a class-wide offensive uniting “classical” workplace workers struggle with the struggle of the dispossessed. For example, the Toledo Ohio strike of 1934 organized unemployed and autoworkers in a class-wide offensive, creating a general strike. Another example was the unemployed protest in 1932 which laid down the framework for the three general strikes in 1934, San Francisco, Toledo Ohio, and Minneapolis. Instead of jumping from one favorite part of the class to privileging another sector’s agency, we should be focusing on how to build organizational vehicles within each sector (in this case employed/unemployed) and across the class as a whole (across workplaces and communities) to reconcile whatever contradictions arise in the revolutionary process.
VIII. Class Struggle or Substitutionism?
The debate around December 12th was whether a third party was speaking for workers and their struggle, or whether Occupy Oakland was a body of workers that exerted their independence and engaged in a radical action that the unions could not lead. A current of Occupy Oakland was conscious of this problem and did its best to orient towards the union and non-union port workers. Five independent truckers wrote a public letter in support of December 12th, and explained how their independent contracting position makes them bear all the costs of transportation. Interestingly enough, they shared a slogan, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”
The period of time between October and December was densely packed with rapid progression, daily new developments, and a generally spontaneous organizing structure. Action was the priority, with mobilization being the primary activity. Mobilization for consecutive actions is a different, although obviously related, task from organizing working class power. Organizing for working class power includes mobilizations, but goes deeper in the sense that it is builds for a lasting and growing influence. This takes time, which is not always available. The fast-paced political tempo has created an environment where mobilizing is far more favorable than organizing. Acknowledging this point leads us to deal with the earlier contradiction of a social movement speaking class struggle language without building clear class struggle motion; it is easier to mobilize for a protest with posters and text messages than it is to build representative organizations of workers in the belly of the beast of bourgeois dictatorship, especially with the high degree of surveillance characteristic of many workplaces. In this early stage, it is to be expected that the working class mobilize in the relatively safe space outside the workplace before networks and organizations based inside the workplace manifest as vehicles for the daily reproduction of resistance to exploitation. There is reason to believe that workplace agency will assume a more prominent role in this movement as we move forward.
Hundreds of newly politicized organizers recognize the need to increase the proletariat’s organized resistance in the workplace and community. The IWW has been making important strides in organizing the non-union working class through workplace direct-action politics. Activists organizing against school closures are now digging their heels and trying to organize a wide body of Oakland school workers, teachers, and parents to fight these austerity measures that would devastate thousands of working families. After Spain’s General Strike, several informal circles began doing successful anti-eviction work. Paralleling Spain’s anti-eviction work, an autonomous anti-landlord group from Occupy Oakland and East Bay Solidarity Network has been developing its grass-roots fights against slum landlords. Occupy the Hood is now developing its public political existence with aims of building a deeper movement in Black and Brown communities and workplaces led by people from these communities. Longview, WA, inspired by the Occupy movement, has been discussing an attempt to organize a general strike when the EGT ship gets to the port. These beginnings will need time to develop into politically cohesive units, but when they do, they will be the most stable building blocks for coordinated mobilizations against capital, and beyond that, the re-organization of society on a socialist basis.
The Oakland Tribune reported on December 13th that, “Port officials said this morning that ‘due to the protests during the last 24 hours, there is a heavy backlog of work to get through.’ There are seven vessels at dock this morning.” Without the workers at the port directly being involved in the port shutdown, port officials can adapt to the (outside) movement and speed up the work after the economic blockade. The workers will remain at the workplace generating surplus value for bosses because, unfortunately, the proletariat still needs wages to subsist; their agency must be appreciated as the crucial constant in our revolutionary formula.
It is worth mentioning that Isaac Kos-Read, director of external affairs with the Port of Oakland, admitted their vulnerability in general terms, “A disruption at that time of year is really serious for us. This is a peak season for us for agricultural products.” Workers all along the chain of production, from the farms in the Central Valley and the Interstate transportation arteries to the port and warehouse distribution hubs, cannot and should not be overrun by a social movement that confuses itself for the labor movement. If the street protest is the sphere where the working class is finding its strength, it is precisely there that the decision must be made to recycle its political advances into heretofore underdeveloped or not yet mobilized spaces and sectors to maximize and diversify the community of revolutionaries. In the long run, this will make our revolution more complete, more representative of the working class as a whole, and strategically better prepared to outmaneuver the bourgeois which always attempts to split the proletariat. It is always proper for the working class, employed or not, to mobilize and disrupt valorization, but it is much harder to do so when there is an unorganized workplace devoid of vehicles for the reproduction of revolutionary praxis. Since workplaces and communities are apparently lagging behind the movement on the streets, our emphasis at this time should be on building power there, not dismissing it on the basis of a couple successful mobilizations on the streets.
