On November 2, 2011, Occupy Oakland — coming out of the international Occupy Movement — called for a General Strike. It was the third time a General Strike was attempted in Oakland. This first-hand account analyzes the event and situates it within the rich history of class struggle in California's Bay Area.
Oakland’s Third Attempt at a General Strike
Oakland was still at the frontier, where the issues were sharper,
the corruption cruder, the enemy more easily identifiable…
There was nothing abstract about the class struggle in Oakland.
—Jessica Mitford in
A Fine Old Conflict (1977)
Oakland, California has historically suffered by being in the shadow of the golden allure of San Francisco across the Bay. From the Gold Rush to the Summer of Love to the Castro District as a Gay Mecca to the Dot.com Boom, San Francisco has been known around the world as a magnet for get-rich-quick dreamers, bohemians and idealists. Berkeley, bordering Oakland on the north, was the birthplace of radical student agitation throughout the 1960s, beginning with the Free Speech Movement on the University of California campus in 1964. Oakland has always been a gritty industrial town, whose working class residents have ranged from reactionary whites in the Ku Klux Klan (in the 1920s) and Hells Angels (after World War II) to blacks at the cutting edge of civil rights struggles, and today is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.S. Oakland was thrust onto the world stage in 1966 with the Black Panther Party and its militant self-defense of the African American community.
The radical history of the Bay Area is like a giant tapestry and its threads run through the whole region. Telegraph Avenue is 4.4 miles long; it merges into Broadway at Latham Square on the Oakland end, the exact location of the strike of women retail clerks at two department stores on either side that sparked the 1946 General Strike. That strike led to the Taft-Hartley Act (the 1947 federal law banning strike and solidarity tactics that make general strikes possible) six months later and was the beginning of Cold War politics that smothered class struggle for a generation. On the Berkeley side, Telegraph ends at Bancroft Way right at Sproul Plaza on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Exactly 18 years later, on the exact day that the Oakland General Strike was officially declared, December 3rd, the Cold War began to thaw in a mass arrest of over 800 (the largest mass arrest up to that time in California) at a Free Speech Movement sit-in at Sproul Hall. Several of those student protestors had been radicalized by participating in Civil Rights organizing in the Deep South for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); many had taught at Freedom Schools. For the rest of the sixties, U.C. Berkeley was shut down several times due to mass student strikes and protests, including a month-long occupation of People’s Park by the National Guard, sending waves outwards as the youth revolt spread throughout the world.
Even within Oakland, the tapestry has threads that are deeply rooted in previous periods of heightened class struggle, having cross-fertilized with other radical movements across the country, as well as the world. Being that San Francisco is at the tip of a narrow peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, Oakland became the mainland terminus of the transcontinental railroad when it was completed in 1869. Trains ran along 7th Street through West Oakland to the Mole, a railroad wharf complex extending into the Bay where ferries completed the journey west to San Francisco. During the nationwide Pullman Railroad Strike of 1894, workers occupied the tracks around the Mole, disabled trains, and the whole community prepared to defend the strike. In subsequent years, landfill pushed further into the Bay and the site of the Mole is at the heart of the current Port of Oakland, the destination of our mass march and shutdown during the attempted General Strike on November 2nd.
The Black Panthers had a significant base in West Oakland, where massive railroad yards had been built at the western terminus of the transcontinental line. A thread, although tenuous, connected them with the legacy of African American railroad porters who settled there a generation before. The area became the West Coast organizing center for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a socialist union founded in 1925. The Brotherhood came out of the radical ferment of that era; in October 1919 Brotherhood founder A. Philip Randolph wrote in The Messenger, “The Negroes and the Industrial Workers of the World have interests not only in common, but interests that are identical.” The IWW, whose member are called “Wobblies,” is an interracial revolutionary union founded in 1905 in Chicago that adopted a class struggle approach to organizing through direct action and the strike weapon, striving towards class consciousness and the general strike, with the ultimate goal being the creation of a classless society.
The Wobbly spirit – best embodied in the opening lines of the IWW preamble: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common” – was pervasive in the Bay Area, especially in the class unity, solidarity actions, sympathy strikes that exploded into many mass strikes and in turn led to at least two full-blow general strikes.
You see, all of us were very actively involved and this makes all the difference in the world. Another thing, very few of these people were orthodox Commies because the basic tradition on the West Coast was IWW. The attitude was really an anarchistic attitude…
—Kenneth Rexroth, interviewed in The San Francisco Poets (1969)
Oakland developed as an industrial center in tandem with San Francisco’s rise as the financial hub of the West, especially after manufacturing was shifted to Oakland en masse after the 1906 Earthquake destroyed large parts of San Francisco.
The 1934 General Strike that shut down San Francisco crossed the Bay and completely paralyzed Oakland too. Here is a description:
An estimated 15,000 building tradesmen in the East Bay laid down their tools; now they were joined by some 27,000 workers affiliated with Central Labor Council local unions. The East Bay’s street car system and the Key System ferries halted operations… Employers were especially upset when the Key System’s employees’ strike resolution called for the employees “and the workers of the community to take over the transportation system for working people.” Businessmen, “frightened” by the prospect of “an actual class struggle,” had asked Governor Merriam to send the National Guard into Oakland.
