The streets of Oakland, California, echoed with the voices of tens of thousands of people determined to take a stand on November 2. Workers, students, activists and people from all walks of life responded to the call for a general strike by Occupy Oakland.
The last general strike in the United States was in 1946 (also in Oakland).
The determination in Oakland was matched by thousands more around the US who took part in a national day of solidarity action a week after a brutal police assault that turned Oakland's downtown into something close to a war zone — and that nearly took the life of demonstrator and Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister.
People from around the Bay Area responded to the general strike call by Occupy Oakland's general assembly, the day after the brutal October 25 attack on Occupy protesters. Teachers stayed away from work, students walked out of classes and city workers took the day off to join the protests.
Port shut down
The highlight came in the late afternoon with a mass march from the Occupy encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza — renamed Oscar Grant Plaza in honour of the African American man shot dead by Oakland police in 2009 — in front of City Hall to the Port of Oakland. The port is the fifth-busiest in the country.
The demonstration shut down the evening shift when longshore workers refused to cross the picket line of about 15,000 people.
"This event is long overdue," said James Curtis, an executive board member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. "Now they have awoken a sleeping tiger."
The strike call brought out solidarity in different forms all over the city. Oakland public school buildings were points of origin for marches of students, teachers and parents to the Oakland Board of Education, several banks and City Hall.
A feeder march of 700 from Laney Community College shut down a Wells Fargo bank. Hundreds of city workers from Service Employees Union (SEIU) Local 1021 took part in the protest.
Many teachers at high schools, community colleges and the University of California held teach-ins on the economy and the 99%. The UC system graduate student union, UAW Local 2865, asked its members to use class time to teach about budget cuts.
The streets of Oakland took on a festival-like atmosphere. Over the course of the day, activists estimated about 20,000 people mobilised to Oscar Grant Plaza — the site of the previous week's battle when the cops attacked Occupy protesters who had been evicted from the plaza in the early hours.
More than 100 people were arrested on October 25 and the police used tear gas, stun grenades, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets against protesters. One of the victims was Olsen, who was struck by a tear gas canister. He remained in hospital a week later with a skull fracture and brain injury.
But the scene at Oscar Grant Plaza was very different on November 2.
People from across the Bay Area came to the central Occupy site to take part in activities there — before heading to other protests around the city that highlighted a multitude of grievances, from home foreclosures to school closings, attacks on unions and cuts in city services.
"We watch our kids stuck in the prison pipeline with no prospects for jobs or meaningful work," said Betty Olsen-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association. "We suffer increased class sizes and the imposition of a top-down curriculum, and our kids know that this system thinks the banks and the corporations are more important than they are.
"It's important our students see teachers fighting for their rights. We're making history today. We want a world that's not divided between the 99% and the 1%."
Dana Blanchard, a teacher in nearby Berkeley was the official spokesperson for the Berkeley Federation of Teachers for the day of action. "Teachers and students have had enough," she said. "Today, we are showing what a united community fightback can look like."
Among the participants during the day of action was a sizeable delegation of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who came to show their solidarity with Olsen.
The Alameda County Labor Council called on its membership and staff to support the day of action. In the evening, it organised a barbecue at Oscar Grant Plaza to feed thousands of people who streamed into the city centre after work hours.
Meanwhile, Teamsters Local 70 parked its boldly painted 18-wheeler in the middle of the plaza.
In the late afternoon, several waves of protesters assembled for a march to set up a mass picket aimed at closing down the city's most important economic asset: the port of Oakland.
At 4pm, 2000 people left, and at 5pm afurther 4000 departed. As they stepped off, Earth Amplified and Jennifer Johns performed a send-off serenade called "We Are Worldwide".
Minutes later, a delegation made up of workers from UNITE HERE, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, SEIU Local 1021 and others made its way toward the docks.
Demonstrators arrived at the giant port complex and split up to cover the different gates. Occupy San Francisco headed for one and Oakland activists divided out to cover others.
As the 7pm shift change approached, there were thousands of demonstrators on each of the main gates.
After several hours of picketing, the port arbitrator made a ruling that signalled the Oakland docks would be shut down for the night. Jubilant protesters celebrated their victory for the general strike. Most marched back to the downtown area around Oscar Grant Plaza, where the streets echoed with music, chanting and excited discussion.
In marked contrast to their vicious assault last week, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) was almost invisible on November 2 — from demonstrations during the day, to the march on the docks and to the celebrations at night.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and other city officials have been in full retreat since the police assault. They no doubt pressed for the police to be on their best behaviour with the hope of regaining some shred of legitimacy.
But the cops are also looking for an opening to reassert their authority, in the estimation of activists. They may have taken a hands-off approach to try to demonstrate that “chaos” would ensue without them — even though the day's events were almost entirely peaceful, orderly and festive.
Todd Chretien, a member of the International Socialist Organisation, said: "The OPD's attempt to portray themselves as part of the victimsed 99% is contradicted by its long history of racist violence and repression of protest.
"Last year, Mayor Quan stood in the streets with Oscar Grant protesters against the OPD, but now she's attempting to play both sides of the fence."
Whatever the case, neither the police nor city officials nor Oakland's business establishment could stop the protesters' show of defiance on the streets of the city and at the gates of the port of Oakland.
"Oakland is the economic engine for the whole Bay Area," Jack Heyman, a retired dockworker and activist in ILWU Local 10, told a Fresno public radio station. "Thousands are marching on the port, which is controlled by the 1%, the big capitalists, and by marching on the port and shutting it down, it shows not just Oakland but the whole world the power that the working class has."
Heyman thanked the young longshore workers who didn't show up for work in the morning of November 2, crimping the port's operations from early in the day.
"I commend the young people who refused to take jobs this morning," said Heyman. "That's why ship owners had a real difficult time getting together longshore crews.”
The spectre of workers on strike and a day of mass protest was enough to prompt many of Oakland's largest corporate entities to shut down for the day, adding even more to the numbers in the streets.
Gregory Belvin, a 17-year-old student at Skyline High School, said: "People are joining this cause on a national level, and now it seems more legit.
"As the 99%, we have to speak out against three strikes and minimum-sentencing laws. There's been a war on the youth, a whole generation of youth of colour have been lost to the prisons.
“If we can get those people back, they can help make it a better world."
Powell DeGange, a 26-year-old Oakland resident, expressed joy at being part of a global movement. "We were thrilled that people in Egypt marched in solidarity with Oakland," said DeGange.
"We were there for them, now they're standing up for us. We are part of a worldwide movement against the same greed and the same imperialism."
[Reprinted from Socialist Worker.]