Autonomous Struggle of the Glittertariat - The Oakland General Strike, The Days Before, The Days After
This eyewitness account of the build to and events of the 'Occupy' Oakland General Strike of Nov 2 describes how momentum developed in the aftermath of the violent eviction of Occupy Oakland, the events of November 2nd itself including the shut down of the port, the attempted occupation of the Traveler's Aid Society building and the black bloc's attack on bank buildings. The author looks at the controversy around these last two actions in the aftermath of November 2nd and warns that "If the Oakland Commune does not continue to accelerate the process of communization, it will fall back into either pure symbolism, or assume the counterrevolutionary form of reformism (two processes already in progress)"
What follows is my personal account of the events that led up to the Oakland General Strike of the 2nd of November, 2011. This takes the form of much personal narrative mixed with analysis, while I'm still analyzing and thinking through the events, and while the longer term effects are unknown, to get these experiences in writing while they are still fresh. I apologize in advance for any rambling or roughness in the narrative.
The Days Before
After the eviction and severe police repression, two things occurred: a massive influx of people and energy,and a shift from mostly symbolic holding of a plaza to a need to push out and directly attack capital relations, with the call for a general strike.
The week between the call for the General Strike and the General Strike itself was bustling with activity. Just like multiple formal organizations and informal groupings pushed hard for a general strike in the first place, many groupings agitated and organized hard for it.
In the IWW, we couldn't help but have conversations with people, and we couldn't keep flyers and posters in our hands - giving out thousands upon thousands. Fellow Workers had been playing a key role in Occupy Oakland both at Oscar Grant Plaza and outside of it.
The General Assembly passed several key motions leading up to the General Strike - a motion supporting autonomous actions that occupied buildings for the purpose of expropriating them, a motion that reprisal pickets would be sent out where requested against schools and businesses that disciplined their students or workers for participating in the general strike, and that health and safety pickets would be sent out early where requested, so that workers would have a picket line to refuse to cross.
Personally, I had some of the easiest agitating in my life. A class on Monday started with the instructor talking about how he wasn't sure what was going on, but since getting to Alameda pretty much requires going through downtown Oakland, he was cancelling class on Wednesday. Then he goes on about how all the community college instructors are looking forward to this, because most of them are getting hours cut or losing their jobs.
Then I said, "oh, I have flyers with more info, a lot of unions are endorsing this, it's going to be big, everything is going to shut down for the day" and everyone took at least one flyer - quite a few people took a few, one student took ten Spanish flyers for his coworkers so they'd know what's up.
By Tuesday, the community colleges had large, public walkouts planned, most instructors had cancelled classes, and it all just seemed to arise out of the air, as the organizers and agitators had become a critical mass - nearly every person who heard about the General Strike became another agitator.
The idea of shutting everything down for a day had become completely reasonable to the average working class person in the East Bay.
The Oakland General Strike
I had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning the night before, checking my medic kit and with anticipation, and tried to make sure to get rested up for the day. So my day started with the early morning word, as I was heading out the door, that the longshore workers had already shut down the port. The truth of the matter was that many of them had called out and it was running at a greatly diminished capacity, and we still needed to shut the port down. The longshore workers could not just strike and join us, but would have an arbitrator come out and declare any picket line as "unsafe to cross" and they would be able to go home.
I headed downtown, arriving shortly after 10 am, and it was already far more people than I had expected. I checked in at various places, found my medic buddy, and we started going on small marches to shut down banks. Many banks and businesses were shutdown that morning - generally easily. Every shutdown turned into a party. Meanwhile, thousands would come to Oscar Grant plaza with each feeder march during the day.
My medic buddy and I decided to rest our feet a little during the anti-capitalist march, as we expected that the situation at the port might get really intense, despite the fact the police had been thus far absent. We were sitting, listening to Unwoman play with some street perfomers, keeping an eye on 14th and Broadway, when someone ran up, interrupted the show, and stated that anarchists were smashing windows and were intending to bring the police down on us all. He tried to people's mic it, and while he did get plenty of chants of peaceful protest, he didn't get many people to echo his desire to stand against anarchists and forcibly stop them.
My medic buddy and I then went back to moving around the plaza and the area around it, worried about tensions developing and bursting out into some sort of confrontation, but, that did not seem to occur. Our numbers, however, were swelling rapidly. Two marches would leave for the port, at 4 and 5 pm, the first, from reliable estimates consisting of at least 10,000 people, the second consisting of 15-20k people. Plus many more people went to the port from elsewhere. The best estimates I have seen for the numbers at the port were 35-50,000, which I can easily believe. My medic buddy and I marched with the feminist block in the 5 pm march.
The march to the port was the first time we saw cops, but the largest gathering of cops we saw was nine CHP officers on motorcycles setting up to direct traffic away from the march.
We arrived at the port to an atmosphere even more festive than the rest of the day, with a sea of people that, like every other event that day, was as diverse as Oakland. The Oakland port complex was literally fully of people, which, for anyone who knows how big a port Oakland is, is very impressive.