—David Selvin, A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco (p. 185)
Oakland was seized by a general strike again in 1946, called a “Work Holiday” for its 54-hour official duration. It was the last citywide general strike during the mass strike wave after World War II (1946 had more strikes, 4,985, with more workers, 4,600,000, than any other year in US history -- that also included six cities shut down by general strikes). It was in this period when deindustrialization really began, with the closing of wartime shipyards and crises in employment and housing whose effects are still felt today. Many blacks, as well as whites, had been recruited from Dust Bowl southern states to work at industrial jobs. When those well-paid unionized jobs began to disappear, as manufacturing was moved abroad, African Americans suffered the plight of “last hired, first fired,” a tragic legacy that still haunts East Bay cities like Richmond and Oakland to this day.
Even though the attempt at a General Strike on November 2, 2011 was only partially successful, Oakland ranks with Philadelphia (1835 & 1910) and Chicago (1886 & 1894) as the only U.S. cities to have had more than one general strike. The following is an account and analysis of the events and organizing that led to the call for Oakland General Strike III. But the spirit of the Work Holiday lived on in 2011. In 1946, the city was completely shut the city down by the class-conscious solidarity of 130,000 workers. Spontaneous strike support committees closed all businesses, except bars which were allowed to stay open if they only served beer and put their jukeboxes out on the sidewalk. As Stan Weir (in his essay “The Informal Work Group”) put it:
“People were literally dancing in the streets in anticipation of some kind of new day.”
The encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza started on October 10, 2011, following the international movement inspired by Occupy Wall Street that began in Zuccotti Park in New York on September 17, 2011. It immediately threw the city’s politicians into crisis; most, opportunistically, sought to position themselves as sympathetic to the global movement. Oakland mayor Jean Quan, a former UC Berkeley 60s activist, got caught up in a Catch-22: she both supported Occupy Oakland and ordered its repression; she was conveniently in Washington DC when the attack occurred. Her weak support for former Chief of Police Batts' proposal for gang injunctions may have caused him to resign, one day after Occupy Oakland was founded, and has put her at odds with tough-on-crime members of the city council. The city government is rife with infighting; in this crisis of legitimacy, the police union has issued several absurd press statements attacking the mayor, as well as complimenting and attacking Occupy Oakland.
The predawn attack on October 25, with police from 18 Northern California jurisdictions – from cities as far away as Vacaville, Fremont, and Palo Alto – was not only a militarized operation, it was unprovoked. The 600 cops, outfitted with riot gear and backed by armored vehicles and helicopters, moved in, preemptively shooting tear gas canisters and “beanbag” rounds and throwing flashbang grenades. The aftermath left Oscar Grant Plaza looking like a hurricane had hit it. The news of the intensity of the raid spread around the Bay Area like wildfire.
In response, a spontaneous demonstration was called for 4:00 p.m. that same day at the main branch of the library, six blocks down 14th Street. After speeches and news updates on arrestees, the crowd marched. It started with hundreds and by the time we got close to Broadway, at the center of town, we were nearly a thousand. As the march tried to go near the jail, we had our first skirmish with the cops when they arrested some protestors, were surrounded by protestors, then reinforcements came firing tear gas and beanbag projectiles, as well as throwing flashbang grenades. Our march was dispersed, but through street smarts we all regrouped and went to the intersection of 14th and Broadway, the epicenter of many of the events not only in the Occupy Movement, but also the location of protests and riots over the last two and a half years over the killing of Oscar Grant by BART transit police on January 1, 2009.
14th and Broadway, October 25
Once back at the intersection, the cops repeatedly warned us to disperse because we were an “unlawful assembly,” reading all the legal codes being violated. With very little provocation (reportedly a plastic water bottle was thrown), they shot the first massive barrage of tear gas at us, sending the entire crowd running. Over the next several hours, they proceeded to shoot a total of four huge volleys of long-range tear gas canisters from their defensive perimeter of metal barricades around Oscar Grant Plaza. Each time we dispersed, we ran several blocks away to avoid the fumes, a few times marching a few blocks around the area, but always returning to 14th and Broadway. It was an incredibly inspiring victory in simply standing our ground, regardless of how much tear gas they shot at us. And we grew; what at first seemed like around a thousand, had easily doubled by the end of the night.
It was during one tear gas volley that Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen had his skull fractured by a direct hit, and as others came to his rescue another cop threw a grenade directly at them. Again, videos of this went viral on the internet, helping to catalyze the growing anger into concrete actions. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that the tear gas organized the call for a general strike the next night. Oakland once again turned to class struggle as a weapon in response.
The General Assembly and Call for a General Strike
A General Assembly was called for 6:00 p.m. at 14th and Broadway the next night, October 26. No cops were anywhere in sight, except a few underground in the BART station. Soon after, chainlink fences surrounding the plaza were being methodically pulled down and stacked in orderly piles. The crowd came, kept arriving, and this flow never seemed to stop. We held the General Assembly in the amphitheater. And as we began, even more people arrived. By its peak, there were about 3,000 people participating. The general strike proposal was made and we had breakout groups to discuss it. The approval procedure was modified consensus, with 90% required to pass. 1607 people voted on the general strike proposal, despite many more people than that in the amphitheater; 1484 voted in favor of the resolution, 77 abstained and 46 voted against it, passing it with 96.9%.
