The city of Oakland in northern California, home of the fifth largest port in the US, saw incredible scenes on Wednesday evening last week. More than 15,000 people descended on the port to shut it down as part of the first strike to be called by the Occupy movement.
Chris Oakes, a Native American activist in Oakland, spoke to Socialist Worker about the events of the day.
“We looked up and saw an endless wave of people coming down the overpass that led to the port,” he said.
“People started climbing on the trucks so they couldn’t leave. All the drivers were honking their horns in solidarity.”
Oakland dock workers were unwilling to cross the mass picket line. They have a tradition of struggle and are organised in a historically militant branch of the ILWU union. It took only a few hours into the siege for the port’s director Omar Benjamin to concede that “maritime operations are effectively shut down”.
The movement of the “99 percent” had succeeded in hitting the corporate elite where it hurts. “I think it shows the strength and power of the people,” said Jessica Hendricks, chair of the Berkeley ACLU campaign group. High school teacher Marti Mogenson added, “People want change and they want to organise—and these tactics do work.”
One of the biggest delegations marching down to the docks was led by Oakland’s teachers. Around 360 teachers stayed away from work—roughly 16 percent of the district’s teaching staff.
Many more organised teach-ins in their schools on the cuts and the economic crisis. Schools served as rallying points for feeder marches of teachers, parents and students.
“We have five schools being closed here in Oakland,” explained Steve Neat, secretary of Oakland Education Association. “We have class sizes skyrocketing. We have cuts, cuts, cuts—just like everyone else.”
The Alameda Labour Council was one of the first groups to back the strike call. It took responsibility for feeding thousands of demonstrators on their way to and from the port.
The Teamsters union joined in, taking an 18-wheel truck down to the central Occupy Oakland demonstration.
The SEIU local government union also called on its members to take leave to join the demonstrations, shutting down some services as a result.
The general strike call had come in response to a vicious police attack on the Occupy Oakland camp on the night of the 25 October. Police cleared the protest camp, which is based outside Oakland’s city hall, with rubber bullets, flash bombs and tear gas.
There were serious injuries among protesters, including Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, who was hospitalised with a fractured skull and swelling on the brain. “That really crystallised a large amount of anger and energy in Oakland,” said Todd Chretien, an International Socialist Organisation activist in the United Auto Workers union.
The following evening thousands of people reclaimed the occupied space,.
They have renamed it Oscar Grant Plaza after an African American man killed two years previously by the city’s transport police. A lively general assembly debated the next steps—and voted overwhelmingly to call a general strike.
“No one had any sense of what the response would be,” Michael Eisenscher, a Labour Council activist, told Socialist Worker. “There were some union activists at the general assembly, but also lots of people who’d never had any involvement in the labour movement. There were unemployed people and workers from places with no union presence.
“In the days that followed there was a real buzz, a kind of electricity in the air. Working people felt they’d been ripped off and welcomed the opportunity to come together to express their outrage.”
Dozens of businesses were closed on the day of the strike. Some owners identified with the “99 percent”, others feared the consequences of staying open.
The marquee at the Grand Lake cinema advertised the general strike instead of the movies.
Workers at one downtown café approached the Occupy Oakland general assembly to send a team of pickets to their workplace to pressure the boss to shut up shop.
The strike day was marked by several mass mobilisations, or “convergences”. The first began in Oscar Grant Plaza at 9am.
“We went up onto the main stage to sing Native American blessing songs for Occupy Oakland,” said Chris Oakes. “The protesters invited us because they are occupying occupied land—Oakland used to belong to the Ohlone people.”
Thousands of people marched then through the downtown area to shut down businesses that had stayed open—especially banks.
A group of 200 parents and young children assembled in front of Oakland Public Library for a “children’s brigade” march. Marisol Curiel brought her sons aged two and four.
“All of this will affect not just now, but our future,” she said.
By early evening all the marches had come together, ready for a two and a half mile walk along the overpass to the Port of Oakland shipping terminal.
“I was right up at the front of the second contingent,” said Michael Eisenscher. “When I turned around and looked behind me it was just a sea of people as far as you could see.”
People continued to flood in for several hours, past the blockade of trucks, until there were thousands picketing each of the port’s main entrances.
“The last general strike to take place in the US was in Oakland in 1946,” said Todd. “What happened here this week is a tremendous success. We expect to see more action in the coming days.
“Next week students are mobilising across the state against fee hikes at the University of California.
“The underlying class anger is growing, with no hope on any horizon in terms of mortgage foreclosures and unemployment. Now we’re really seeing a movement coming together to bring that anger out—a movement unlike anything we’ve seen for a very long time.”