Not a General Strike, But 30,000 Occupied the Port…
And Then the Cops Struck Again
Tens of Thousands March to Defend Occupy Oakland
Protesters stream into Port of Oakland, November 2, in response to Occupy Oakland call for “general
strike” over brutal police attack last week. Union bureaucrats declared “support,” refused to strike.
(Photo: Robert Galbraith / Reuters)
NOVEMBER 9 – When an army of hundreds of cops rousted the participants of Occupy Oakland in a pre-dawn raid on October 25, arresting nearly 100, a wave of anger swept the northern California city. And when police brutally attacked the several thousand protesters who gathered that evening to protest the eviction, repeatedly using tear gas and firing “less lethal” munitions at the crowd, it set off a firestorm of outrage. This turned into fury when it became known the next day that the police nearly killed a demonstrator, Scott Olsen, an Iraq War veteran, with a canister fired at point-blank range. On the evening of October 26, well over 2,000 people jammed into the square in front of Oakland City Hall, now renamed Oscar Grant Plaza, in honor of the young black man executed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop on New Year’s Day 2009. The General Assembly of Occupy Oakland voted, by a margin of 1,484 to 77, to call a general strike for November 2.
The call electrified the city and the whole Bay Area. It reverberated around the country. Poor and working people saw a way to express frustration over the massive unemployment and escalating inequality that has continued to grow while bankers and other corporate chiefs rake in billions amid a world capitalist economic crisis. For the black and Latino population of Oakland, who together are the majority of this, the most ethnically diverse city in California, it was an opening to fight back against the racist police repression that is pervasive in Oakland. This was where in the 1960s the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense arose, in response to rampant cop attacks. Even many white middle-class residents wanted to express their disgust at Mayor Jean Quan, who was elected as a “progressive” Democrat, only to order the brutal attack on Occupy Oakland, and then pretend she had nothing to do with it.
From the outset, it was clear to all that there would be a massive outpouring of anger on November 2 as thousands would take to the streets to denounce the cop assault on the occupation. But would it succeed in shutting down the city with a massive work stoppage? That depended above all on the response of organized labor. One after another, Bay Area unions announced their “support” for the action, but the labor bureaucrats were virtually unanimous in refusing to call on their members to stop work, citing “no strike” clauses in their labor contracts. Taking a personal leave for a day, joining in a late-afternoon march on the port and otherwise showing solidarity is well and good, but it’s a long way from a strike. For there to be work stoppages that would be a challenge to capital and its marauding racist police, it would depend on the rank-and-file. And that poses the central question of class-struggle leadership.
As November 2nd dawned, all eyes turned to the waterfront, which was key. Even though ILWU International and Local officials vowed they would keep the port open, some younger longshoremen thought differently. One of them, Anthony Leviege, took the mike at the union hall to urge fellow port workers to not take jobs. Richard Washington, one of those who refused work, emphasized that “the rank and file workers decided not to work today in support of Occupy Oakland.” Long-time longshore militant Jack Heyman reported that this “effectively shut down the port this morning,” and a huge line of trucks waiting to be unloaded stretched from the port into the city of Oakland (see “Oakland Port Shutdown: Workers Refuse to Work the Docks,” The Internationalist, 2 November). The Oakland Tribune (3 November) quoted the chief wharfinger (manager) of the port of Oakland saying that there was work in some terminals, “but it’s really slow.” Stung by the reports, port authorities and union officials insisted the port was open, and scrambled to fill jobs. By noon the port was “limping along” at under half its normal pace.
Meanwhile, in downtown Oakland, several thousand demonstrators were making the rounds of the banks to shut them down, first Wells Fargo, then Comerica, Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and others. (So many banks litter the area that a local anarchist reportedly quipped, “Around here you can’t throw a rock without hitting one.”) Some were already closed for the day, others shut their doors as marchers approached. Protesters taped over ATMs and chanted, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” In the afternoon, there was an “anti-capitalist march” during which some “black bloc” types broke a window at a Bank of America branch and heaved chairs through a window at a Whole Foods store that was rumored to have threatened to fire anyone absent from work that day. Such acts of frustration and rage can hardly bring down capitalism, yet these antics were enough to send various labor and “socialist” reformists into conniptions, echoing the media with howls of “vandalism.”