General Assembly Occupy Oakland, October 26, 2011
Planning the General Strike
The next night, October 27, we had a meeting to plan for the general strike right before the General Assembly. During the strike preparation break-out, I joined the labor group (others were community outreach and education, which in turn broke into 3 groups: K-12, community college, and university). Some union “piecards” (bureaucratic officials) tried to give speeches, but could not adapt to the “people’s mic” and were shouted down. Developed at Occupy Wall Street to deal with the lack of amplified sound, it forces speakers to be concise and use short phrases, since each is repeated by the audience for all to hear. Others speakers made clear that this is merely a first attempt at a general strike, which when they occur are usually the culmination of a period of heightened class struggle, yet using the rhetoric of an offensive counter-attack was a popular sentiment that came up naturally. We knew we were planting the seeds of an idea that would take further, more intense, struggles to truly bear fruit. The actions on November 2 would only be the opening salvo.
When it was my turn to speak at the labor break-out, I made clear that in the U.S. only 11.9% of the working class is in unions. So for a general strike to succeed, it will take the involvement of the unorganized 88.1%. I mentioned that a fixation on the unions will be our undoing. I brought up the example of the unorganized immigrant, Spanish-speaking workers who fought the Sensenbrenner Act (H.R. 4437, which would make the undocumented felons and assisting them would be a misdemeanor). On May Day 2006 millions participated in a nationwide work stoppage and 16,500 striking troqueros (short-haul port truckers) effectively shut down 90% of the massive Los Angeles/Long Beach Port complex. It reached the intensity of a general strike and succeeded in forcing Congress to withdraw the proposed law. In Oakland, Spanish-speaking workers marched nearly a hundred blocks and 50,000 converged on downtown, in the biggest mass of striking workers since the ’46 General Strike. The unorganized troqueros at the Port of Oakland had an 8-day wildcat in 2004 and have had other spontaneous strike actions since then.
Those troqueros are clearly the most militant working class sector in California, having a track record of combative direct action over the past decade. During the break-out, I also made the point that our literature needs to be translated to Spanish, and since the port of Oakland is about twelve blocks away we should do outreach there. I also mentioned that Oakland’s Chinatown begins just four blocks from Oscar Grant Plaza and that there are still many garment sweatshops and other cottage industry factories nearby, so we should also get literature translated into Chinese and reach out to our fellow workers there. My point was that our actions need to go beyond the narrow definition of labor (usually connoting unions), and become a class movement.
To put this into practice, on Monday, October 31 three of us got to the Port of Oakland at 6:00 a.m. and handed out English and Spanish fliers to the troqueros, most of whom were supportive of our efforts and acknowledged that they are part of the 99%, but none of whom knew anything about the general strike call. This one-day fliering, with just a few of us, was insufficient for such a strategically important sector on the waterfront – especially as the march on the day of the General Strike encountered troqueros first when we made it to the Port.
In side discussions during the build up to November 2, some of us talked about the 6-day occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago in December 2008. We mentioned the general strikes that began on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 2009, spread to nearby Martinique, and won all their demands We talked about how the occupiers of Tahrir Square in Cairo had fought pitched battles with the police, held their ground, and had brought down the Mubarak regime in Egypt.
When the proposal to occupy the Port of Oakland was made at the General Assembly on October 27, many learned for the first time about the actions of International Longshore and Warehouse Union militants in Longview, Washington. In September they blocked trains and sabotaged the brand new EGT grain terminal when management brought in another union to scab on their jobs. The world is on fire and many have begun to see that class struggle in Oakland can be part of the process of fanning those flames.
Oakland General Strike, November 2
By 9:30 a.m. a crowd of several hundred were already filling the intersection of 14th and Broadway, the epicenter of much action over the last couple years. Although the crowd was sizable, it was in flux as people kept arriving in a never-ending stream; by mid-morning it had grown to several thousand.
There was an unconfirmed report that longshore workers dispatched out of the union hiring hall in the morning refused to take their job assignments. Someone who drove through the Port of Oakland after the shift started reported that only 4 of the 36 cranes at the port were operating. The Contra Costa Times claimed that 40 of the 325 longshore workers dispatched out of the ILWU hiring hall did not report to their job assignments at the port and joined the strike. Port officials scrambled to find replacements, but this act of solidarity forced the port of operate below capacity for the entire day.
Local community radio station KPFA claimed 18% of Oakland schools were closed due to teachers not reporting for work; 5% of Oakland city employees took the day off. The Men’s Wearhouse, located in the Rotunda Building which in 1946 had been Kahn's Department Store whose striking workers sparked the General Strike, posted a sign in its window saying “We stand with the 99%. Closed Wednesday, Nov. 2.”
