A day of defiance in Oakland

November 3, 2011

Eric Ruder rounds up reports on the general strike and day of action called by Occupy Oakland--with contributions from activists around the country.

THE STREETS of Oakland, Calif., echoed with the voices of tens of thousands of people determined to take a stand on November 2 as workers, students, activists and people of all walks of life responded to the call for a general strike by Occupy Oakland.

The determination in Oakland was matched by thousands more around the U.S. who took part in a national day of solidarity action a week after a brutal police assault that turned Oakland's downtown into something close to a war zone--and that nearly took the life of demonstrator Scott Olsen when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister.

People from around the Bay Area responded to Occupy Oakland's general strike call--teachers stayed away from work, students walked out of classes, and city workers took the day off to join the protests.

The highlight came in the late afternoon with a mass march from the Occupy encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza--renamed Oscar Grant Plaza--in front of City Hall to the Port of Oakland, the fifth-busiest port in the country. The demonstration shut down the evening shift when longshore workers refused to cross the picket line of some 15,000 people.

Occupy Oakland protesters on the way to picket at the Port of Oakland
Occupy Oakland protesters on the way to picket at the Port of Oakland

"This event is long overdue," said James Curtis, an executive board member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. "Now they have awoken a sleeping tiger."

THE STRIKE call brought out solidarity in different forms all over the city. Oakland public school buildings were points of origin for marches of students, teachers and parents that led to the Oakland Board of Education, several banks and City Hall. A feeder march of 700 from Laney Community College shut down a Wells Fargo bank. Hundreds of city workers from Service Employees Union (SEIU) Local 1021 participated in the protest.

Many teachers at high schools, community colleges and the University of California (UC) held teach-ins on the economy and the 99 percent, and the UC system graduate student union, UAW Local 2865, asked its members to use class time to teach about budget cuts.

The streets of Oakland took on a festival-like atmosphere. By the estimates of activists, over the course of the day, some 20,000 people mobilized to Oscar Grant Plaza, the site of the battle a week earlier when the cops moved in against Occupy protesters who had been evicted from the plaza in the early-morning hours.

More than 100 people were arrested October 25, and the police used tear gas, stun grenades, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets against protesters. One of the victims was Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran who was struck by a tear gas canister. He remains in the hospital a week later with a skull fracture and brain injury.

But the scene at Oscar Grant Plaza was very different on November 2, and people from across the Bay Area came to the central Occupy site to take part in activities there--before heading to other protests around the city that highlighted a multitude of grievances, from home foreclosures to school closings to attacks on unions to cuts in city services.

"We watch our kids stuck in the prison pipeline with no prospects for jobs or meaningful work," said Betty Olsen-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association. "We suffer increased class sizes and the imposition of a top-down curriculum, and our kids know that this system thinks the banks and the corporations are more important than they are.

"It's important our students see teachers fighting for their rights. We're making history today. We want a world that's not divided between the 99 percent and the 1 percent."

Dana Blanchard, a teacher in nearby Berkeley was the official spokesperson for the Berkeley Federation of Teachers for the day of action. "Teachers and students have had enough," she said. "Today, we are showing what a united community fightback can look like."

Among the participants during the day of action was a sizeable delegation of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who came to show their solidarity with Scott Olsen.

The Alameda County Labor Council called on its membership and staff to support the day of action November 2--and in the evening, it organized a barbeque at Oscar Grant Plaza to feed thousands of people who streamed into the city center after work hours. Meanwhile, Teamsters Local 70 parked its boldly painted 18-wheeler in the middle of the plaza.

IN THE late afternoon, several waves of protesters assembled for a march that would set up a mass picket aimed at closing down the city's most important economic asset: the port of Oakland.

At 4 p.m., 2,000 people left, and at 5 p.m., another 4,000 departed. As they stepped off, Earth Amplified and Jennifer Johns performed a send-off serenade called "We Are Worldwide." Minutes later, a delegation made up of workers from UNITE HERE, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, SEIU Local 1021 and others made its way toward the docks.

Demonstrators arrived at the giant port complex and split up to cover the different gates. Occupy San Francisco headed for one, and Oakland activists divided out to cover others. As the 7 p.m. shift change approached, there were thousands of demonstrators on each of the main gates.

After several hours of picketing, the port arbitrator made a ruling that signaled the Oakland docks would be shut down for the night. Jubilant protesters celebrated their victory for the general strike, and most marched back to the downtown area around Oscar Grant Plaza, where the streets echoed with music, chanting and excited discussion.

In marked contrast to their vicious assault last week, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) was practically invisible on November 2--from demonstrations during the day to the march on the docks to the celebrations at night. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and other city officials have been in full retreat since the police assault a week ago--they no doubt pressed for the police to be on best behavior in the hopes of regaining some shred of legitimacy.