Altogether, while some downtown
businesses closed, in the rest of Oakland
industry and commerce weren’t greatly
affected. The city government, which had
said its civilian employees could take the
day off, reported 5 percent out, which is
undoubtedly undercounted, but even so, the
large majority went to work. The Oakland
School District reported around 300 teachers
took a personal leave, about 15 percent of
the total, but they were replaced by subs
and other teachers held teach-ins. There
were few union banners or contingents until
late in the day, after work. But the crowds
kept growing. What stood out was the
composition: significant numbers of African
Americans and Latinos, including many youth,
reflecting the population of this heavily
working-class city. And the sheer numbers:
while Oakland police absurdly claimed only
7,000 marched to the port, and Occupy
Oakland is saying 100,000, a more likely
count would be something around
30,000-40,000, plus those who stayed at
Oscar Grant Plaza.
Protesters defending Occupy Oakland on Middle Harbor Road in Port of Oakland, November 2
As the sea of people streamed over the overpass onto Middle Harbor Road, the police abandoned any attempt to stop them. The few trucks there were swarmed, and some blasted their air horns in support. Agile youth clambered atop the trailers. People split into four groups, sitting down outside the gates of the different stevedoring companies while the entrance was blocked off by a flat-bed truck. The atmosphere was of a giant street party, with people playing music, dancing, a fair number of kids who came with their parents in the children’s contingent. A second march went to the north entrance to the port and set up a checkpoint at Seventh Street and Maritime, letting workers past but blocking TV vans. The crowd blockaded the port and port authorities now admitted it had been shut down from 5 p.m. on. No longshoremen went to work. Around 8:30 an arbitrator ruled that there was a legitimate health and safety issue as longshore workers refused to cross the many thousands-strong “picket line.”
The police kept a low profile during the day. But soon after most demonstrators had gone home, some 400 police who had been mobilized from 15 jurisdictions around the region retaliated by attacking a building occupation near the Oscar Grant Plaza where Occupy Oakland is camped. The building was the empty former offices of the Traveler’s Aid Society, which had served the homeless, but was forced to vacate when the city couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the loan costs for the building. Several hundred people reportedly took part in the effort, seeking to turn it into a community center, but they were met with waves of riot police firing flash-bang grenades, beanbags and rubber bullets. More than 80 were arrested. The media the next day denounced “violence” – by the occupiers, for allegedly throwing rocks in response to this potentially murderous police assault. Once again, an Iraq war veteran, Kayvan Sabeghi, was badly injured, his spleen ruptured by police who beat him viciously and then held him in jail for 18 hours before allowing an ambulance to take him to the hospital.
So tens of thousands of people march against police brutality and in defense of Occupy Oakland, and as soon as they leave the cops are on a rampage once more. The Oakland Police are an increasingly bonapartist force that chafes at civilian authority, even by the double-talking liberal Democratic mayor Quan, a former Maoist who has become a figurehead for cop terror. The OPD acts as an occupation force in African American and Latino neighborhoods of West and East Oakland. It is already under a federal monitor for police corruption and racism in a case going back to 2000. Last August the monitor reported that 28 percent of the time Oakland cops drew their weapons it was without cause, and in 95 percent of those cases the guns were pointed at African American or Latino “suspects.” In September a federal judge declared that the OPD and Oakland City officials still “don’t get it.” Soon after, the police chief resigned. But whether with federal monitors or receivers, or any other “reform,” the bottom line is that the Oakland police are a threat to the population, and they are incorrigible.
This underscores the fact that what’s needed here is not a demonstration of public opinion, but the mobilization of working-class power against capitalism and its repressive forces. That begins, but doesn’t end, with real strike action. Ultimately, since police are the backbone of capitalist state power, it will take nothing less than a socialist revolution to get rid of cop brutality, which is endemic to capitalist rule.