14th Street at Broadway looking west
A morning march began to creep up Broadway, went past Latham Square, turned, and in a couple blocks was in front of the State Building, at 1515 Clay Street, that during Stop the Draft Week in 1967 had been the Army Induction Center and the site of the most militant anti-war demo of the 1960s. And the actions in 1967 spawned some of the same acrimonious debates occurring today, between pacifists and direct action militants. The latter, seeing the ineffectiveness and futility of symbolic spectacles, called for the escalation of tactics from protest to resistance. This intensification of the struggle happened in two phases, the first militant action was on Tuesday October 17, 1967 as 3,000 protesters were routed by the cops. They regrouped, re-strategized, and the following Friday, the 20th, went back with 10,000 and routed the 2,000 cops, controlling the streets for the day. Frank Bardacke, Stop the Draft Week organizer and one of the Oakland 7 defendants, put it best:
We controlled the downtown area of Oakland for most of the day and the cops were outnumbered and confused and scared. And we shut down the [Army] Induction Center, we did just what we said we were going to do, we shut the mutha down! (from documentary Berkeley in the Sixties)
Controlling the streets was not enough, as this was not only the high point of the anti-war movement but was the limitation it never went beyond. Resistance is a dead-end if it cannot challenge the capitalist imperative to war, which can only begin to happen through class struggle. This passage shows that contradiction:
In the Vietnam War, for example, the picture most people had was of middle-class radicals, the New Left, fighting against the war and the hard-hats supporting it and beating up the antiwar students. Yet more war production was stopped by workers carrying on ordinary strikes in the course of their lives in the plants than by the whole antiwar movement put together. There were strikes at Olin-Matheson, which made munitions, at McDonnell-Douglas, which made fighter planes, on the Missouri Pacific railroad, which transported war materials for shipment from the Pacific coast. In a few instances, strikes lasted a couple of weeks, and the shortage of planes and war material reached the point where the Johnson administration was getting ready to take over the plants to stop the strikes.
—Martin Glaberman & Seymour Faber, in Working for Wages: The Roots of Insurgency
Flying Picket at a Non-Union Workplace
Coming along Clay Street and passing 14th Street, we saw a dozen members of the local Industrial Workers of the World branch. Along with a member of the International Socialist Organization, a Trotskyist group, they were trying to gather some people together to shut down a business where the workers had wanted to come out for the general strike, but the boss would not allow them. Just as they pulled us aside, some local insurrectionists were passing by in the march and someone mentioned asking them, so I ran ahead and told them: “The Wobblies know a business that needs to be shut down”; they joined us without question and we instantly had doubled our ranks. On the way to the business it turned out to be Specialty’s Café, a business that has baked goods, sandwiches, soup and coffee and caters to lunchtime office workers. Just before 11:00 a.m., our flying picket broke into two groups to avoid detection by police or security, and then marched eight blocks. As we walked along a pedestrian plaza, we had to pass what turned out to be a police van; it was loading food and was leaving just as we were arriving. We converged at the café entrance, located on the ground floor of a high-rise office building, and walked in en masse and filled the whole space.
Customers did not know what to make of us, so they quickly left the store. So we began loudly shouting slogans like “Shut it down!”, “General Strike!” and “Let them strike, it’s their right!” After we noisily created havoc and prevented the café from operating, someone negotiated with the boss and he agreed to close, let the workers leave, and pay them for a full day's wages – even though they had not even been there half a shift. There were about 15 people working there, with about five Latino guys baking and cooking in the visible kitchen and the rest were young black and white women and men working the counter and serving food.
Most of the workers were excited at our action, especially the ones who knew some of the Wobblies, but they had to be discrete in front of management. There was some confusion, at least until management disappeared from the windows, but once that happened the workers were all smiles and talked to us through the glass doors. We asked if we should stay or leave, and the enthusiastic response was “Stay!” So we put a banner reading “HUELGA” (Spanish for “strike”) over the plate glass window facing inside, which immediately evoked smiles from the Spanish-speaking kitchen staff. As it got closer to noon, white-collar workers flooded out of their offices heading to Specialty’s for lunch. Many had ordered their sandwiches or soup with credit cards online and did not believe us when we told them the store was closed; many rattled the locked door anyway to confirm, then left in despair while we tried to explain the general strike. We then blocked the main door with another banner that said “WE’RE HERE IN WORKING CLASS SOLIDARITY!” and about 10 of us stayed for the next hour, chanting messages of solidarity. The same worker who told us to stay later said through the glass “You did it! You shut it down!” and gave one of the Wobblies a fist bump through the glass door. We stayed until all the workers had left the café, hoping that some of them would make it to the area around Oscar Grant Plaza to join the strike.
While we were waiting for the workers to leave, a couple of potential customers complained that we were “attacking a small local business.” Before we could refute this and explain that this business was notorious for miserable working conditions, regardless whether it was local or multinational, a young black man who just arrived to our action said he was formerly an assistant manager at this café. He then pointed out that employees made low wages, worked under terrible conditions, but the kitchen staff with poor English-speaking skills were manipulated and often worked for years without a raise because the boss exploited their lack of language ability to cheat them out of automatic wage increases. We later found out this store is part of a chain; later research revealed Specialty’s Café & Bakery is a San Francisco-based chain of 30 outlets throughout California, in Seattle and Chicago, and with venture capitalists funding an ambitious nationwide expansion plan.
And at the end of our picket, security guards came out of the building with an ideological agenda. They engaged us, constantly said they were “with us” because they were the “99% too,” but their mission was to demoralize us and dissuade us from anything confrontational that might shut businesses down. They kept telling us “you’re doing it all wrong,” to which those engaging them asked what the “correct” way to do it was. Their answer was simply a barrage of confused and emotional criticism. Most of us saw that they were just doing their jobs, and ignored them.
