An account by K.R. about the November 2nd Occupy Oakland 'general strike'.
On the ground at the Oakland general strike
On Wednesday morning, Nov. 2, I sent a text message to my boss that read “Cough, cough. Capitalism is making me sick. I will be seeking treatment in downtown Oakland today.” He wrote back, “Nice try, you communist.”
On my way to the Millbrae Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station I contacted several friends. I convinced two of them to come to Oakland. One was a student who cut her classes for the day even though she had important assignments due and meetings scheduled. The other was a recentlylaid- off former co-worker.
Coming up the escalator to Oscar Grant Plaza from the 12th Street BART station I heard amplified speeches—I had heard there would be a flatbed trailer, and I was apprehensive that Nov. 2 would devolve into the typical, deathly boring rally from with which we have all had far too many years’ experience. And indeed, the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway had that feel at 9:30 a.m.: A few hundred people either facing or ignoring a stage of blabbering activists. But soon enough, the streets filled with people coming from all directions. Before I knew it there were thousands of us and the sound stage became practically irrelevant.
The first march pushed off and circled a few blocks. There were no police visible and we filled the entire street. I had the first burst of the feeling of elation, freedom and solidarity that would stay with me all day. I walked near the Brass Liberation Orchestra, which stopped on Clay Street where a circle of cheering and dancing people formed. We chanted “Occupy! Shut it down! Oakland is the Peoples’ Town!” and “This system is about to die! Hella hella occupy!” These music and dance circles formed many times throughout the day, and I could not help but reflect on the accounts I have heard of similar behavior breaking out during the 1946 Oakland General Strike.
I noticed that many downtown businesses were preemptively shuttered for the day. I know that there were a few triumphant instances of flying pickets shutting banks and other businesses down, but somehow I missed being present at the moments these things happened.
The second march of the day was the 2:00 p.m. Anti-Capitalist March that wound its way through downtown and past a few banks, including Chase and Bank of America (both of which sported fresh facelifts, complete with shattered windows, graffiti, and paint splatters). Word rippled through the crowd that workers at Whole Foods—the “yuppie sweatshop,” as a friend called it—needed support to shut down the store by Lake Merritt, and the march moved toward the store.
As Whole Foods came into view we could see “STRIKE” spray-painted across the plate glass windows. It looked like at least one window had been broken. I lingered here for a while with a few friends. Two passersby voiced their displeasure with the vandalism, and seemed to blame us for either doing it or tacitly condoning it. Neither person was very articulate about their positions but they seemed to echo the typical peace-bully talking points, which I find exasperating and demoralizing, so we split to catch up with the march.
The Anti-Capitalist March returned to 14th Street and Broadway and a friend and I found a place to sit and rest. By this time the Alameda Labor Council had started their grill but we discovered the line was hundreds-long and we abandoned the idea of getting free food. Plans to find an open restaurant for food and bathrooms were dropped when the march to the port began; we had found some other friends and did not want to lose them again. Off we marched up 14th Street toward west Oakland.
A quick pit-stop into a taqueria for a bathroom and maybe some food was a bust—too long a line—but the workers there offered free bottles of ice-cold water. We took some and rejoined the march. From a freeway overpass we heard cars below honking wildly in support and saw traffic slow to a crawl as drivers took in the sight of thousands of people heading toward the port. Families watched from their driveways and cheered us on as we passed. Chants floated in the air: “Let’s go, Oakland! Let’s go!” The neighborhood smiled on the march and residents held up hand-made signs.
The flat geography of downtown and west Oakland made it virtually impossible to get a bead on the size of the march from ground level, but I got my first idea of its size as we rounded the corner of 7th and Adeline. Two blocks ahead I could see the rise of the overpass above the freight tracks. It was packed with people marching. Tractor cabs leaving the port were stranded in the sea of people, unable to move, and as we made our way across the overpass I saw many of the drivers grinning in awe, honking in support and laughing with protesters who hopped up onto the cab ladders to chat.
At the other end of the overpass the ground leveled out again along Middle Harbor Road. People climbed up on top of containers in triumph as we continued on to block all the gates. Each gate drew crowds of many hundreds, who stayed to secure the closure while others continued on to the rest of the gates.
Soon I was marching with four other women and we all had to pee. This stretch of road—train tracks on one side, cyclone fences and sheer walls on the other, and thousands of people all around—proved an inhospitable environment for the task. Eventually we found a low concrete barricade and created a “human shield” for one another. Some guy stopped to pee in solidarity nearby. I don’t think he quite got it that it’s not really the same thing for men to pee in public, but it was a sweet and funny gesture all the same. When we marched on we occasionally overheard other women talking about needing to pee and offered our services as the “Ad-Hoc Girls’ Bathroom Brigade.”
BART trains heading for San Francisco thundered overhead as we walked west. We heard rumors that Occupy San Francisco had shut down the Bay Bridge, but as darkness fell I had seen headlights moving on the bridge so I don’t think that really happened. It was a nice thought, though.
Over time we made our way to 7th and Maritime, where a crowd of hundreds was holding down the westernmost port entrances. It was dark now, and it had been announced that shift-change at the port had been moved from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., then from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. I still don’t know if any of that was true. We were all waiting for an announcement that the arbitrator had ruled that conditions for workers were “dangerous” and that the incoming shift would be sent home.
When it was clear that we had succeeded in shutting down the port for the night, even if the official word was still about 20 minutes from arriving, I began the trek to the West Oakland BART station with a couple of friends.
When the tracks up on the elevated platform were free of trains we called “mic check!” across the tracks and we spoke to each other through the peoples’ mic and we cheered our victory. A woman read a message from Scott Olsen, written that evening from his hospital bed—his first public communication since his injury. Trains arrived and we boarded, tired but sleepless like young people in love.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2011)