We interrupt this dispatch … Occupy Oakland and the General Strike!

I didn’t realize how claustrophobic Wall Street’s Liberty Park was until I arrived at my home Occupy in Oakland. Rather than the jumble of tarp-covered shelters that grew and morphed rhizome-like through Liberty Park, Occupy Oakland’s colorful tents felt positively suburban, arranged over hay-covered ground, navigable by palate paths. The tent village occupied open public space surrounding city hall, overlooking the sunken architecture of a nouveau Greek Amphitheater  directly in front of the mayor’s door. Occupy Oakland held their General Assemblies in this amphitheater, an ironically unwelcome reclamation of the original intentions of that  architectural form. (The Occupy movement in Oakland and elsewhere has repeatedly called the bluff of contemporary urban “public” architecture-as-simulacra–the aestheticization of the public–showing that the much more unruly and sustained presence of the revolting public is in fact unwelcome.) In Oakland GAs, we would sit on the steps of the amphitheater and respond to the facilitators on the stage, as they led us through proposals and break-out discussions on the reclamation of Oakland’s foreclosed and bank-owned properties, or the question of multiple and incommensurate forms of violence (police violence, property-as-violence, black bloc tactics.)

My first GA under downtown Oakland’s starry skies (you can see the sky here, and not merely Wall Street’s towers!) was on Halloween. More than one participant milled around dressed as Robin Hood or Jesus, with one humorously gruesome “Headless Social Movement” costume. Mere days before Oakland’s historic General Strike, to be held on November 2nd, the Halloween GA was calm and spirited. Widely credited as the mastermind behind the upcoming port action, hip hop MC and local activist Boots Riley stood with many others on the stage, and the crowd cheered with the announcement that the Clorox Corporation had already decided to move a major event when news of the strike hit. Our breakout discussion topic that evening in the GA was how will we each participate in the strike? We were asked to discuss in groups of 10-20 our relative arrestability levels, and other forms of privilege or vulnerability in direct action situations. We were all invited back to a strike-planning meeting the next day.  

Like Liberty Square–the park-formerly-known-as-Zuccotti–Occupy Oakland also renamed their first occupied space. Formerly Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, after a civil rights leader and the first Japanese American to serve on Oakland’s city council, Occupy renamed the space Oscar Grant Plaza, to commemorate the senseless and “accidental” New Year’s Eve killing of a young man by transit officer Johannes Mehserle. Where Occupy Wall Street has made strong claims around inordinate corporate power and the perils of financialization in public life, yet struggled to relate those issues to questions of race and everyday violence, Occupy Oakland’s symbolic and thematic content moves in the opposite direction. With the Oscar Grant case as only the most recent installment in a long history of egregious, racist police brutality, racialized inequality and ongoing forms of violence in the community are Occupy Oakland’s gravitational center, and the struggle is to make the tenuous dis/connections to how few Oakland residents even have a pension fund, let alone the opportunity to own stock.

When I got back to Oscar Grant plaza for the strike planning meeting on November 1st, the amphitheater was filled with high school kids participating in an event called Swag’n 4 Justice, in which youth leaders talked passionately about the relationship between unemployment and violence, and advocated, among other tactics, to “Ban the Box,” in reference to have you ever been convicted of a crime? questions on employment applications. The sound system boomed with hip hop and reggae beats, and in honor of local hip hop legend Mac Dre’s birthday, “I’m in the building and I’m feelin’ myself” played over the speakers as kids popped and locked across the stage and spilling out into the crowd. In short, as we say at home, that sh*&t was hella Oakland.

The Swag’n 4 Justice event came to an end, but all the organizers and many of the kids stayed for the strike planning meeting that followed. Strike actions would start at 9am the following day, with a speech by Angela Davis and a march on banks. There would be mass meet-ups at 14th & Broadway at 9am, 12pm, and 4pm, the last of which would head down to the Oakland port and shut it down in solidarity with longshoremen whose contracts forbid them to strike. Once we all had a good idea of what the following day would entail, the meeting ended and we all danced to Michael Jackson and made signs: Informed, Educated, Employed, Occupied; and I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one. 

The next day, with 20,000 other people, we shut down the port of Oakland. At one point, a mass march of teachers and students from area schools poured up the street as the port action poured down it, and we came together in a sea of elated activist confusion. By 9pm on the night of the strike thousands of us were spread between each strategic entrance to the Oakland port, waiting for the union arbitrator to declare us a health and safety hazard and officially shut the port down. As we waited, milling around in the cold, someone shouted over the people’s mic, “who knew the revolution would require so much waiting around?” Someone else shouted back, “the Russians!” Trucks still seemed to be entering and exiting the port, and there was a lot of confusion and miscommunication, but eventually our action was victorious, and we shut down the fifth largest port in the country. It was the first General Strike in our country since the 1940s. And the last one? Also in Oakland.

In a movement like other movements filled with evictions, violence, false starts, deep imperfections and systemic shortcomings, moments like the Oakland general strike, or dancing to Michael Jackson with people I don’t know but who I could never call strangers, are indispensable to replenishing the well of activist energy in all of us. It was a moment, as they say, at the beginning of the beginning. Give thanks (and happy Thanksgiving.)

Hannah Chadeayne Appel