Hand in hand together
We shall not be moved
“We Shall Not Be Moved,” Trad. civil rights song
On Wednesday, November 2, the people of Oakland peacefully, politely, closed downtown Oakland and the Port of Oakland – the nation’s fifth busiest port.
It’s hard to say how many people spent at least part of their day at the intersection of 14th Street at Broadway. Broadway was closed for two long blocks, the side streets were, too, and all were filled with people. The plaza in front of City Hall was filled as well, with tents, with free food, with DJs, with silkscreening stations, with speeches, and with impromptu teach-ins. Occasionally, a large mass would gather and march off to protest in front of a bank or other corporate malefactor, but those marches left the center of the strike filled with people.
At its peak, I’d guess there were over 5,000 people present, and in the course of the day, I’d be amazed if fewer than 20,000 participated. I’ve seen estimates as high as 100,000, which strikes me as high but not implausible. By the end of the day, the City of Oakland and various other local businesses had instructed employees to leave work early, and many simply told their employees not to come to work.
My employer remained open, but I took the day off to see history made. This is the first general strike in the United States in almost 55 years, and the context of this strike is different from those that came before. I doubt any strike as successful as this has been assembled in so little time, with so little direct involvement from organized labor. In less than a week, the organizers seemed to have planned for every contingency, and accomplished all their major goals for the day. And they did so peacefully, and with barely more than a token police presence. I saw a police car blocking off Broadway when I biked in that morning, but even that presence was gone by the afternoon.
The crowds came for myriad reasons. Unions had tents set up, where they talked about their work, rallied their members, and provided some institutional memory. Various socialist and communist factions had tents and tables, too, as did the Black Panther Party.
But it wasn’t all politics. Next to the Black Panthers was the Buddhist meditation circle, where people sat in silent meditation all day, amidst throngs of people and not far from the massive sound truck, jammed with amplifiers and people exhorting those massive crowds. Elsewhere, an interfaith tent hosted services. Food justice groups organized a teach-in, and all day there were long lines waiting for the free food supplied by groups like Food not Bombs.
Musicians performed live in the plaza’s amphitheater, and a DJ spun records on Broadway in front of the Oaklandish shop (which was closed for the day). Inside the plaza, crowds danced as DJs hyphy and hiphop spun by various different DJs. A brass band wandered through, and a jugband ensemble took up residence in an office building breezeway.
Another long line led to a silkscreening station, where strikers could make their own sign that read “Hella Occupy Oakland.” Other folks handed out signs that read “This is our city and we can shut it down.” For myself, I brought some markers and cardboard, making a sign that read “Solidarity Forever” on one side and quoted a line from that classic labor hymn on the other: “Without our brains and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” While I was drawing that sign, two young guys of high school age asked to borrow my marker, and made their own signs. The spare cardboard I brought wasn’t hard to pass along to folks in need, and other folks made signs out of a massive pile of cardboard in the middle of the tent city that has been Occupy Oakland’s permanent home for these last weeks.
There were arts and crafts areas for children, too. I’d guess that 10% of the crowd was under 10, and there were blocks and crayons and toys for them in a children’s tent. Just like their parents, these kids were putting their imagination to work, building a better future.
Festive as the atmosphere was, people did come to protest, and to put those signs to work. Some people blocked the entrance to a Citibank office building directly across 14th street, and marches went further afield, to protest in front of various corporate offices. There were 3 major marches during the day, and various smaller ones. On the march I fell in with, I arrived shortly after the window at a Chase bank had a brick thrown through it, and the cracks in the glass were still crackling outward as I walked past. That was the only sign of violence I saw that day, and no one was cheering it.
For various obvious reasons, the media coverage of the day focused on a few broken windows and some other vandalism, but to do so truly misses the point. What violence took place involved perhaps 1% of 1% of the people present, and for the most part, those crowds policed themselves. A few people turned out hoping to start trouble, and a few of them succeeded, but it would be wrong to let those isolated incidents shade our perception of the day.
Everyone I met and everything I saw at Occupy Oakland was filled with joy, and it felt like nothing so much as an enormous street festival. Everyone was friendly, everyone felt connected to a bigger cause, and everyone was having fun. The news helicopters overhead couldn’t capture that part of the story, but there were loads of reporters on the ground with us, and there’s simply no way that they could have come away with anything but a positive impression.
At one point, a large group of people spontaneously joined hands and began dancing in a giant and growing circle.
A Teamsters Union truck pulled in for a while, blasting music and pumping up a different part of the crowd.