This was one of the most inspiring actions of the day. We also promised the workers that we would return to picket and occupy if they did not get the full day’s pay, or if anyone suffered recriminations. The flying picket tactic showed an extremely effective method of aiding non-unionized workers who wanted to join the general strike. Too bad the several thousand in the 2:00 p.m. anti-capitalist march could not repeat this solidarity tactic with the 125 workers at Whole Foods, whose management is virulently anti-union. The masked-up black bloc opted for breaking a few windows and spraying some graffiti instead of something in solidarity with the workers inside the store. I have talked with former workers at that store about the awful conditions and they said workers there would be very sympathetic to actions in solidarity with their plight.
Soon after we joined a march of around a thousand going down 21st Street toward Broadway, in the area that is Oakland’s mini-financial district. We saw the same security guard who kept trying to steer us away from Specialty’s Café, telling us to go to Bank of America instead. It then became clear that her security detail did not include Bank of America, so she was really just telling us to go away. But as we passed the corner of Valdez Street, this same security guard was playfully engaging in some kind of cat and mouse attempt to protect the concrete retaining wall, along the sidewalk, right on the corner. Soon enough it became clear why. The corner had been covered with cardboard painted the same color as the concrete, but when protestors began tearing away the cardboard, beneath was written “MORGAN STANLEY SMITH BARNEY.” The day was full of surreal moments like this
Back to Downtown
Rejoining the massive downtown crowds at was an anti-climatic letdown after shutting down the café. It was festive, full of music, and over ten thousand people were enjoying themselves, but the point of the chants, the slogans, the posters, and the signs was indignation, moral indignation. The exception was the incredibly inspiring “DEATH TO CAPITALISM” and “OAKLAND COMMUNE” banners strung above the street at 14th and Broadway. It was hard to consider it a general strike when the most common slogans were “tax the rich” and “banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Where was the class struggle? How could we even make the stretch to call it a general strike when a sizable portion of us only wanted to reform and re-regulate the banks? Putting forward “occupy the banks” as a demand, as well as the actions of blocking their doors, was simply a moral tactic to force the financial sector to be more “responsible.” It would be erroneous to call these actions “flying pickets,” since those who went to the downtown banks never attempted to reach the rank-and-file bank workers in solidarity. This was a glaring weakness in our attempted general strike, but probably to be expected since effective class struggle has been largely absent for decades.
14th Street at Broadway looking east
We were back at 14th Street and Broadway and the crowd had grown to be in the tens of thousands. On the street at Latham Square, someone had made an altar with “Death to Capitalism” written across it. Before we realized it, the 2:00 p.m. anti-capitalist march was to begin. It assembled near the statue at Latham Square, ground zero for the 1946 General Strike, and we stayed near the back since none of us was masked-up. This activist uniform usually connotes tactics of property damage and attempts to fight with the police; the latter almost universally results in dozens – if not hundreds – of arrests. Being at the tail-end of the march, we missed the smash-’em-up at Whole Foods. But we were verbally assaulted for “condoning” the window breaking and graffiti once we got near the store’s entrance. Since we did not really know what had happened, we simply defended our fellow protestors, regardless of what they had done. This somehow enraged the finger-pointing liberals further and I have never seen such vitriol and hatred from people who claim to advocate for Gandhi-style pacifism. At least the black blockers are not hypocrites.
We also missed the smashing and graffiti back at the Bank of America at the Kaiser Center. The vanguard of the march, the black bloc of a couple hundred, made it back downtown so quickly that we were unable to catch up. But we did see some of the destruction at the Wells Fargo Bank at 12th and Broadway, where a circus of moral indignation was no longer directed at the banks, but was directed at the black blockers instead. One high priest of this moralism was even proposing that the Port action be canceled because of the broken bank windows. We just could not tolerate this absurdity, so someone from our group interrupted his tirade and said “This is just a conspiracy by the plate glass industry to sell more glass.” Even the moralist laughed, as did most of the defenders of the smashing, it defused the situation and the crowd began to break up.
The Seattle Model: 1919 vs. 1999
The tactics of the black bloc quickly hit a practical dead-end and brought on the same pointless violence vs. non-violence debates that are just as divisive today as they were in 1967 at Stop the Draft Week — repeated ad nauseam again at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Property destruction can be effective if used properly and in the proper context. A perfect example was the members of the ILWU Local 21at the Port of Longview, Washington who sabotaged the opening of the EGT grain terminal with scab labor, paralyzing the facility and setting off wildcat strikes that shut down the ports of Everett, Seattle and Tacoma in Washington and Portland in Oregon (an even better example was the 77-day occupation of the Ssangyong Motors factory in Pyeongtaek, South Korea in the summer of 2009; workers fashioned defensive weapons from the auto plant’s workshops). On September 7, 400-500 longshore workers and their supporters blocked trains for three hours, stood down 40-50 riot gear equipped cops, even unarresting some of their comrades. Sometime after 4 a.m. the following morning hundreds of longshoremen and their supporters stormed the EGT terminal. Armed with baseball bats, they broke down the gate, smashed up the guards’ shack (no one was harmed), drove the guards’ car into a ditch, entered the plant site, cut air hoses on the train that had arrived on site the day before, and dumped tons of grain from over 100 railroad cars.