The Betrayal of the Labor Bureaucracy
There hasn’t been a general strike in the United States since 1946, also in Oakland, which is no accident. Oakland is the home of the fifth busiest port in the United States, and the Bay Area is the home of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), historically one of the most militant unions in the country, a tradition that is still felt to this day. The ILWU itself grew out of the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. On May Day 2008, Bay Area longshore militants spearheaded the ILWU strike that shut down all 29 ports on the West Coast against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though a one-day action, this was the first-ever strike by American workers against a U.S. imperialist war. If anywhere in the U.S. a general strike is possible after more than three decades of unrelenting attacks on labor, the San Francisco Bay Area is a prime candidate.
So was November 2 in Oakland a general strike? The short answer for any Marxist is “no.” It was certainly a massive outpouring of popular discontent, and the port was eventually blockaded. But it was not a generalized work stoppage that hits at the heart of capitalist rule by bringing production and distribution to a grinding halt based on the mobilization of the workers themselves. Thus it could be and was ignored by the forces of bourgeois “law and order” who don’t give a damn what “the people” think, as they made clear by staging another bloody military assault on Occupy Oakland that night. Their purpose was to show who’s boss. In answer to this naked display of police power, we have to show that the working people are far stronger. How? By striking at the cops’ capitalist masters where it hurts: the source of their profits. As the Internationalist Group called in a leaflet issued October 26, the day after the bloody cop attacks on Oakland protesters, what was needed is to “Mobilize Labor’s Power Against Racist Police Repression! Workers and Students, Shut the City Down!”
That most definitely did not happen in Oakland on November 2. Why not? First of all, because an amorphous group like Occupy Oakland, which is a collection of individuals on the basis of a shared sense of grievance, cannot carry out a general strike, even when it enjoys wide public support. An outside group like students can provide a spark, as in the French general strike of May 1968, but the actual strike can only be a collective action by the working class. That doesn’t mean by the union bureaucrats, who almost always resist any challenge to the capitalist system they are part of, and then try to sabotage it if forced by pressure from the workers’ ranks to carry it out. That’s the main reason why there are plenty of failed general strikes in labor history. A general strike can also be spearheaded by a militant opposition force within the workers movement. But in any case, to be successful it requires a leadership with a program and determination to wage class struggle through to victory.
A leaflet put out by a number of activists in ILWU Local 10 in response to the Occupy Oakland call for a general strike November 2 stated: “Whether this actually means real strike action by workers depends in large part on union participation.” What actually happened, and this is the second reason why there was no general strike in Oakland, is that East Bay union leaders emphatically opposed strike action. The SEIU spelled it out: “SEIU 1021 is not asking any members to ‘go on strike’ – that would be a violation of many SEIU 1021 contracts.” Ditto from the Berkeley Federation of Teachers: “We have a no strike clause in our contract,” so they were asking for personal leaves “as long as there is sub coverage” – i.e., the school system wouldn’t be affected. And the Oakland Education Association: “OEA is not calling a strike action against OUSD.” Only Carpenters Local 713 straightforwardly called to “support the call of the 2,000 Oaklanders at Occupy Oakland for a one-day strike in Oakland.”
The ILWU activists’ October 28 leaflet, titled “Defend Occupy Oakland With the Muscle of Organized Labor,” concluded: “Shut it down.” The ILWU shut down the ports coastwide in 1999 demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and again in 2008 calling to stop the war on Iraq and Afghanistan. Local 10 has carried out numerous stop-work actions, most recently over the Oscar Grant murder and in solidarity with Wisconsin workers. But on November 2 ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees told the press: “It’s virtually impossible for any union to endorse a work-stoppage because all contracts have no-strike clauses, which unions are bound to honor.” And when longshore militants on the morning of November 2 called on workers not to take jobs, the union tops worked hand-in-glove with Port management to find takers. In the face of a vicious attack by the Oakland Police, the pie cards worked overtime to keep the port running. So ILWU president Bob McEllrath’s statement of “support” for Occupation Wall Street is just hot air.
The union tops’ insistence that
the port was up and running was so emphatic,
one might think a deal had been cut. Or are
the ILWU’s lawyers so worried about
court-ordered fines against the union over
the resistance in Longview, Washington that
they are desperate to show that the ILWU has
a law-abiding, “responsible” union
leadership? In fact, Occupy Oakland
announced in calling the strike that it was
doing so in “solidarity with Longshore
workers in their struggle against EGT in
Longview, Washington.” And it followed up
the November 2 action with a letter to the
corporate chiefs of the consortium that owns
EGT, denouncing their union-busting.
