Occupy Oakland: Whose streets? Our streets!

Josh Healey reports on the strength and challenges of Occupy Oakland - and how it has pushed the US movement in radical directions

April 24, 2012
11 min read

When Occupy Oakland, in California, called for a city-wide general strike last November, the young movement made it clear to the US political world: this is not your average protest. This is not even your average Occupy. In fulfilling its promise and organising the first general strike on US soil in 65 years, Occupy Oakland emerged as the undisputed radical wing of the Occupy movement in America. In the months since, it has also become the most controversial.

From its early days as a massive tent encampment to its multiple shutdowns of the city’s port, Occupy Oakland pushed the movement against the 1 per cent in brave directions. Some activists, however, question whether its more recent, erratic tactics are leaving behind many in the 99 per cent who the movement claims to speak for. Increasingly hostile confrontations with the local, notoriously brutal police have alienated many supporters and reopened the classic violent/nonviolent protest divide.

Amidst this atmosphere of state repression and internal rifts, many organisers chose to use the winter as a chance to regroup. As spring arrives, the question now becomes: will Occupy Oakland dissolve into another ultra-left organisation without a popular base, or will it return stronger with a renewed sense of unity and energy that can push forward a broad-based movement for economic justice?

A city ripe for Occupy

If there was any city in the US that was predisposed to the Occupy movement, it was Oakland. Located across the bay from liberal San Francisco and just next to the student-activist hub of Berkeley, Oakland is a post-industrial city with its own unique social conditions and strong progressive history.

Once a manufacturing centre, Oakland lost most of its blue‑collar union jobs in the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s. A working-class city without enough work, its population is 75 per cent people of colour. Almost equally split among black, white, Latino and Asian residents, over the years this diversity has produced both tension and progressive multi-racial coalitions.

Oakland has a proud labour history, including a 1946 general strike – the last one in the US until Occupy Oakland revived the tradition last autumn. These days, Oakland is home to the country’s most radical trade union, the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, who work the port. The ILWU represent the best of US organised labour, refusing to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and shutting down the docks for a variety of progressive causes.

Ask most Americans about Oakland political history, however, and they will give you one answer: the Black Panthers. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the revolutionary black movement in 1966 in response to the ongoing oppression of the African-American community. With their combination of militant action (armed patrols to monitor the police) and social programmes (free breakfasts and health clinics), the Black Panthers established a spirit of community resistance that continues in Oakland to this day.

The Panthers themselves met their demise at the repressive, occasionally murderous hands of the FBI and local law enforcement, a pattern that did not end in the 1960s. The Oakland Police Department (OPD) is infamous for its violence and corruption, with police brutality towards black and Latino men an everyday occurrence. In 2009, an Oakland transit policeman shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, while he was face down on the ground. After the incident, which was filmed and viewed online millions of times, thousands of people took to the streets in protest and mini-riots.

It was here, out of the Oscar Grant movement, that the loose coalition that would come to make up Occupy Oakland first emerged: black radicals, white anarchists, non-profit leaders of every shade and thousands of unaffiliated citizens who had little love for the police.

From tent camp to mass mobilisation

Two weeks after Occupy Wall Street pitched its first tents in New York in late September, a group of Oakland activists called for a local formation in solidarity. Speaking to the public rather than the politicians, the Occupy Oakland call to action was short and simple: ‘Our only demand is an invitation: Join us!’

Occupy Oakland’s tent encampment attracted thousands of people to its general assemblies, unpermitted marches and open-air teach-ins. This influx of people and energy was the movement’s first great achievement. Normally apolitical people were able to make their voices heard through the democratic decision-making, while veteran organisers broke out of their movement silos and committed themselves to a united front. Even in progressive Oakland, no one had felt this type of potential in years.

Like many of its US counterparts, Occupy Oakland’s actual camp was a mixed bag. On one hand, the encampment provided food, shelter and a 24/7 community of political organising and social solidarity. Yet it also included the dark elements of city life: rampant drug use, mental health breakdowns, sexual violence. The tents were an important starting point, but many activists soon realised the need to move on to the next stage of the movement.

The potential for this evolution was hindered by the decision of Oakland mayor Jean Quan (a former progressive turned flip-flopping moderate) to evict the encampment on 25 October. The eviction resulted in massive police violence, most evident in the nearly fatal assault on activist and Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen.

Photo: J. Paul Zoccali

Olsen’s injury, again filmed and widely seen online, brought national attention and became a rallying cry for Occupy Oakland. The next day, thousands of people re-took the plaza and a general assembly of thousands made the call for the historic general strike. Somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people heeded the call, making the 2 November protest by far the largest Occupy action in the US to date. While not a general strike in the truest sense of the phrase – only the teachers’ union formally voted to leave their jobs – the local union federation did participate in a strong way. Thousands of students and workers joined on their own accord, bringing business to a halt in the downtown area and at the port. ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ was the chant, and at least for one day, it rang true.