Black bloc graffiti, Whole Foods store Oakland
Without a strategy, the black bloc becomes a form devoid of a theoretical basis in the content of what is being struggled for, which can be summed up as a form of violent activism. It is clearly not class struggle, which suggests an anti-capitalist practice based on the class conscious activity of the working class – that includes everyone disposed from the means of survival, the unemployed, the homeless and all others suffering from the oppressions of capitalism. The goal of class struggle is realizing a classless society, using the strike weapon – up to and including mass or general strikes – and solidarity actions to create a revolutionary rupture in the production and reproduction of the social relations of capital. Activism, conversely, is focused on forms, never getting beyond means to even strategize towards ends – unless the ends are still within capitalism. The spectrum stretches from non-violent liberal reformism, those wanting to democratize capitalism and correct its injustices peacefully; on the opposite pole black bloc activists think it possible to smash a social relationship away by mere might, as though will power alone can make anyone with a claw hammer a revolutionary subject. This limits them to the tactic of attacking the forms of capitalism, where static objects like plate glass windows are surrogates for the dynamics of accumulation, never theoretically comprehending its content. They are oblivious to how consciousness, experience and human agency develop as the content of the historical process of revolution.
The non-violent activists wanted to create a circus sideshow of protest – never allowing militancy to even rise to the level of resistance – replete with puppets, banners, marching bands, and the usual activist-protest tactics to shut the banks by simply blocking the doors. Not that festivity is bad, but it would be more euphoric if all commerce – including banks – was targeted by mass strike actions like in 1946. Rank-and-file workers in the banks were not seen as class allies who would benefit from solidarity actions to shut them — hopefully with pay — like what happened at Specialty’s. The activist morality goes like this: corporations and banks are evil and people working in them are complicit in this depravity. Hence wage workers become the evil other and must face an accusatory finger branding them as “part of the problem.” This moralizing is devoid of a systemic analysis, totally lacks a critique of political economy, and fails to understand class consciousness and solidarity. Liberal activists live in a fantasy world, where they are “classless angels” crusading to bring “social justice” to the people, which in practice often amounts to nothing more than empty rhetoric and banal slogans backed only by moral appeals.
The insurrectionists in the black bloc want to create an orgy of destruction, believing that social relations can be simply removed through negating their forms, by smashing them, totally oblivious to the content of capitalism – both in theory and in practice – as well as the possibility of finding working class allies in the stores they are smashing. Those low-income hyper-exploited wage slaves often hate work as much as — or more than — the black blockers.
Activists, whether banner-waving blockaders or window-smashing black blockers, fit neatly into the “Seattle Model” of the diverse activist tactics used in the 1999 WTO protests. Some want harmless, non-violent protest; others want violent, disruptive resistance. Neither came close to the tactics, let alone the strategy, of class struggle on a mass scale – which is the most basic definition of a general strike.
Those of us who participated in the solidarity action at the Specialty’s root our theories and practice of class struggle in what can best be summed up at the “Chicago Idea.” This class struggle model reached its highpoint in the Seattle General Strike of 1919 where workers – like in the Paris Commune of 1871 – ran the city themselves; in the case of the Seattle in 1919, it was for five days.
The Chicago Idea
The Chicago Idea was a direct descendent of the fallout from the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune and came to birth in the movement for the 8-hour day in the 1880s. It was led by anarchists who advocated for militant class struggle to create organizational forms that would become the “embryonic” forerunners of a future “free society.” Here is a description:
The first sign of change came in March 1882, when a group of German tanners struck and demanded a wage equal to that of the more skilled English-speaking curriers. When employers refused the demand and the curriers struck in sympathy with the immigrant tanners… the curriers acted not on the basis of “any grievance of their own, but because of a sentimental and sympathetic feeling for another class of workmen.” The sympathy strike even surprised the editor of the of the trades council newspaper, who said it was “something new and wonderful.” The seventy-two-day exercise in solidarity was, according to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, “one of the most remarkable on record, an action “conducted on the principle of the Knights of Labor which proclaims that “an injury to one is the concern of all.”
—James Green, Death in the Haymarket, p. 98
The state found this revolutionary working class movement so threatening that, like with the mass executions of the Communards of Paris, it was brutally crushed. The triggering incident happened at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886, in response to the police murder of workers during the strike for an 8-hour day. After a sham trial, four anarchists were scapegoated and hung, becoming the Haymarket Martyrs.
Picketline Kahn's Department Store, Oakland, November 1946
The IWW was founded on of the legacy of the Chicago Idea, but its spirit rises up in every act of solidarity, from sympathy strikes to wildcats to collective acts of sabotage to full-blown general strikes. When the strike of women retail clerks in Oakland in 1946 was being scabbed on by a professional strikebreaking firm, the spontaneous sympathy strike of transit operators, truck drivers, office workers, machinists, factory workers, maritime workers – and eventually almost the entire working class of Oakland – was the Chicago Idea in practice.
Mass Solidarity Action Substituting for Unionized Workers
A mechanic originally from Oakland boasted to a 1936 union convention that “a picket line in that country [Oakland] is more effective than a barb wire fence.”