Tibetan monks and a Native American leader sang chants together.
Clergy at the Interfaith tent sang “this little light of mine.”
Folks shared tips on which sandwich shops were open, and where you could recharge your cell phone.
Giant and sometimes obscure banners flapped overhead. “Death to capitalism” stretched across 14th street, while the large and cryptic “Bioregional Fractional Banking” banner seemed to pop up everywhere. A couple of kids whose parents had let them skip school carried signs in support of teachers, while a 1 year old had a sign strapped on her back saying: “Too small to fail.”
The same, fortunately, cannot be said of the general strike. While smaller than the organizers had hoped, it closed down commerce through downtown Oakland for the day, and emphasized the oft-repeated chant: “Whose streets?” “Our streets.” Not the banks’ streets, not the police’s streets, not even the City Council’s streets. Ours. And we made good and noble use of them.
Beginning at 4, much of the crowd made its way to the Port of Oakland, the historic center of the city’s economy. The goal was to prevent the night shift from being able to clock in, shutting down a different part of the city’s commerce for the night, reminding the multinational elites that they move jobs and goods and money around the globe only at the sufferance of the folks who work in these cities. The port workers supported the strike, but had agreed to a contract clause forbidding them to strike. By blocking the gates to the port, we gave them an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway.
So off we marched, in several waves of a few thousand. The 2 mile path to the port was packed with people, four lanes across, for hours that night, with crowds still streaming in at 7, when I had to head back.
Inside the port, the same festive atmosphere prevailed. The brass band was there, and someone was signing songs over his own amplifier. Folks were chatting with the remaining workers inside the port fence, celebrated with them as they came off shift and drove out. The few truck drivers parked along the port road seemed bemused and didn’t object to the crowds who climbed on top of their cabs and containers to get a better view. I tweeted: “The only thing more beautiful than the Port of Oakland at dusk is 5000 people marching on the Port at dusk.”
Helicopters and geese crowded the skies overhead, and even cameras in the helicopters couldn’t capture the entire mass of protesters. If there were fewer than 10,000 people in those marches, I’d be amazed, because they filled the entrance road for hours. I hear the police are estimating 7,000, and organizers claim 30,000. My guess would’ve been 15–20,000 anyway, which splits the difference nicely.
I’d always wanted to spend and evening photographing the port’s cranes at sunset, so on top of the sheer joy of watching the 4‑lane road fill up with miles of cheery protesters, I had a great time trying to find the perfect shot of the port. You can see a bigger sample of my photos at Flickr; I took 320 photos that day, which I whittled down to my favorite 38.
By the time I left, the Port Authority was well on its way to officially shutting down the port for the night. Trucks were backed up at the entrance to the port, and there were (unfounded) rumors of police massing to evict the protest. Much later that night, protesters occupied an abandoned building and invited the nonprofit that formerly used the space to return and continue providing services to the homeless. Riot police responded to that, and after protesters lit a barricade on fire, the police fired off some tear gas. But despite having massed around Oscar Grant Plaza itself, and despite fears that the bloody police riot of a week ago might repeat, the police remained calm, and protesters helped protect shops whose windows were broken by drunk and disgruntled troublemakers.
My sense of the day was much like what Jaime Omar Yassin describes:
Words fail, I was simply moved by the reality of all these people coming down to engage in an ‘illegal’ action that just a week ago would have been considered radical and subversive, but today was filled with happiness, community, respect and love. And the power of such a mobilization to silence and dispel the police, the power of people to write the rules of public space. That’s something I’d never thought I’d see in my lifetime.
I don’t know what will come of this. Will I see this again in my lifetime? Again in 2011? Will this change what happens in Washington, DC, or in Sacramento? Will this sort of protest spread, shutting down the streets of Manhattan or of Washington for a day? It’s too soon to say.
But I know that it changed me, and it feels like it changed Oakland. Even the forbearance of the police suggests a change. A week ago, who would have predicted that they would stay out of the way of the unauthorized blocking of major streets and the Port, and that they would responded about as minimally as possible to a act of civil disobedience that damaged property? (Their behavior wasn’t perfect: they arrested some legal observers and journalists along with whoever set the fire and broke into the building, but progress is progress.)
As I said before the strike, the goal was not to force some pre-determined list of demands on the city. The goal, as the poster said, was to show, “This is our city and we can shut it down.” That means we can also start it up again, and shape what the city will be and do. What shall we do with that knowledge and power?