Whither Occupy Oakland: “What’s Left?” February 2012, MRR #345

I’m not too proud to admit that I fucked up last column in my across the board criticism of Occupy Wall Street. My wife rightly took me and my column to task and pointed out that the Occupy movement has raised some important issues—wealth inequality, corporate greed, political corruption—into the realm of public debate, and therefore doesn’t deserve my inordinately pessimistic take on the movement as a whole. The fact that various folks my age and older who haven’t been to a demonstration in the past couple of decades are suddenly dropping by their local Occupy encampment to participate has given credence to her argument.

I ended my last column just as Occupy Oakland was taken down for the first time. The orgy of police violence, and in particular the injury of Iraqi war veteran Scott Olsen, triggered a massive burst of organizing energy that saw the reoccupation of the plaza in front of Oakland city hall, and the call for a general strike in the city of Oakland on November 2.

No, of course, it was not an actual general strike, for a number of reasons. For one, only a small fraction of Oakland’s workforce left their workplaces without permission. The bulk of Oakland’s businesses apart from the downtown area remained open and the city was not shut down. Union members, such as the California Nurses Association, used sick days to participate, while the Oakland City government gave their workers permission to join in. Even the supremely militant longshoreman’s union, the ILWU, required protestors to block port gates before official mediators would approve the cancellation of a port workers’ shift. An earlier shift of ILWU workers went to work during the day of the general strike. Finally, of the 50,000 plus demonstrators who did march to block the gates and shut down the Port of Oakland, many were not city residents or working class. To argue that the composition of the working class in 2011 is different from that of 1946, or that this was actually a social strike because the social relations in downtown Oakland were entirely altered on that day is simply to play semantic games.

Still, 50,000 plus demonstrators did turn out on that gloriously sunny day, a powerful turnout, and a stupendous culmination to Occupy Oakland’s call for a general strike. The boisterous, festive atmosphere of the crowds blocking the port gates, the interaction between the crowds and the troqueros, the independent truckers, detained by those crowds, and ultimately the decision by the health and safety arbitrator that dockworkers didn’t have to cross an unsafe picket line; the triumph of the port march foreshadowed one of the turns the Occupy movement has made of late, towards an engagement with organized labor. In no way could this mass protest replace or “substitute” for mass working class action, yet it was impressive in its own right. To make these points, and to put this protest in perspective, remember that between 150,000, and 200,000 demonstrators turned out on February 16, 2003 in San Francisco to protest America’s invasion of Iraq, disrupting the financial district’s “business as usual” and the city’s “social relations as usual” in a far more dramatic fashion.

The second important highlight of November 2 was the black bloc’s action. Not the midday smashy smashy of bank windows, the spray paint attack on Whole Foods, or the schoolyard skirmishing between black masked anarchos and the peace police. All that was silly bullshit. Even though the Oakland PD had purposefully kept its distance during the daytime’s various activities, including the black bloc rampage, the black bloc’s tactics were tired and entirely predictable. If every time you play a game of chess you make the same moves, eventually your opponent is going to realize this vulnerability and wipe you off the board. Ironically, the OPD did just that when the anarchos attempted their most daring, and provocative, stunt—the one deed worth admiration and praise—the takeover of the former Travelers Aid Society building.

An abandoned and foreclosed structure, the TAS building was occupied that evening by the black bloc and a healthy mix of Oakland youth, who ostensibly wanted to communalize it and turn it into a community center. To be part shelter for youth and the homeless, learning center, workspace, and library, these plans were dashed by a mammoth police assault completely unanticipated by the occupiers. The black bloc built a pair of barricades, a pathetic defense even under the best of circumstances, but made particularly ludicrous given that the OPD is better armed than many Third World countries. Wave after wave of riot police came in, swinging batons, firing tear gas canisters, tossing flashbang grenades, and shooting rubber bullets, to completely rout the building occupation and arrest many of its participants. But despite this defeat, the actual building occupation presaged another turn that the Occupy movement has recently made in its solidarity with various anti-foreclosure movements around the country. It also heralded a resurgence of squatting activism in Oakland and beyond. In this sense, the black bloc action was avant garde in the best sense of that word, and provided the most effective argument against charges of anti-democratic substitutionalism leveled against this powerful deed.

To conclude, my column header is an homage to “ancient” history, the now defunct anti-globalization movement of 1999-2001. Launched with the brilliant shutdown of the WTO in the 1999 battle for Seattle, the movement eventually devolved into chic protest tourism that gave us horrendous riots in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Genoa, Italy, before being strangled by the international security clampdown promulgated after September 11, 2001. The Occupy Wall Street movement, in its tent/park occupation phase, hasn’t lasted three months, nor could it last two years, in part because of the intense militarization of local police forces as a consequence of 9/11. Even the movement’s initiator, Adbusters, has suggested that it is time for Occupy Wall Street to move on and find other directions.

Occupy’s engagement with organized labor and anti-foreclosure activities is thus a positive development, denunciations of “union pie cards” or “middle class property owners” to the contrary. The diffuse “Occupy Our Homes” campaign from Brooklyn to Oakland was matched by the only partly successful west coast port shutdown actions of December 12. Oakland was completely closed, and partial disruptions were effected in Portland, Oregon and Longview, Washington. But Seattle and San Diego experienced severe police repression, and the region’s largest ports, Long Beach and Los Angeles, were almost entirely unaffected by the protest. Couple these spotty results with mixed support from the ILWU rank-and-file, and independent truckers, and it is clear that the Occupy movement has a long way to go in achieving a working solidarity with organized labor.

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