The attempt by Occupy Oakland to initiate a “general strike” on 2 November 2011 in response to the massive police attack on their encampment a week earlier struck a chord with tens of thousands of working people in the San Francisco Bay Area and across North America. It should not be called a “general strike” because the vast majority of workers went to work, but it was nonetheless a powerful mobilization which, at its height, involved some 30-40,000 people. There was no “business as usual” in Oakland that day, as some shops closed and demonstrators forced several bank branches to shut down. Daytime shipping was reduced at the port of Oakland, before being entirely blocked by a mass demonstration in the evening.
The capitalist media sought to play up the fact that a few bank windows were broken by “black bloc” participants, but attempts to discredit the mobilization as “violent” fell flat. A few days earlier, Copwatch had posted a video on YouTube which identified two police infiltrators wearing black clothes at Occupy Oakland.
After the main demonstrations ended, the police brutally attacked a few hundred people attempting to occupy a vacant building previously used by the Travelers’ Aid Society (an advocacy organization for the homeless) which had been closed due to funding cuts. Had this occupation been carried out as part of the mass protest, it might have provided an important political focus for opposition to Oakland’s cops and Democratic Party administration.
During the day the police kept a low profile and did not attempt to prevent the protests. Oakland’s “1%” was certainly aware that, despite the foot-dragging of the union tops, there was substantial sentiment among the ranks for walking out and joining the action. The scale of the demonstrations and their labor orientation point to the possibility of more powerful mobilizations in the future—but this will require a political fight in the union movement to build a class-struggle leadership committed to ousting the pro-capitalist misleaders and breaking with the Democrats once and for all.
The following IBT statement was distributed in Oakland in the days leading up to the 2 November 2011 protest.
Whenever Iranian or Syrian police teargas and beat anti-regime protesters, the White House is quick to issue an outraged denunciation. Yet state repression has routinely been used by the American ruling class against any movement it considers a potentially serious political challenge (even those whose actions are limited to the supposed constitutional rights to “free speech” and “free assembly”). The violent response to the movement spawned by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the most recent example.
On 24 September , barely a week after OWS began, New York cops attacked marchers on their way to Union Square, arresting more than 80. A week later, on 1 October, 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. On 12 October, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the OWS camp at Zuccotti Park would be removed. But the outpouring of solidarity was so great that the Bloomberg administration had to back off—at least temporarily.
It would be unrealistic to imagine that each instance of premeditated police violence (or the threat of same) will indefinitely continue to generate ever greater support for the movement against corporate tyranny. Police attacks on Occupy protesters in Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Denver and other cities have reportedly been somewhat more successful. Yet it has clearly come as an unpleasant surprise for America’s rulers that a large swath of the population has disregarded the mainstream media’s depiction of the Occupy movement as a mix of youthful naifs and unkempt, socially-marginal malcontents.
On Friday, 28 October, Mitt Romney, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in traditionally conservative New Hampshire, found it expedient to join President Obama in claiming to “sympathize” with key concerns of the OWS protesters. Their sympathy is evidence of the fact that, at least so far, the combination of police repression and bourgeois propaganda has failed to make a dent in a movement that was initially written off as juvenile theatrics. Popular support for the Occupiers has risen in lockstep with public awareness of their message—the complaint that in what purports to be the land of the free, the “1%” at the top lord it over the other “99%.” While oversimplified, it is nonetheless a potent idea and open to a spectrum of interpretations. One protester, who was on the right track, carried a sign that read: “When the rich steal from the poor it’s called business. When the poor fight back it’s called violence.”
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who gave the order for an assault on the Occupy encampment in her city on 25 October , did not anticipate the public’s revulsion at the scenes of police brutality and violence that quickly circulated on the internet. Anger has focused on a potentially life-threatening injury suffered by Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old former U.S. Marine and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, whose head was split open by a teargas canister.
A few weeks prior to ordering the attack, Quan, a “left” Democrat who once identified with the defunct Maoist Communist Workers Party, had been proclaiming her support for the Occupy movement. Her first response to the widespread popular outrage at the police assault was to deny personal responsibility. When that did not fly, she “apologized” for the attack and met with Olsen’s parents to express her “concern” for his condition. When Quan attempted to speak at a rally of Occupy supporters on Thursday, 27 October, she was booed off the stage.
Rather than cowing the militants, the attack on the Oakland encampment appears to have outraged them. A meeting of a couple of thousand protesters the next night voted overwhelmingly in favor of attempting to launch a one-day general strike on Wednesday, 2 November. (The Oakland General Assembly operates on the basis of a “modified” consensus model where any proposal with 90 percent support is adopted.)
The Bay Area has long been a stronghold of the left and workers’ movement in America and the last general strike that ever took place in the U.S. occurred in Oakland in 1946. The series of port shutdowns carried out in recent years by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, in opposition to the Iraq war and in protest of the racist police murder of Oscar Grant has doubtless helped the activists of Occupy Oakland understand the potential political and social power of the labor movement.
There has been some union support for the proposed mass strike—ILWU Local 10 is backing a blockade of the Port of Oakland on the evening of 2 November, and the Oakland Education Association (teachers) and Alameda County Carpenters Local 713 have endorsed the protest and called on their members to support the action. Yet it does not appear that these unions are actually prepared to officially strike on 2 November. The labor bureaucrats representing city workers have negotiated a deal with management to allow their members to use leave-time in order to participate in the protests, but this makes it a matter of individual choice rather than collective action.
It is unfortunate that this general strike initiative, which could link the demands of organized and unorganized workers, is constrained by the timidity of a union leadership that shudders at the idea of breaking the “no-strike” clauses in the contracts they negotiated with the bosses. But even with these limitations, this call represents an important step forward for the Occupy movement. It not only gives political expression to the intense opposition to the brutal suppression of the right to protest and free assembly, but also points in the direction of the future labor-centered mass actions necessary to challenge and ultimately uproot the domination of the “1%,” i.e., the capitalist ruling class. Capitalism can’t be fixed—it is a social system based on exploitation and no combination of Robin Hood tax, jobs bill, tightened financial regulations or any other reform can change that. To solve the fundamental problems the Occupy movement is attempting to address, it is necessary to construct a revolutionary party capable of leading the working class and oppressed in expropriating the “1%” and reconstructing society on an egalitarian, socialist basis with full employment and universal access to free post-secondary education, decent housing and quality healthcare—a social order in which economic activity is geared to meeting the needs of the many, rather than the enrichment of a few.
Hands Off ‘Occupy’ Protesters—Drop All Charges Now!
Break with the Democrats—Build a Revolutionary Workers’ Party!
Expropriate the Banks & Corporations with No Compensation!
Capitalism Can’t Be Fixed—Forward to a Workers’ Government!