But the cops are also looking for an opening to reassert their authority, in the estimation of activists. They may have taken a hands-off approach in an attempt to demonstrate that "chaos" would ensue without them--even though the day's events were almost entirely peaceful, orderly and festive.

"The OPD's attempt to portray themselves as part of the victimized 99 percent is contradicted by its long history of racist violence and repression of protest," said Todd Chretien, a member of the International Socialist Organization. "Last year, Mayor Quan stood in the streets with Oscar Grant protesters against the OPD, but now she's attempting to play both sides of the fence."

Whatever the case, neither the police nor city officials nor Oakland's business establishment could stop the protesters' show of defiance on the streets of the city and at the gates of the port of Oakland.

"Oakland is the economic engine for the whole Bay Area," Jack Heyman, a retired dockworker and activist in ILWU Local 10, told a Fresno public radio station. "Thousands are marching on the port, which is controlled by the 1 percent, the big capitalists, and by marching on the port and shutting it down, it shows not just Oakland but the whole world the power that the working class has."

Heyman thanked the young longshore workers who didn't show up for work in the morning of November 2, crimping the port's operations from early in the day. "I commend the young people who refused to take jobs this morning," said Heyman. "That's why ship owners had a real difficult time getting together longshore crews.

The specter of workers on strike and a day of mass protest was enough to prompt many of Oakland's largest corporate entities to shut down for the day, adding even more to the numbers in the streets.

"People are joining this cause on a national level, and now it seems more legit," said Gregory Belvin, a 17-year-old student at Skyline High School. "As the 99 percent, we have to speak out against three strikes and minimum-sentencing laws. There's been a war on the youth, a whole generation of youth of color have been lost to the prisons. If we can get those people back, they can help make it a better world."

Powell DeGange, a 26-year-old Oakland resident, expressed joy at being part of a global movement. "We were thrilled that people in Egypt marched in solidarity with Oakland," said DeGange. "We were there for them, now they're standing up for us. We are part of a worldwide movement against the same greed and the same imperialism."

ACTIONS IN solidarity with Occupy Oakland took place around the country on November 2.

In Portland, Ore., 3,000 people--singing the union anthem "Solidarity Forever"--marched down Broadway Avenue in the heart of Portland's downtown.

"As we walked past a park, activists were waiting there for us, proclaiming with a huge banner that the park had been renamed Aaron Campbell Park, who, like Oscar Grant in Oakland, was an unarmed Black man killed by Portland police a few years ago," said Nicole Bowmer.

The march was led by a contingent of a couple dozen veterans who are members of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War--which may explain why the Portland police allowed the march to continue, even when some 250 marched across Hawthorne Bridge, one of the main bridges connecting the east and west sides of Portland.

Micaiah Dutt served in the Marines from 2001 to 2009 and was deployed to Iraq four times. Like Scott Olsen, he was radicalized by his experience in the military. "What Scott Olsen experienced by being shot in the head gave the veteran community just a glimpse of what the African American community experiences every day, what the Latino community experiences. That's why we called everyone out today to say this has to stop!"

In New York City, more than 1,000 people marched from the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Liberty Plaza to NYPD headquarters, chanting, "Oakland, NYC, stop police brutality!"

"This building looks like an administration building," a member of the People of Color Committee told the rally via the people's mic. "To the 99 percent who are people of color, this building is a tomb. Here lies Sean Bell, here lies Patrick Dorismond, here lies Alberta Spruill. We honor the West Coast and Bay Area by saying 'Presenté' for Oscar Grant."

Marine Sgt. Shamar Thomas, famous for his rant against cops in Times Square that went viral in a YouTube video, told the rally, "You have a right to be here. We're here to protect you. I love you."

Thomas was part of a contingent of veterans participating in the march. Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) member Andrew Johnson explained that he supported Occupy Wall Street because "the war economy is part of the reason for the mess we're in."

Earlier in the day, about 40 members of IVAW and Veterans for Peace marched from the Vietnam Veterans memorial to the New York Stock Exchange, and then to Liberty Plaza.

"I've been one of those people saying something is wrong, something's got to give," said IVAW member Grant Bailey, who was on the march and has been participating in Occupy for weeks now. "I came here to check this out and then started learning a lot more about what those somethings are."

In Seattle, students at the University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College held speakouts on their respective campuses, and later took part in a march to Chase Bank, where five people handcuffed themselves together inside the bank. About 100 protesters waited outside while the cops struggled to figure out how to cut them out. Chants of "The banks got bailed out, we got sold out" and "We are the 99 percent" kept spirits up.

As dozens of police arrived and tried to arrest the five, protesters outside attempted to block their access. Chaos ensued. Cops in bikes started pushing aggressively--and demonstrators pushed back, chanting "We are all Scott Olsen." One cop started pepper spraying the crowd at point-blank range. The crowd backed up, but did not disintegrate.