Since the police again cleared Occupy Oakland’s encampment on 25 November, activists have taken the struggle in new directions. Along the way, there have been both victories and defeats. Occupy Oakland’s evolution is a study in the power and pitfalls of a decentralised movement for social change.

Organised labour and local support

On 12 December, Occupy Oakland organised the movement’s most coordinated, ambitious action yet, targeting all major ports on the west coast. More than 20 Occupy groups took action, with total port shutdowns in Oakland, Portland, and Longview, Washington. The regional action was in part a solidarity action with ILWU longshoreman in Longview, who for months had been locked out in a brutal labour dispute with international grain corporation EGT. As events played out, they revealed both the strengths and weaknesses in Occupy’s relationship with organised labour.

While the 2 November general strike had the full support of the ILWU local leadership in Oakland, the situation for the 12 December port shutdown was more complicated. Many rank-and-file workers helped organise the shutdown but the union leadership issued a public refusal of endorsement. Part of this was due to legal obligations under the union contract but also a feeling of disrespect from Occupy in terms of the union’s democratic process and jurisdiction on the port. When the day came, however, and 3,000 Occupy and rank-and-filers picketed the docks, the longshoremen did what they always do: refused to cross the lines, once again shutting down the port.

Occupy Oakland activists continued to organise around the Longview dispute, preparing to mobilise thousands of west coast activists to descend on Longview in late January to blockade EGT’s next shipment. Just days before the expected confrontation, EGT came back to the bargaining table and offered an agreeable contract to the ILWU. Although there are still many Occupy-union tensions, the Longview campaign signalled the power of cross-movement solidarity and remains one of Occupy’s greatest successes.

A victory in far-away Longview, however, could not hide the fact that Occupy Oakland was losing its local support. Many people felt that the movement was losing its focus on Wall Street banks and economic inequality, and was instead fixed on battling the city government and police. Black and Latino community leaders, in particular, critiqued the movement for its neglect of various issues – home foreclosures, unemployment, public school closures – that disproportionately affect poor people of colour. The fact that Occupy Oakland was at least 80 per cent white (in a city that is only 25 per cent white) did not help. As one black activist said, ‘I have no love for the cops, trust me. But these Occupy folks aren’t fighting police brutality – they’re provoking it.’

All these tensions came to a head on 28 January. That day, Occupy Oakland’s attempt to take over an unused public building turned into yet another street battle with the Oakland Police Department. The police escalated their brutality, shooting ‘non-lethal’ projectiles and arresting 400 people by the end of the night. Yet it was Occupy Oakland’s own actions – or more accurately, the actions of a small, visible group of Occupy Oaklanders – that dominated the headlines and did more destruction to the movement. Black Bloc protesters brandishing shields broke into and vandalised City Hall, burning an American flag in front of the cameras. That doesn’t win you many friends around here. We may want to be like Egypt and Greece, but this is still America, and Occupy Oakland’s violent fringe caused serious fallout both locally and around the country.

The question of violence

Of all of Occupy Oakland’s organising challenges, none has been more contentious than the question of violence. Most Oakland activists favour a policy of nonviolent direct action for strategic if not philosophical reasons. A small group, however, of young, mostly male insurrectionists refused to allow such a policy to pass the general assembly, instead demanding the movement adopt the catch-all ‘diversity of tactics’. Unfortunately there is no accompanying discussion of ‘responsibility of tactics’. What this means in practice is a constant stream of autonomously planned actions that go on without much coordination or coherent strategy.

Without democratically elected leadership or collective accountability processes, small groups have taken the banner of Occupy Oakland in erratic directions. The most glaring example has been the weekly ‘Fuck the Police’ marches, which announce that ‘if you identify as peaceful and are likely to interfere with the actions of your fellow protesters in any way, you may not want to attend this march.’ The inevitable property destruction and police confrontation have not built power for Occupy Oakland. Indeed, these actions have only justified the state repression in the minds of many, alienating the working and middle-class masses that are the key to Occupy’s future.

For as much as Occupy hopes to confront the power of the 1 per cent, our greatest challenge and most important process is in organising the 99 per cent (or at least the 69 per cent – I’ve never been a believer in total consensus). To build such a broad movement, Occupy Oakland and its sister groups must abandon their initial claims to be a movement without leaders and demands.

People need a platform to fight for, and they need democratic (not Democratic) leaders who can develop a strategy to achieve it. In Oakland, much of that leadership needs to come from the black, Latino and Asian communities who endure the worst social conditions and have their own radical organising traditions.

Occupy Oakland began with a bang, but the ruling class always knows how to demonise a movement. With the billion‑dollar circus that is the presidential election underscoring just how thoroughly corporations control our so-called democracy, Occupy has the opportunity to develop an alternative that can appeal to millions of Americans. Will we put the heat back on the bankers and war-makers – or will we (re)elect them to public office? Whatever happens, if Occupy is to truly become a massive wave of radical social change in America, look for the strong currents coming in from the west coast waterfront.

Josh Healey is a writer, performer and organiser based in Oakland, California. His writing has appeared in The Progressive, AlterNet and the Huffington Post. Find out more at www.joshhealey.org

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