In truth, the refusal to strike was par for the course from the union bureaucrats, who in the memorable phrase of American socialist Daniel DeLeon are the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.” Yet some ILWU activists took the same line. Speaking on the liberal radio program Democracy Now! carried by KPFA in the Bay Area, Local 10 executive board member Clarence Thomas praised the calls for support to Occupy Wall Street by McEllrath and Teamster president James Hoffa and called this a “turning point,” a “new beginning,” a “watershed moment” because “unions are acknowledging the call for a general strike” even though “many of them cannot call for a general strike themselves.”
This apology for a betrayal by the union tops, not only by the ILWU but of all East Bay unions, reflects the program of supposed labor “militants” who share the fundamental outlook of the bureaucracy. It is nonsense that the unions can’t call for a general strike. Certainly the bosses’ courts may declare it illegal. Some union leaders might actually have to go to jail and the unions may be hit with huge fines. But the way to fight that is with even more powerful labor action, shutting down the whole of the Bay Area, bridges and all, with a real general strike. But that is inconceivable for the parasitic layer of labor fakers and for the reformist dissidents who would replace them. In the present period, where union gains are being systematically destroyed and virtually every effective tactic of labor struggle (mass pickets, flying squads, sympathy strikes) has been outlawed, trade unionism that plays by the bosses’ rules is doomed to fail. The only effective way to fight back is militant class struggle against capital and the capitalist state.
Against Police Repression: Mobilize
Labor's Power to Shut the City Down!
Only hours after
protesters left the port, police in
Oakland were rampaging again, brutally
So 40,000 people or thereabouts came out on November 2. The Port of Oakland was shut down for several hours, though not by the action of the workers. A great time was had by all … and a couple of hours later the OPD struck again in order to show that it still ruled the streets. Not exactly a victory. A call for a general strike received wide support – except where it counted. The opposition of the union tops to striking qualitatively weakened the action. Still, the size of the mobilization gave working people a sense of their potential power, and the fact that the high point was a march on the Port of Oakland showed general awareness of the centrality of labor. The provisional balance sheet is mixed, but the key is what lessons are drawn from this experience. The first must be the need to oust the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats, and break with the Democrats to build a revolutionary workers party that fights for a workers government.
Early on, Occupy Oakland activist Cat Brooks spelled out for Reuters news agency the meaning of the call for a general strike: “We mean nobody goes to work, nobody goes to school, we shut the city down.” The union tops prevented this from happening, yet despite this stab in the back, you don’t hear any complaints from the organizers of Occupy Oakland. Why not? For starters, because they are working with the labor bureaucracy: the Alameda Central Labor Council didn’t call on its affiliates to walk out, but they did put on a great barbecue; the OEA didn’t strike, but they provided portable toilets. Nothing against cookouts and porta-johns, but they don’t stop rampaging cops. More fundamentally, the reality is that the politics of the “Occupy movement,” however vague, are no more radical than those of the misleaders of labor. The leading occupiers may mouth some “anti-capitalist” rhetoric and even talk of “revolution” from time to time, but in practice they, like the union bureaucrats, accept the confines of the capitalist state.
In the wake of the October 25 police assault on Occupy Oakland, we called for a massive mobilization of workers power against police brutality that would shut the city down. How this should be accomplished depended on the response of the unions. When a general assembly of 2,000 at Occupy Oakland called for a general strike on November 2, although this was not a workers organization, it responded to an urgent felt need for powerful labor action against the cops. From a distance, we encouraged militants in the key longshore union to shut down the port on the day of the “general strike.” Although there was little time to prepare, the formation of elected strike committees in key unions would have been appropriate, particularly as the bureaucrats’ refusal to call strike action became clear; and mass pickets led and defended by squads of union workers could have been organized at the port entrances.
