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
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out