—in Richard Boyden's dissertation "The San Francisco Machinists from Depression to Cold War, 1930-1950"
During previous general strikes, Oakland was a manufacturing hub for all of northern California. Factories produced goods for domestic consumption, as well some for export. A picket line was often all that was necessary to tap into the class consciousness of workers to shut down businesses – with the effectiveness of a “barb wire fence.” But those struggles and that consciousness has long since receded and been forgotten. At worst, the US is amnesiac and anti-intellectual; class-denial is a defining cultural feature. Since the last wave of wildcat strikes in the 1970s, the ruling class has succeeded in its counterattack by displacing class antagonisms through deindustrialization, class recomposition, and creating ideological mystification – the “society of the spectacle.” The further integration of a world market has transformed the planet as well; globalized production and supply chains mean that commodities are produced on every continent, as well as being transported to and consumed in every corner of the earth. In 2011, Oakland produces much less than is consumed, so most goods are imported. Many of them come through the Port of Oakland, after being produced and assembled elsewhere.
It should not be forgotten that the port has had rising exports, sending abroad commodities such as fruit and nuts, meat, machinery, beverages, scrap metal, animal hides and skins, chemical products, woodpulp and paper, cereals, grains, seeds, processed food, plastic, and cotton. Some of those same commodities come back through the port as finished goods, like clothes, shoes, vehicles, electronics, furniture, toys, and product packaging.
The Port of Oakland moves $39 billion in imports and exports per year. So a work stoppage can prevent the movement of $106,849,315 worth of commerce for a single day. This made it the most worthy target of class struggle activity during the November 2nd attempt at a general strike. Some ILWU workers on the docks make over $100,000 a year, putting them among the highest paid industrial worker in the US. These conditions were won in the 1934 General Strike, protected with another strike in 1936, and were consolidated by a major strike again in 1948; in that fourteen year period the ILWU had 1,399 legal and illegal work stoppages as part of this process.
The last strike of the ILWU was in 1971, but they have done political actions on the docks to boycott ships from post-junta Chile and with munitions headed for El Salvador, in addition to refusing to work ships from apartheid in South Africa. They have invoked contractual privileges to shut West Coast ports in solidarity with the struggle of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, to celebrate May Day in 2008, and to protest the police murder of Oscar Grant. They attempted an unauthorized contractual shut down on April 4, 2011 in solidarity with fight against Governor Walker’s anti-labor legislation in Wisconsin, for which they are currently being legally prosecuted. There are rumblings about possible solidarity actions with the workers in Longview, Washington, that might spread beyond the ILWU’s jurisdiction on the West Coast and draw in the International Longshore Association on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts too. Despite all that, Local 10 on the docks of Oakland is restricted by a no-strike clause in their contract and their legacy of wildcat striking is in the distant past. So, the mass of other workers in Oakland had to substitute for them and do what they were legally unable – or unwilling – to do, which was to shut down the port. Hopefully, this will encourage them to engage in economic strikes in the future on their own behalf. Contract or no contract, the only illegal strike is one that loses.
March along Middle Harbor Road
March to Shut Down the Port
We gathered for the 4:00 p.m. march to the Port from 14th and Broadway because in prior organizing meetings it had been emphasized that we needed to be at the port before the parking lots opened at 6:00 for longshore workers coming to the 7:00 shift. The furthest terminal entrances are 3.7 miles from our starting point, so we needed to leave early enough to set up our picket lines at the gates before the workers got there. We could tell the march was extremely large, but more importantly everyone was in high spirits. As we crossed the 880 Freeway, cars crawled beneath us and many supportive honks could be heard in response to the many banners that were put up on the fences on the bridge.
As we entered West Oakland, people came out of apartments and houses and stood along the street cheering us on, like in a celebration. A few even joined us, but mostly people just waved at us with smiles of joy on their faces. This area is ethnically mixed, but is still predominately African American as it had been in the heyday of the Black Panthers. Although not all of them joined us, these bystanders were clearly part of us. We turned onto Market Street and this was hammered home when we passed a modest house in near the corner of 10th Street. A boy (see photo at top) of about eight stood on the porch, along with others who looked to be his grandmother and teenaged brother. He was excitedly holding up a paper on which “99%” had been written. His enthusiasm gave off such a life-affirming sense of hope and confidence that my spirits shot another notch higher. Just the sense of common vision I shared with that young guy made me certain that whatever happens, some young people are living through an historical moment they will remember for the rest of their lives.
Climbing up Adeline Bridge to the Port
It was when we turned onto Adeline, crossed under the freeway, that the march’s size began to dawn on me. We were many blocks long, but the streets were completely filled, from curb-to-curb. It was when we got to the top of the bridge over the railroad tracks, which curved and became Middle Harbor Road that I got a true perspective on how many we were. I could look ahead and see the whole intersection around the entrance to the APL terminal was filled with a mass of human bodies, in the midst of which were six trucks all stopped abreast of each other across almost the whole road. I turned back around, and looked down the bridge along the route we had just come. As far as I could see, people were still coming. It was like a tsunami of humanity, just one giant mass of people flowing across the landscape. And this realization made me feel so euphoric that I felt like I was in a dream.
Coming down Adeline Bridge to Middle Harbor Road at the Port
As we got to the intersection at the Port where they is a traffic signal at the entrance to the APL terminal, I marveled at the six trucks idled six abreast in the midst of the human swarm. I wondered what the troqueros thought about the shut down, so I asked the first two I saw standing next to their trucks. I began by apologizing for preventing them from working. They immediately responded by rejecting my apology, saying “We’re part of this and we’re happy it’s happening.” Their only disappointment was that they though the strike would happen in the morning. Regardless, they were all smiles, shook all our hands, introduced themselves (I think they were from East Africa, maybe Ethiopia), and we left knowing at least some port truckers were pleased with the inconvenience.
