II. Context of Occupy Oakland

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 2, 2012

The 2007-08 crisis has radically destroyed the public infrastructure of our society: schools, hospitals, public transportation, and parks have all been violently gutted. This is an expression of a much deeper crisis in capitalism that is pulling society into a downward spiral. The last 30 years we have seen an extremely rapid and unceasing technological revolution within commodity production, one that has devalorized labor-power so fast that the proletariat is being constantly expelled from the work process. As a class, the proletariat is thus unable to reproduce itself.

The surplussing of Oakland’s proletariat has been a racialized process, with Blacks and Latinos bearing the brunt of unemployment, often resorting to sub-legal employment in the criminalized sectors of drug and sex trades. White proletarians moved out decades ago, to new suburbs that offered capital low to zero property taxes, incentivizing “white flight” and the related Tax Revolt that is epitomized by the notorious Prop 13 which undercut funding sources for social services that California’s working class relied upon for survival. Prisons have become the capitalist solution to spatially fix our rising surplus populations, with over a million Black people incarcerated in the US. Loren Goldner states in Theses for Discussion that capital “must either devalue existing commodities, whether labor power or capital plant or consumer goods, until a new general rate of profit can coincide with some real expansion, or else the working class must destroy value.” In the context of Oakland, capital has used the first two strategies (devaluing labor-power and closing factories) with impunity. The 30% dropout rate of youth of color is an intuitive reaction of the young proletariat to defunded schools and public sector services alongside evaporating employment opportunities. Black and Brown youth are forced by circumstances into prison, unemployment, underemployed, or low skill minimum wage jobs, the informal economy, etc.

The Bay Area’s main sectors of economic growth have been in high tech industries like Pixar in Emeryville, tourism like Jack London Square, eco-businesses like solar panels, and non-profits that sell labor-power maintenance services to the state and private capitalist foundations. All of these sectors favor college educated people with “middle class” cultural traits, not urban youth with low-quality underfunded training. With property values decimated by the crisis, hordes of “employable” white and/or college educated people of color have moved into ghettos, being channeled back into the cities that a generation ago were abandoned by these very strata. This racial and intra-proletarian tension between mostly (by no means exclusively though) white (semi-) professionals and exclusively Black and Brown largely unemployed has been demonized as gentrification, but it is probably more a reflexion of white and college educated professionals’ rapidly increasing precarity. In August 2011, Oakland’s unemployment was officially at 16.5 percent, a stark condition in a local economy where, according to a 2009 report, African American workers living in Oakland earned about 60 cents on the dollar of their White counterparts, while Latinos earned about 47 cents. Oakland’s social problems are not isolated, but working class conditions in urban centers around the US, and the world, have also been severely declining. Some have used the term ‘planet of the slums,’ the rise of a large surplus population, to define the millions of people thrown out of the work process, which leads to jail, precarious work, and a complete uncertainty regarding the future. The Occupy movement’s slogan of “We are the 99%” came out of the declining college-educated, professional, largely white upper strata of the working class, reflecting their fear and anger at capitalism’s 30 year stagnation and sense of unity with those who have long inhabited precarious, dangerous, devalued niches in the class structure of the US.

On top of these developments, Oakland has suffered from a permanent state of police violence, when in the 1950s, racist Southern military personal were intentionally recruited by Oakland and Los Angeles Police Departments, a big factor giving rise to the Black Panthers in 1966. Killings of Black and Brown people have continued all the way to the present. One of the movements that shadows the Oscar Grant struggle was the 2007 death of Gary King Jr in Oakland, killed by Sgt. Patrick Gonzales in a neighborhood that was historically Black Panther territory, as their original office was a few blocks away from the murder. Sgt. Patrick Gonzales also patrolled the rally against BART Officer Mehserle, who was being released from jail after his murder of Oscar Grant, and helped lead the shutting down of the Oakland Occupy camp October 25th. These figures continued to patrol Oakland streets and protests virtually unpunished from their crimes, and led the suppression of protest.

Beyond Oakland’s Bay Area bubble, in the national landscape, the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation and California’s anti-budget cut student movement were opening shots against the capitalist crisis. Workers in Chicago inspired from the South American factory occupations heavily present in Argentina, and the class struggle traditions that were maintained within the EU (Electricians Union), were combined into the action against the Chicago Windows and Doors Company. The California student movement, organizing an array of marches, occupations and strikes, began a movement against austerity climaxing on March 4th 2010, inspiring the Puerto Rican general strike shortly after. New York brought forth its Occupy Wall Street movement, inspired from the combination of Madison, Egyptian, and Greek struggles, and very quickly several cities in the US and around the world followed suit. Wall Street, a symbol of American and even global capitalism, is a serious political target where our movement is no longer bashing the evil greedy CEO, but rather the 1% that rules capitalist society and benefits from the economic cuts of the last 4 years.

Occupy Oakland is a genuine reflection of the working class of Oakland and its affiliated radical community. It has gained strength in its inclusion of everyone, but with this inclusion also come limitations. Occupy Oakland’s space was open to all; homeless people and those shut out of the workforce were heavily present at the camp. Part of this is due to the technological character of production which reduces the amount of workers needed for capitalist commodity production; another part comes from the related assault on public infrastructure and services, leaving millions with little recourse. Occupy Oakland has been a movement of surplus students, surplus professionals, surplus low-wage workers, and the ultimate surplus population: the homeless. This is a cross-section of the proletariat, with representation from all strata within it. The contradictions between these working class strata, thrown together in structural unity sharing an as yet unarticulated class interest, have manifested in contradictions within Occupy Oakland. The product is a diverse social movement propelled by the diversity of the oppressed layers of the working class, mobilizing incredible actions with the language of class struggle but without the ability to push class struggle into real motion because many of the protesters’ social niche lie outside of any stable or formal workplace. Occupy Oakland’s limitations in all this diversity can be summed up in the question: “Here is the working class, where are the workers?”