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I was one of the thousands of protestors who joined Oakland’s November 2 general strike and marched to the Port of Oakland, the nation’s fifth largest, to shut it down. I believe in protesting government policies that have widened the gap between the rich and everyone else. Yet I had deep reservations; I doubted that a leaderless movement could pull off something this logistically complex.
What I saw changed my mind. Even though there was no one named leader, participants emerged to keep the demonstrations focused, calm, and non-violent. There were no police visible on the streets for the ten hours I was there, but the crowds found their own ways to maintain order. (Violence broke out very late at night after most people had gone home.)
The first significant action I saw that day occurred around noon in front of the Chase branch at 20th and Franklin streets. A family whose home Chase had foreclosed set up their living room in the intersection. There was a well-worn area rug, a spent sofa with a side table, and a battered lamp.
“I have been a Chase customer for many years,” said Brenda Reed, a homeowner who has lived in Rockridge, one of Oakland’s better neighborhoods, for 38 years. “The bank is going to foreclose on my house on Thanksgiving week. I’m not leaving. They robo-signed our loans. They sold us predatory mortgages. They took a $16 trillion bailout with our money, then refused to modify our loans.”
Everyone was then urged to take out their cell phones and call California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. I wasn’t sure how calling Jamie Dimon’s assistant was going to help Ms. Reed, but the crowd enjoyed the gesture. Besides, the crowd had shut down the Chase branch for the day.
In front of Chase a group of Buddhists was handing out money to protestors. Max Airborne, a woman who wore a colorful muumuu and was seated in a wheelchair, held a thick wad of dollar bills and gave them to whoever was willing to take one. “Giving money away is hard,” she said. “Most people don’t want to engage.” Still, she said she’d managed to palm off about $200 in the hour and a half she’d been there.
The bank protest, which started at about 400 strong but increased in size and emotional intensity, then marched a few blocks east to shut down Bank of America. The branch was on the ground level of a skyscraper and had floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a clear view of the tellers inside. As the crowd pressed forward, some in the front started pounding on the windows. The glass starting to undulate in big waves, and I became terrified that it would shatter, slicing the demonstrators and causing a riot. But monitors from the Service Employees International Union, who wore brightly colored fluorescent vests to distinguish them from the crowd, stepped in between the demonstrators and the windows to diffuse the situation.
The more the power of the protestors grows, the less wary they are of political engagement.
Despite moments of high tension such as this, there was good feeling, even exuberance, among the protestors and the atmosphere of a giant street party. As the crowd returned from Bank of America to the Occupy encampment at “Oscar Grant Plaza” (Frank H. Ogawa Plaza) at around 1 p.m., the Brass Liberation Orchestra, a New Orleans–style brass band, lent a funky beat to the procession. There was music everywhere that day, including a man on a tricycle circling the crowd with a boom box playing James Brown’s “Funky President” (“People, people, we got to get over, before we go under”). Up on the makeshift stage at the corner, Boots Riley, Oakland musician and activist, spoke into the mike. “There are people who call themselves experts who would have told you that something like this wouldn’t happen in the United States,” he said. “We’re proving them wrong. We’re proving that the people are fed up with the setup.” At 4 p.m., the big action of the day was about to begin: a march to the Port of Oakland.
After a three-mile walk, waves of protestors, who now numbered in the thousands, reached the target. As we spilled out into the massive lanes into the Port to picket the gates, dancing broke out. The longshoremen, some of whom had walked out on the job that morning in solidarity with the strike were there, as were ironworkers, nurses, teachers, and members of the airport workers’ union. From the ground, it was difficult to estimate how long the tail of the march was. I stood at the first gate trying to build strength back in my legs and watched people steadily pouring into the port for more than an hour.
Protestors march on the Port of Oakland / Danelle Morton
Stranded in the general chaos were the independent trucking contractors behind the wheels of their rigs. One trucker started to rev his engine, and the truck bucked as if he was threatening to run over the marchers who had gathered to block his passage. As he continued to gun his motor, one of the protestors climbed on top of the hood of the truck and sat in front of the windshield, while another climbed up to the window to speak with him. After a quick chat, the driver shook hands, turned off his engine, and exited the truck to the cheers of the crowd.
Actions like these were spontaneous, with very few directives from the few who had bullhorns. The most direction we received was from text messages telling us where to assemble and for what purpose. Via text I learned about and joined one of the general assemblies called for the groups picketing the port’s entry gates. Each group sat in a circle, and if someone wanted to speak, he or she stood up and yelled, “Mike check!” The crowd then repeated it back to acknowledge that that individual had the floor.
Statements were brief. One young woman acknowledged the significance of what we had all accomplished: Oakland’s first general strike in 65 years, which (at least until that point) had been peaceful. But, she said, what the movement needed to do to effect real change was to occupy Sacramento and DC, to work to elect candidates that reflected the movement’s views and could change policy. Many wiggled their fingers at eye level to signal agreement. This loose group of protestors had seemed to be against all forms of engagement with power. It appeared as though the more their power grows, the less wary they are of that encounter.
As my friend and I left at around 9 p.m., sore in the legs from ten hours marching in the streets, there were some still arriving and heading to the port gates to join the picket lines. I was impressed by how much this fledgling movement had accomplished in just two months. Here were thousands of people peacefully closing down the port, closing down the city, and planning to clarify their diffuse messages, as well as making the first murmurs of trying to influence politics. There was no charismatic figure guiding the evolution, but it was evolving rapidly nonetheless.
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