When fuel prices skyrocketed in 2005, there was a wildcat strike of mainly immigrant truckers at the port of Oakland. But the lack of any real strike committee to coordinate the strike led to its defeat. Most who participated in December 12th were probably not aware of the port workers experience of past struggles. If the port workers in mass, from the super-exploited “independent contractor” truckers to the better paid ILWU local 10 rank-file (who themselves have their own antagonisms and tensions), struck, stopping port operations with the support of Occupy Oakland, then we would have seen an actual strike against capital threaten capitalism far more severely than what we saw on December 12th. Beyond the port, the remaining 11% of the working class who are in unions are placed in strategic sectors; ports, airports, transportation, hospitals, and schools. If thousands of union and non-union workers become involved in mass democratic General Assemblies, which are the political motor of Occupy Oakland, then we could develop the power to call for coordinated strikes, resolving Occupy Oakland’s immediate contradiction between the worker-organized strike and politico-organized protest.
IX. Our Future
All organizers of Occupy Oakland should be proud of our dynamic actions on November 2nd, November 19th, and December 12th. For the time being, we must shift our political time clock, stop rushing from action to action in emergency mode and build a long-term movement. A long-term movement includes digging deeper and deeper roots within the Black and Brown communities, structurally important workplaces, while also maintaining the radical imagination and democratic spirit of the movement. In short, there needs to be a shift from mass mobilizations to consistent and long-term organizing.
This movement has demonstrated itself to be stronger than any one left organization or union. Learning how to work with people from all different political backgrounds is key, in order that the tentacles of the movement can reach farther than any singular force. But we mustn’t spread our tentacles too thin; mobilizing hundreds and thousands of people can reach its limits. Only when we mobilize and organize in working class communities and workplaces can we begin to challenge the contradictions facing Occupy Oakland. This mobilization takes the form of coordinated short-term tactical actions along with long-term class struggle which can begin to brake-down the division between port workers and our social movement.
Attempting to coordinate short-term protests and long-term class struggle through coalitions often lead to an array of problems that lacks a unified political strategy for such a project. Social movements without a revolutionary perspective often fragment into informal gossip ridden circles that don’t see the importance of pushing for the working class to become a class-for-itself, creating a class-wide offensive against capitalism.
Creating long-term class struggle with short-term tactical operations is not easy. There are many challenges: the surplus population section of the proletariat engages in destructive activity; the unemployed need new forms of organization; non-union workers need alternative forms of struggle against workplace austerity and discipline, which a front of the IWW has been doing impressive work on; unionized rank-file members need to challenge the bureaucracy of unions that we saw heavily lash out against December 12th… and the list continues.
So the question now is, what is on the horizon for the Occupy movement for the next 6 months? Can organizers of all walks of political life unite on a common perspective of organizing for a class-wide offensive? All types of people are engaged-in this movement, and are attempting to understand the power of this movement to move forward in its radical potential. On the one hand, the plurality of the movement gives it diversity and creativity. On the other, without a clear revolutionary strategy of how to successfully fight the one percent makes our movement lack a direction. We don’t want to eliminate any creative diversity of the movement, nor have the movement run into destructive walls. Such a balancing act requires both a patience and foresight: to listen and learn, agitate and propose solutions. The possibility for change and momentum has brought so many people together, bringing out a potential force to organize for revolutionary ends. This can happen if enough organizers within the movement can agree for which such a revolutionary framework is worth fighting.
The Occupy movement has become one of the greatest learning lessons for a new young radical generation and has produced and brought to life hundreds of radical fighters who organize non-stop- often selflessly- often operating off vices and meager sustenance, as well as the flavor of revolutionary potential. Such people are the human material for a new revolutionary movement to build a new society based on use, not profitable exchange.