After protesters sat down in front of the paddy wagon, cops started to grab individual demonstrators to try and arrest them. The crowd also grabbed them and pulled them away from cops so they couldn't be arrested. For a solid hour, the crowd controlled Broadway, which is the main drag in Capitol Hill. The cops tried to push us down the street. We regrouped, locked arms and pushed back the bike cops.

Eventually, the protesters shifted their focus to a 1,000-strong protest of Chase Bank CEO Jamie Dimon, who was speaking at an event sponsored by the UW Foster School of Business.

In Philadelphia, several hundred people from Occupy Philly marched through the streets chanting "We are Oakland, I am Scott Olsen" and "The banks got bailed out, we got sold out."

When the march ended, some took part in a sit-in inside Comcast's headquarters while the remaining protesters continued chants outside in solidarity. The sit-in was organized to protest Comcast's failure to pay property and other taxes. Nine protesters were arrested, which led to a solidarity action outside Philadelphia police headquarters.

In Burlington, Vt., workers and students converged on the campus of the University of Vermont (UVM) to show solidarity with members of United Academics Local 3203 who are fighting against austerity measures at UVM. Mary Lou Kete, an English professor from the University said she was dismayed at the "profit mentality" of the school, and described the administration as "bloated and ineffective."

The crowd of 300 then marched to join Burlington's five-day-old occupation of City Hall Park. Many speakers at the park spoke in support of Occupy Oakland and against police violence. "I beg you," said Marni Faye Salerno, a Burlington resident, "when you see something unjust, or someone acting unjust, fight back!" The day was a fantastic demonstration of unity and passion about the many issues facing the 99 percent.

In Rochester, N.Y., 350 people marched from Washington Square Park to City Hall to demand that all charges be dropped against the 32 people arrested Friday evening when the mayor ordered our encampment be disbanded.

Labor unions turned out in big numbers. Sheet metal workers, members of the health care workers union 1199SEIU, state social workers and teachers wore union t-shirts and marched alongside people from all walks of life.

Earlier that day, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Mayor Tom Richards giving full support to Occupy Rochester's demand that we have a right to remain in the park overnight on free speech grounds. Earlier in the week, Richards invited Occupy activists to meet even as he continued to stonewall our demands.

Following today's march and our largest general assembly yet, Occupy Rochester decided again to challenge the City and assert our right to set up a permanent encampment. As this report was written, 60 people were still occupying the park, banging drums, holding meetings and waiting for the coming showdown with the city.

In Gainesville, Fla., around 80 students and community members rallied at the University of Florida (UF) campus for the debut event of Occupy UF today as part of the national day of action. Unionized graduate student members as well as members of the faculty union addressed the crowd.

One of them, Zoharrah Simmons, a professor and veteran of the civil rights movement, spoke about the parallels between the Occupy movement and the struggles in which she participated some 50 years ago. "If Martin Luther King were with us still today, he would be a part of the Occupy movement," she said. "It's up to us to pick up his dream, for a poor people's movement, and run with it."

After an hour or so of an open mic that allowed all participants to speak, the group marched through the notoriously pro-corporate business school, chanting loudly. The marchers then proceeded towards downtown, passing the district attorney's office and joining up with the ongoing encampment in downtown Gainesville, to co-host a General Assembly with Occupy Gainesville, which went on to unanimously endorse a November 5 rally and march in solidarity with the New York Central Labor Council's call for a workers march against the 1 percent.

In Greensboro, N.C., about 75 people gathered at downtown Governmental Plaza for a rally and short march to the Occupy Greensboro encampment at the YWCA where a number of speakers addressed the crowd.

Mark Dimenstein of the American Postal Workers Union spoke of the struggle against budget cuts at the post office; Lewis Pitts, an activist who helped represent the victims of the Greensboro Massace of 1979, spoke about the history of that struggle; and a Bay Area resident gave the crowd updates from Oakland.

Along the march route, protesters chanted, "From Oakland to NC, Occupy will be free!" and "I am Scott Olsen, I am Oscar Grant!" The march ended at the YWCA encampment where protesters attended a General Assembly meeting, many of them for the first time. Occupy Greensboro will soon be clearing its encampment from the YWCA and hopefully moving to a new location, but activists plan to continue organizing wherever they end up.

In Houston, about 45 people marched through downtown from the Occupy Houston camp to Houston Police Department (HPD) headquarters and then on to the courthouse and the sheriff's department. The march was very spirited, with the most popular chants being "HPD! HPD! Keep your hands off of me!" "Houston is Oakland!" and "We are Scott Olsen!"

Nicole Bowmer, Robbie Cavooris, Todd Chretien, John Coursey, Nick Gerber, Darrin Hoop, Ben Lassiter, Brian Lenzo, Joe Richard, Adam Sanchez, Dan Sharber and Leela Yellesetty contributed to this article.

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