Today, mobilizing workers power against the rampaging police is still on the order of the day. In response to new threats of police action to evict the occupiers, there should be union-backed workers defense guards together with Occupy Oakland at Oscar Grant Plaza around the clock. An organized defense can help avoid unnecessary clashes with cops looking for an excuse to attack, and ensure that if they do attempt to dislodge or assault the occupiers, they will have to go through lines of union members, so that next time it really could provoke a citywide strike to shut the city down. As part of such an effort, occupiers and their defenders could study the Oakland general strike of 1946 and the history of mass political strikes, including the San Francisco general strike of 1934, and the Minneapolis Teamster strike the same year, led by the Trotskyists, which managed to prevail in the face of occupation by the National Guard.
A general strike does not fall from the skies. Like any strike it is a collective action, not an individual choice. And after it is collectively decided, it must be prepared and enforced. Picket lines mean don’t cross, and effective strike lines are ones that no one dares cross. There must be systematic work in key sectors in order to give it the power to stop production and distribution. But above all, beyond organization, what is needed is a revolutionary program and leadership. The union bureaucracy will inevitably betray, and the bourgeois liberals will try to prevent any struggle against capitalism, private property or the police. This is already beginning to happen as members of Mayor Quan’s Block by Block Organizing Network are calling for Occupy Oakland to sanction “those who launch physical attacks on people or property.” Meanwhile, two business groups, Downtown Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown District Association are calling on the mayor to exercise “bold leadership and forceful action” to stop the “unending social experimentation” of Occupy Oakland.
In some respects, Occupy Oakland has been slightly to the left at least of Occupy Wall Street. A banner proclaims the “Oakland Commune” and some of the non-leaders describe themselves as communists, while at Wall Street many of the OWS “facilitators” are viscerally hostile to leftists. Early on, Occupy Oakland declared Oscar Grant Plaza a “police-free zone,” whereas Liberty Plaza (Zuccotti Square) in New York is crawling with undercover cops and the uniformed ones do periodic walkthroughs while everything is observed and recorded from a NYPD watch tower. An October 29 Occupy Oakland statement on the upcoming day of action included, “Against an economic system built on imperialism, inequality and corporate power that perpetuates all forms of oppression and the destruction of the environment.” But despite a few rhetorical touches, Occupy Oakland is politically the same anarcho-liberal-populist mixture to be found elsewhere in the “Occupy movement.” Not only does this leave the door open to right-wing Tea Party elements (notably Ron Paul supporters), but also to the law-and-order liberal “moderates” who are now reportedly seeking to police the movement against Black Bloc anarchists, building occupiers and anyone else who would lay a finger on sacrosanct private property or resist cop attacks.
“Occupy Wall Street” and the other occupations have captured public imagination by giving voice to the widespread anger over the obscene spectacle of capitalist money men looting the economy while the working people who produce the wealth pay the horrendous cost. OWS reflects a mood and is fed by grievances that are not addressed by either of the partner parties of American capitalism, yet even taking into account the contradictory tendencies, the lowest-common-denominator politics of this amorphous movement do not go beyond bourgeois populism. Thus it cannot provide an answer to any of the issues that gave rise to it, all of which are rooted in the capitalist system itself, not a particular policy. 25 million unemployed, 19 million homes standing empty while homelessness increases, rampant police brutality against the oppressed, endless U.S. wars of imperialist domination – none of these can be resolved so long as capital rules. Ultimately the “Occupy movement” will polarize, with most participants in all likelihood drawn back into the Democratic Party, others perhaps migrating to a bourgeois “third party.”
The Occupy movement’s pretense of being leaderless and its anti-democratic “consensus” model of decision-making reflect its lack of political definition. This will eventually change or the “movement” will sink into oblivion. To turn vague sentiments of ending capitalism into a powerful force requires Marxist political clarity, speaking plainly instead of capitulating to the present confused and contradictory consciousness of the occupiers. For an effective general strike, it’s necessary to build a class-struggle opposition in the unions to sweep away the pro-capitalist bureaucracy that has crippled labor it since the red purge after World War II. More broadly, what’s needed, both to defend Occupy Oakland and to fight the social ills the occupiers decry, is to undertake the difficult task of forging a revolutionary vanguard of the working class and all the oppressed. We need a workers party to fight for a workers government that can undertake the socialist revolution in which those who toil rule and genuine social emancipation will become possible in a communist society. ■
To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: email@example.com