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 participated despite 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, yet the crowds organized 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.”
Reed then urged the crowd to take out their cell phones and shouted out the direct line for CEO Jamie Dimon’s personal assistant. I wasn’t sure how leaving angry voice mails for Jamie Dimon’s assistant was going to help Ms. Reed, but the crowd was enthusiastic about this the gesture, riding off the triumph of having shut down the Chase branch at the corner for the day.
The crowd, which started at about 400 strong, increased quickly in size and emotional intensity during the episode in the intersection. We then marched to a Bank of America a few blocks to the east intending to shut it down. The B of A 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. 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.
Despite moments of high tension, there was good feeling, even exuberance, among the protestors and the atmosphere of a giant street party. We marched back from the B of A to the encampment in the plaza with the Brass Liberation Orchestra , a New Orleans-style marching band with a great brass section. At the plaza there was 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 mic. “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 set up.”
The big moment of the day was about to begin: a march to the Port of Oakland.
After a three-mile walk, the waves of protestors, which now numbered in the thousands, reached the target. As we spilled out into the massive lanes into the Port and dispersed among the many gates, dancing broke out. The Longshoremen, some of whom who 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.
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. One slip of the clutch and there would have been carnage. As he continued to gun his motor, a young woman climbed on top of the hood of the truck and sat on the windshield front of the driver, while a young man climbed up to the window to speak with him. After a quick chat, the driver and the young man shook hands. The driver turned off his engine, and exited the truck to the cheers of the crowd.
Actions like these were spontaneous. 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 at port entry gate near where I stood. My group sat in a circle and if someone wanted to speak, he or she stood up and yelled, “Mic check!” The crowd then repeated that 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 affect 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 in at their eye level to signal agreement.
As my friend and I left, sore in the legs from ten hours marching in the streets, I was impressed by how much this fledgling movement had accomplished in just two months. Here were thousands of people 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.