We wandered around the port for a couple of hours, running into comrade after comrade; I also ran into many classmates from the community colleges. This is remarkable as my classmates are much like me - not traditional student aged, working at least one job, all going back to school to become nurses, physician's assistants, optometrists, physical therapists, nurse practitioners, and the like.
I was also surprised at how friendly people were at the port, and eager to talk - I'm used to getting approached and thanked for medicing by obvious radicals, but, I had countless people who don't normally ever go out to a protest thank me, including a Marine who gave me really heartfelt thanks for being a medic, and being out there (this being really significant with the traumatic injury Marine veteran Scott Olsen suffered from the police hitting him with a tear gas canister in the police riots that led up to the call for the General Strike).
My medic buddy, having obligations in the city, and my body reminding me that my health is not good and that eleven hours on my feet is quite enough, decided to walk out of the port to a comrade's car, to get a quick ride home. I observed that crowds of people were happily wandering all over West Oakland, the cops having gone back into hiding after their incredibly sparse presence during the march on the port. The night, however, would change character later...
The Black Bloc and the Peace Police
It should be obvious, from any veteran of mass movements that had heavy anarchist/anti-capitalist participation, that the Black Bloc's actions during the anti-capitalist march would turn controversial. They were very targeted - attacking only the Wells Fargo, the Bank of America, and Whole Foods. The banks were an obvious target; the Whole Foods was targeted because word went out that they threatened to fire any employee who participated in the General Strike.
Of course, the only actual violence during the march (as the police were not even present), was from self-appointed peace police, who, after screaming peaceful protest, tried to tackle and restrain members of the Black Bloc, proving that once again, to the American pacifist, the prevention of broken windows and graffiti are far more important that the physical well-being of other people. In the days since, this has brought about numerous calls to kick all the anarchists out of Occupy Oakland, that Occupy Oakland needs to be protected from being radicalized, forgetting that anarchists and Marxists have been a major driving force behind Occupy Oakland since the beginning, and that Occupy Oakland has already taken it upon itself to successfully shut down the Port of Oakland, causing millions and millions of dollars of economic damage. There has been talk of forming roving squads to forcibly restrain and turn over to the police Black Bloc or anyone engaged in property destruction, and to kick out suspected radicals. The level of redbaiting, since Wednesday, in Occupy Oakland, has become exceptionally high.
While we can certainly criticize certain acts of property destruction as unstrategic, we must always be sure to emphasize that smashing a window is qualitatively different than tackling a person, and that we (as communists, anarchists, and other revolutionaries) need to, without exception, stand together against those who would do capital and its hired thugs, the police's, work for them. Now is not the time to decide what acts of property destruction we'll stand behind or approve of, but to stand up against physical violence against and social isolation of other revolutionaries. We've been through this debate many times in the last 12 years - while it may be repeating as farce for us, there is certainly a dedicated minority who are perfectly willing to act as the police and to crush the potential of Occupy Oakland.
Red Flag Waving Against Red Flag
The past revolutions show us only too well: “the red flag can be waved against the red flag” until the freikorps arrive - Theorie Communiste
...the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. - Karl Marx
The greatest source of infighting amongst all the anarchists, communists, socialists, and other radicals (self-proclaimed or otherwise) would be around the failed building occupation late that night. As they explain in their statement, a group entered the building that had been the former location of the Traveler's Aid Society, and attempted to expropriate it so that it could become a community center. Several hundred people took part in this action, again, a crowd as diverse as Oakland.
They were clearly unprepared for the magnitude of the police response. Line after line of riot cops came in, swinging batons, launching containers of tear gas, throwing flashbangs, and shooting rubber bullets. While attempts to set up barricades were made, the crowd of people could not defend them.
A miscalculation was made about the ferociousness of the response; I think many of us would have made the same miscalculation. Before what occurred, I would have said that the police were on such a tight leash, that if numbers at the building could be kept high for a bit, that they could have made the Mayor's office look horrible again when the police finally busted down the doors.
However, even from supposed "radicals" and "anarchists", lies are being told, or at least spread - that the occupation was solely white kids, the occupiers were outside agitators, that police were massed up and ready to go before the occupation started, that property destruction or violence began occurring before the police attacked, or that the police were antagonized. Based on video footage and conversations and other communications from several trusted comrades, none of these things are true. While we can certainly wish for a different outcome, we have reformist elements within Occupy Oakland screaming for blood over the threat to private property, and criticisms being made are overly harsh, spiteful, and moralistic, implying that the building occupiers are to blame for their own wounds. We do not need to do the work of the co-opting elements for them, and we need to realize that two very important events for the future of the mass movement that has been occurring happened on Wednesday: the shutting down of the port and the attempted expropriation of the building.
If the Oakland Commune does not continue to accelerate the process of communization, it will fall back into either pure symbolism, or assume the counterrevolutionary form of reformism (two processes already in progress). The building was the next logical step, and the moment taken seemed to be the likeliest and also the safest for large numbers of people not involved, as the cops had not been seen in numbers at any point, until they appeared and massed up to put down the already accomplished building occupation. Had the same events occurred during the day, the disruption to the General Strike would have been much greater.