Intersection in front of APL Terminal gate, Middle Harbor Road
I saw lots of old friends and comrades, some of whom I had not seen in decades, but even strangers had a familiarity as though I had known them my whole life. Everyone was talking with everyone else; atomization and alienation had melted away and even if it was fleeting, it created a collective joy that is beyond words. Our group would gain a person, and then someone would drift off. We eventually made it all the way to the end of Middle Harbor, where it ends at 7th Street. The sun had set and as it got darker and darker, we made our way to the crucial intersection at 7th and Maritime. One our way, we had heard misinformation as people told us we were not needed here. But that was not true, because from that intersection there are two entrances to the Port for access roads to the outside.
Our informal group got involved in making sure people created a human blockade to both entrances. But people were still confused, so someone yelled “mic check” and we had an impromptu meeting. The first speaker asked what we should be doing. One of our group spoke up and made a concrete proposal, which was: 1. no vehicle could pass us to enter the Port; 2. no truck with containers could go either in or out; 3. we would allow all workers to pass us to leave the Port. It was near unanimous agreement. And we protected this strategic intersection and no one entered. Eventually the entire intersection was filled with about 500 protestors.
Soon there were some cars and vans wanting to pass us. Some hotheads got in front and blocked them in, saying it was a general strike and they were going to shut “everything” down. We pleaded to let them out, but their response was “we walked here, so they can walk out of here.” We reconvened an assembly and once again reminded everyone of our earlier consensus on the three principled of our occupation of the intersection. Quickly, with no effort, we confirmed our earlier consensus with near-unanimity. Despite these few dissenters, who seemed obsessed about punishing anyone working in the Port, we were able to defend our blockade and let workers get out.
Soon a truck with a trailer rolled up to us. The driver said he was tired and sick and was headed home. We asked why he still had a trailer, so he explained it was empty. We said if that was so, could we have his permission to open the doors and check. He got nervous and said it was “sealed,” to which we responded that sealed containers are not empty. We check and it actually was not sealed. We worked out a compromise with him and he backed up, turned around, and parked somewhere within the Port. Despite some non-cooperative participants, our people’s mic and consensus decision-making process worked extremely well and allowed us to make very quick decisions.
Around 8:00 p.m., we got word that all of our section of the port, that was about three-fourths of the entire complex, was completely shut down by the sheer force of all our bodies – which reasonable estimates put at 40,000—50,000 (although an artist comrade analyzed helicopter photos and put it closer to 100,000). It was exhilarating. Around 9:00, we got word that the outermost terminal had been picketed by the bicyclists who had got there first, then with others who had made it there on foot, and the health and safety arbitrator had ruled that the workers did not have to cross the “unsafe” picket line and could go home with a day’s pay.
A couple dozen of us had to use direct action at Specialty’s bakery to leverage management into shutting down and paying their non-unionized workers for the whole day. We had used the tactic of mass action to shut down the 5th biggest port in the U.S., and all of our bodies were the means to paralyze the port, sending the ILWU longshore workers home with pay as well. Jessica Mitford was right, there was nothing abstract about class struggle – and the solidarity of the General Strike attempt – in Oakland that day. At least 50,000 of us proved it. And this model needs to be repeated everywhere, if we hope to go beyond resistance and truly start taking the class war on the offensive.
The thread from Chicago has been picked up once again in Oakland, but it needs to be cast across the Pacific, to connect with the rising class consciousness of the striking workers in the burgeoning factory towns of China; it must then spread solidarity across the entire global supply chain and link together class struggle everywhere. Only then can we truly live up to the internationalist implications of the old Wobbly adage: "An injury to one is an injury to all."
But we are clearly at the beginning of a process where class relations will become less abstract as we continue to fight back against austerity. This will necessitate linking up across borders, helping to spread these struggles to every corner of the planet. If the definition of the 99% is able to translate into class terms through the dynamic of class struggle, our next attempt at a general strike will be propelled much more forcefully forward by class consciousness. E. P. Thompson sums up this historical process quite lucidly:
…far too much theoretical attention (much of it plainly a-historical) has been paid to “class,” and far too little to “class-struggle.” Indeed, class-struggle is the prior, as well as the more universal concept. To put it bluntly: classes do not exist as separate entities, look around, find an enemy class, and then start to struggle. On the contrary, people find themselves in a society structured in determined ways (crucially, but not exclusively, in production relations), they experience exploitation (or the need to maintain power over those whom they exploit), they identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence a struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling they discover themselves as classes, they come to know this discovery as class-consciousness. Class and class-consciousness are always the last, not the first, stage in the real historical process (E. P. Thompson, “Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?” in Social History, Vol. 3, No. 2 [May, 1978], p. 1489)
GENERAL STRIKE CHILDREN’S BRIGADE joining the action near Oscar Grant Plaza
NOTE: Although IDP comrades witnessed the occupation of the Traveler's Aid Building and subsequent police attack, those events are beyond the scope of this piece. Hopefully an account will be forthcoming.
Hieronymous, Insane Dialectical Posse, November 11, 2011