As many as 15,000 people participated in actions across Oakland yesterday, with small marches peeling off to protest in front of banks or “occupy” foreclosed homes. There were probably eight to ten times the number of people in the streets of Oakland today as I'd seen during past OWS actions. Police maintained a minimal presence throughout the day. There were a few scattered acts of vandalism — windows were broken at two banks but there was no violence, and the protests were remarkably up-beat throughout the day. But that changed when night fell as the streets of Oakland once again resonated with the sharp cracks of tear gas canisters and “less lethal” projectiles being fired, and flash-bang grenades scattering the crowd.
But first: did a small group of activists manage in just 5 short days of organizing to bring about the first general strike in the United States in generations?
Not exactly. But while there was no broad, city-wide general strike of the sort last seen in this country in 1946, the effort was anything but a failure. A day of scattered actions across the city culminated in a massive “occupation” that shut down the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest container port in the country. When it was announced that operations had been suspended for the night, thousands of people partied around trucks halted in their tracks, celebrating a victory in their struggle with authorities that began with the violent eviction of Occupy Oakland last week. The Oakland police, and Mayor Jean Quan, stung by negative press stemming from the clashes, essentially gave the port to the movement.
Since the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, unions have been forbidden from participating in general strikes, but there was no doubt that the longshoremen were firmly on the side of the protesters. The occupiers arrived in waves, and at first small groups blocked the entrances to port facilities, letting workers out at the end of their shifts, but preventing their replacements from taking the next shift. One by one, longshoremen arrived to find a picket line blocking their entrance. In every case, they expressed solidarity — honking their horns and in some instances getting out and talking to the protesters, and then pulled a u-turn and went home — their contracts specified that they wouldn't be required to work if there was a disturbance at the port.
Throughout the day, about half of the businesses in downtown Oakland shuttered, many with signs expressing solidarity with the occupiers. The city's economy may not have been brought to a halt, but it was not functioning to full capacity.
Angela Davis gave a rousing speech at 9:30 that morning to kick off the day's proceedings. A “children's march” circled Frank Ogawa Plaza — renamed Oscar Grant plaza by the protesters in honor of the young man shot to death by BART police on New Year's 2009. They chanted, “Play nice and share!”
A group of high school students told me that their principal had circulated a memo giving them the day off. Calls to the school district to find out today's attendance figures weren't returned at press time, but the Los Angeles Times reported that 16 percent of the city's teachers didn't show up for work. There were many children and young people in the crowd, many attended by their parents.
Calling the day of protests and direct actions a “general strike” may have raised the bar too high, but it also resulted in an almost unbelievable amount of media coverage — far more attention than ever garnered by protests against the Iraq war, which were attended by hundreds of thousands. In that sense today could be seen as a major victory for the Occupy movement. This may have provided a model for other occupations to follow in the coming months.
But at around midnight, the peaceful protests that had marked the day devolved into something uglier. It began when a group of activists “occupied” an abandoned building. Soon after, word spread that police were preparing to evict the squatters. A call went out to defend the site, and about 100-200 people answered it, filling the street a few blocks away where the building was located and erecting a barricade out of whatever was at hand in an effort to prevent police from reaching the scene.
About an hour later, 16 vans filled with police clad in riot gear arrived at an adjacent corner and began to stage. They formed into several lines and prepared to move in.
At that point, somebody set the barrier on fire, an order to disperse was given, and for the next 2-3 hours, a series of clashes followed in which numerous rounds of teargas, flash-bangs and non-lethal rounds were fired at protesters.
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