Other criticisms to be addressed, that are much more concerning, revolve around the "undemocratic" or "substitutionist" nature of the occupation or around the need to convince the populace of the morality of our position, and that the police will relent through moral "struggle", that we can change things just by becoming "better people". Morality is a bad joke; a capitalism of angels would be just as exploitative, just as oppressive. Police officers will never lay down their arms en masse; they are the hired thugs of capital, and unlike the risk of mutiny that capital takes when it deploys the military against its own population, the entire training of the police molds them into a force that's very purpose is to repress their own populace. Morality has no place in communist struggle, what matters is our ability to out organize, out manuver, and out fight capital.
As to the "undemocratic" nature of the occupation, if one really thinks the General Assembly should be required to approve of things that occur outside of Oscar Grant Plaza, they approved a motion that supported autonomous actions to occupy buildings. To anyone who thinks that the General Assembly should have approved a motion to occupy that particular building at that particular time, that would have only succeeded at, at best, leading to a wall of riot cops around the building keeping people out at the appointed time, or, at worst, another eviction of Occupy Oakland.
Beyond the impracticality and the existing resolution, we must be cautious of fetishizing democracy. The majority do not want communism at this moment, and we will never convince them through debate (ask the Socialist Party of Great Britain how successful their strategy has been); in general, struggle precedes consciousness. People and groups must be brought into the struggle, and through struggle, their consciousness will be elevated. And, for the events of that day all over Oakland, why is the General Assembly to be seen as having an authoritative voice? Far more people participated in the Oakland General Strike than have ever attended a General Assembly. What is the good in seeing the General Assembly as having any authority outside the bounds of time and space which it inhabits - in other words, do we wish to see the General Assembly of those who have the motivation and ability to get to it when it convenes to be binding outside those times and outside that place? Or do we see it as being an advisory body and one that can promise a certain capacity of support, that varies over time?
As for the "substitutionist" complaint, generally substitutionism involves the belief that a smaller group authoritatively acts for a large group, rather than taking action and then attempting to expropriate the results. There will always be a militant minority as an informal vanguard in struggle (Bordiga's "material party"), expecting it to wait for a unitary proletariat to emerge will have us waiting forever.
Was It A General Strike?
It was clearly not a General Strike in the traditional sense; many businesses outside of downtown kept running, even though massive economic damage was done, and business as usual certainly did not occur downtown. It may be more useful to think of it as a Social Strike, where in addition to the social relations in workplaces being disrupted, the totality of social relations in downtown Oakland were completely altered.
Furthermore, should we necessarily expect a General Strike in 2011 to look like one in 1946? The composition of the proletariat has changed greatly, and the way in which work is imposed as a disciplinary measure has been greatly changed. The increasing imposition of debt (which can only be seen as selling one's future, rather than present, labor power) as both a disciplinary measure on the proletariat and as a way to ensure its reproduction has likely changed what a mass refusal of work looks like; as struggles continue to heat up, it will be interesting to see what new forms these struggles take as we adjust our strategies and tactics to the new terrain of struggle.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It is clear that many of the communist, anarchist, and otherwise revolutionary elements in the Bay have pushed themselves past their capacity to make the General Strike happen. Part of the cooling off, the difficulty in providing a unified, strong response to redbaiting, and the infighting may be due to everyone's exhaustion, and the collective let down we felt when we woke up Thursday and it was far more like Tuesday than it was like Wednesday.
There are several important directions that Occupy Oakland needs to go. A way to accomplish the expropriation of buildings needs to occur, as it is not only both one of the most likely path to speed up the process of communization, but, the logical action to take as the rainy season sets in. The Travelers' Aid Society occupiers certainly had the right idea, even if they were unable to defend their gains against a police response of unforeseen magnitude.
While the majority feel of the participants during the General Strike was that capitalism is broken, the start of recuperation is already there - into a recall campaign against Mayor Quan, and into making other reformist demands. We need to learn from Madison and other struggles how this recuperation occurs and to struggle against it.
Occupy Oakland needs to better address issues around race and gender. While the camp is exceptionally diverse, the General Assembly too often centers the voices and concerns of white men, and then, following that, men in general. The Feminist Bloc grew out of a Women and Trans and Queer group, and hopefully from there, we can broaden the discourse to include reproductive labor, sex work, and domestic work, as well as the hyperexploitation and oppression of queers and trans people under capitalism.
We need to avoid aiming for a unified message or cohesion. The main strength of the Oakland General Strike was that it was the Multitude coming together and struggling in common, individuals and groups with their own experiences and their own personal position realizing common needs and goals. Trying to form a unified vision or demands for Occupy Oakland, rather than the fulfillment of its members' needs and wants by expropriation and direct conflict with capital will doom it to both a counterrevolutionary character and to fail to ever regain anything resembling the energy of November 2nd.
- Gayge Operaista IWW, Common Struggle, personal capacity
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6, 2011
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