Three days since the Oakland General Strike on November 2nd, and impassioned chants are still ringing in my ears. It was Occupy Wall Street, raised to the power of Oakland. By the end of the day, we were a thronging mass, four lanes wide and four miles long, stretching from city center to the western tip of the Port of Oakland.
As my friend Elana and I emerged from the 12th Street BART station, the beating drums, shouts, and honking horns made it clear where the protest was. Just as we arrived, the crowd was beginning to take over the intersection at 14th and Broadway, forcing city buses and tractor trailers to make impossible U-turns. In our first act of claiming power for the day, Elana and I stood smack dab in the middle of the intersection, staking Occupy's claim to a space that would later be used as a main gathering place for the strike.
I felt strange at first -- wasn't it illegal to obstruct traffic? Were we supposed to have a permit for this? And then I realized that most of my experience standing in a street full of people usually bustling with vehicles has been at parades. Street fairs, block parties -- planned events with official organizers and sponsors and money and committees. This was different. Though the General Strike was planned, collectively we were exercising our right to assemble. I asked a man near me about these qualms, and he said "permit?? Since when do we need a permit to exercise our constitutional rights?" Well that cleared that up. (Not really, but I think I need to do more reading on the legal restrictions on 1st amendment rights before I can debate it at all.)
It took a while for things to get started -- first the MC was late, then as we waited for Angela Davis to arrive, the organizers ran out of people to speak so it became an open mic -- but once they did, the excitement in the crowd was palpable. We heard from union organizers, teachers, rappers, students, poets, average joes, community organizers, faith leaders, and everyone in between. By 11am, we were ready to march.
Interesting to note here that "gradior" in latin means "to march," and from the passive perfect conjugations of gradior (gress--) comes our English word "progressive." (Literally, forward-marching-ness) According to the OED, progressive means "Favoring social reform -- Favoring change or innovation." Ergo, marching, holding marches, is intrinsically and essentially part of a progressive movement. Without masses of people visible in their support, we cannot expect social change.
The first march was just a mini-march -- basically around a few blocks, with stops at the state building and CitiBank. I found a Cal Alum making free quesadillas on a portable stove set up on the sidewalk, and enjoyed the looks on folks' faces as they realized he wasn't asking for money. After running into several more friends, standing in line for an hour for the iconic "Hella Occupy Oakland" poster, and making another sign of my own, Al and I headed over to the amphitheater to watch some of the live program.
We heard youthspeaks poets, touching on issues of identity, power, wealth and dignity. “If immigrant rights are human, when will this land allow our humanity?” asks Erica, a passionate and eloquent young poet. I have always been so impressed with youthspeaks and the ability that the students have to wield their voices. Destiny Arts also performed, and I'll try to upload the video I took of their dance/social theater.
Finally, the crowd had swelled to critical mass and we gathered on 14th street to march to the port. We embarked in waves, with the first couple hundred boarding six busses to begin the process of shutting down the Port of Oakland, the 5th largest port in the country and arguably the economic hub of the Bay Area. Earlier that morning, we'd heard reports that members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) had already walked out or refused to work, both in recognition of the Oakland General Strike, and in solidarity with their union brothers in Longview, WA, who have been on strike for more than a month. However, the Port of Oakland said only about 40 workers had walked out in the morning.
By 5pm, though, at least five thousand occupiers had descended on the port, snaking all the way over the railroad overpass and through the port. Looking back at the map, it seems that at its height the march was at least four miles long and four lanes wide full of people from city center to the berths at the port. Most of the estimates quoted on the media have been at about 7,000 people, but I'm sure it was closer to twice that. Curiously, although there were at least three helicopters overhead, no media outlets have released footage of more than three blocks or so of the marches.
Though we started towards the front of the march, Al and I opted to stick by the marching band that was traveling a little slower than the rest. By the time we were almost down to the port, a sea of people stretched in front of us and rose up the overpass, and I thought that surely we were at the tail end. Then I looked behind me to discover an unending, jubilant, and massive group of people still pouring out of city center. It gave me chills to know that I was a part of something so big.
After Al left for dinner with her sister, I was on my own for the time being and entered the port with the wave of people. I noticed that folks had started clambering atop the trucks frozen in the crowd for a better view, and I followed suit. From my higher perch, I could see the bigger picture, both literally and physically. What had seemed an unending mass of life and passion was actually just a thin strip amidst the entirely built landscape of the Port. (My later search for a spot to pee confirmed that the Port of Oakland had the least greenery of anywhere I've been.) I wondered if there had ever been so many people at the port in history, and how small a percentage of the people chanting “Whose Port? Our Port!” had even ever set foot there before.
I had, when I came with my Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program class almost exactly two years ago. We learned about operations at the Port of Oakland and its importance to California's economy, and got a special tour aboard a Crowley tugboat. But for my entire life growing up in the Bay Area prior, I hadn't ever even considered the Port. It was just a part of the landscape, the George Lucas-inspiring cargo cranes rising against the silhouette of San Francisco like trees or bridges or telephone poles. Little did I know that about 95% of US imports pass through our port system (now that I look at it, “import” means quite literally “into port”), and that the ILWU is one of the most active labor unions around.
What made the Port especially enticing for Occupy Oakland organizers to target, though, is a special clause in ILWU contracts that allow members to refuse to cross community picket lines in solidarity. I recently learned that this is not the case for most unions – i.e., unless the membership of your own union has voted to strike, you can't refuse to work on union grounds. However, the ILWU allows this, which is how I ended up in a picket line in front of terminal gate 60-63. The idea was that once workers arrived for their 7pm shift, there would be a picket line preventing them from entering, and they would have to turn around. Around 6:50 we got the word that workers were being sent home WITH pay, and the long line of cars that snaked in was allowed out to return to their families.
Elana came back after work, and we walked around the port for a while, such such a vast array of people it almost made my head spin. There was Patrick, the aspiring farmer I met on top of another stationary truck, and Maria, the community college student from Mexico hoping to be able to afford to transfer to a 4-year university. We ran into several Smith alums, family friends, former students of mine, and teachers from Elana's school. There were babies, grandmas, and everyone in between. Those who weren't unemployed or couldn't take the day off showed up in droves after work, wearing business suits, scrubs, hairnets, carpenters' belts, overalls, firemens' uniforms, and t-shirts to countless unions. Picnicking hipsters ate cheese and crackers in the middle of an intersection, while through the cacophony of megaphones we could pick out chants, slogans, people looking for their friends, and somewhat frazzled organizers attempting to direct bodies toward the more thinly-picketed gates.
As we waited for a BART train nearly twelve hours after arriving that morning, the conversations continued, as we proudly told curious passers-by that the atmosphere had been jubilant, passionate, and entirely peaceful. The station itself had more cops than we'd seen all day, and it seemed like the standard eyes-down silence that generally prevails on public transportation had been broken. Later that night, a small subset of occupiers clashed again with police, but until about midnight, everyone congratulated themselves on a peaceful message well-sent: We are the 99%, and we refuse to be silent any longer.