Written & contributed by Shepherd Bliss
Occupy Oakland won a resounding October 26 victory by mobilizing 3000 people to respond to a police riot. They took down the police fence that exiled them from the plaza in front of city hall, set up tents again, and returned to dancing and receiving massage and acupuncture treatments.
Some 1500 people later attended a daily General Assembly and voted for a general strike on November 2. It would be the first one in the United States since 1946, which was also in Oakland. Such a strike calls on workers and students to stay home from work and school and try to shut down the city. Downtown banks were also encouraged to close and demonstrators vowed to enter them if they did not.
“The whole world is watching Oakland” chants can be heard at various Occupations around the United States and read in their communications.
In Oakland’s police riot, shotguns fired projectiles and helicopters and armored personnel carriers were employed by the some 400 police officers. They created a martial law environment to intimidate unarmed citizens as they mobilized against multiple social injustices. Some described it as a “drill” for what could happen at other Occupation sites. But this repression is stimulating more resistance around the Bay Area and elsewhere.
In San Francisco, police gathered on the morning of October 27 with their masks and riot gear, with the apparent intention of evicting Occupiers. They were met by 1000 protestors and backed down. As with the threat by New York City’s mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who ordered police to evict Occupy Wall Street, there have now been three important coast-to-coast victories for the 99% in the growing struggle against the 1%.
Four San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a California state senator, and other elected officials joined the protestors. They called for negotiations with the Occupiers, rather than force. In two weeks San Francisco will vote for mayor. The current interim Mayor Ed Lee is running. A failed attempt to evict the emboldened Occupiers would doom his campaign.
In all three Bay Area Occupy sites that this reporter attended or watched, including Santa Rosa, some elected officials have supported the Occupiers by pressuring mayors, city administrators, and police chiefs not to use force. The new Occupation Movement is using not only its street smarts but also more traditional political routes to increase allies among elected officials, unions, and neighborhood, church, and community groups.
“Oakland is the vanguard and epicenter of the Occupy Movement,” Clarence Thomas, was quoted in the daily Oakland Tribune as saying. He is a member of the powerful International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union and urged people to support the strike. Other unions have also come forward with support, though some have reservations.
Labor historian Fred Glass of San Francisco City College was recently interviewed on Pacifica’s KPFA radio. He said that to be successful a general strike needs four things: anger, a spark, leadership willing to call the strike, and an organizational structure to implement it.
The Occupation Movement has already demonstrated the first three components. Mass discontent exists throughout the U.S. by the 99% that are ruled by the 1%. The police wounding of Iraq vet and Marine Scott Olsen on October 26 in Oakland provided the spark that ignited the calling of the strike.
It remains to be seen how well Occupy Oakland can organize the general strike. It is a risky tactic, especially since the unions that once called for such strikes are now weaker. Whereas most unions in l946 represented workers from private companies, most unions today represent service workers. For example, I am a member of the California Faculty Association, which represents teachers at Sonoma State University.
Oakland’s 1946 general strike brought 100,000 people into the streets and shut down the city for 56 hours. The largest gathering at any of the current Occupations here in the U.S. was apparently some 20,000 people. However, Occupations in Madrid and Rome have had over 100,000 participants.
Professor Glass reviewed the history of general strikes in the U.S., which have been few and far in between. Elsewhere in the world, like in Latin America where I have lived and in Europe, general strikes called by labor unions are more common.
“The biggest general strike waves in the U.S. have been after World War I and World War II,” Glass explained. “Veterans came home to many promises, which were not fulfilled,” he added. This is happening again with vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace rallied to support Olsen and have been active at many Occupations.
October 26 started as a sad day for veterans and others when we heard in the morning of Olsen’s serious wounding. We were somewhat relieved when we heard of the strong response to the police brutality that forced Oakland Mayor Jean Quan to back off her troops. Some of Quan’s allies have been highly critical of her role and even have called for her resignation.
The police wounding of Olsen has galvanized Occupation encampments in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere, where vigils have been held for him. A tribute to Olsen has been constructed around a flagpole in Oakland with the words “Pray 4 Scott.” Photos of his sweet face with a dog appear on the Internet. Groups such as Amnesty International have condemned the use of tear gas on unarmed citizens, as well as the actions of Oakland Mayor Quan.
Even the corporate media, which has tried to paint negative images of the Occupiers with terms such as “dirty hippies,” has had to report the substantial presence of veterans and other patriotic Americans in the growing movement.
Olsen woke up on October 27, though he was apparently still unable to speak. His parents have arrived from Wisconsin and he has been upgraded to fair condition and moved from the emergency room to an intensive care unit at Highland Hospital.
Santa Rosa’s occupation on October 15 was the sixth largest in the nation, though this Sonoma County city only has around 150,000 people. A constant presence at city hall has occurred since then, as well as daily decision-making General Assemblies. The protestors and police have been collaborating and working well together in Santa Rosa. However, that may change as Occupy Santa Rosa is considering engaging in civil disobedience. They plan to erect a tent city to facilitate better overnight stays. That might cause a police reaction.
The first Occupy Petaluma, also in Sonoma County, is scheduled for October 29. An earlier one in the small town of Sonoma on October 14 drew some 500 people.
Such events happening in the San Francisco Bay Area represent many people in the region thinking deeply about what is happening in the U.S. and taking direct action to change the course of events. An uprising of old-fashioned democracy is happening. This is not the first time that this has happened.
As someone who moved to Chile, after serving in the U.S. Army, during the democratically-elected government of President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, today’s events evoke memories. The current victories of the Occupy Movement are substantial. But the 1% is carefully calculating its next steps to quell this movement that threatens their domination and horded treasures.
In Chile I experienced hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets for democracy. They were eventually struck down by the U.S.-supported dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. A reign of terror was initiated throughout South America that took thousands of lives and dashed the hopes of a democratic, nonviolent revolution.
Let’s not be naïve and innocent to expect that the 1% will give up their substantial wealth exploited from the labor of the rest of us and nature’s bounty. The struggle has only entered its next stages. There is likely to be setbacks. But victory is still possible.
“I have been haunted by voices from the other side of death,” wrote Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman on October 10 as the Occupy Movement unfolded. He wrote of “that other Sept. 11th.” I have also been haunted by those voices, given the torture and assassination of my good friend Frank Teruggi by the Chilean military. If it is to successfully challenge power, the Occupy Movement is likely to experience deaths, as we did in the l960s with the Kent State murders. Then what? Some will retreat to their private lives.
There is much to learn from defeat, as Dorfman writes. There have been “many who tried and failed.” They “gave their lives to change the world.”
Might the Occupy Movement be a next step in the fall of the American Empire? After the mighty U.S. defeats in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Wounded beasts can be deadly. What might be left after such a fall? Could we return to the American Republic and its values of liberty, freedom, and equality for all?
“Go down fighting,” Dorfman advises. Better than groveling on one’s knees for crumbs.
Shepherd Bliss teaches at Sonoma State University and can be reached at email@example.com.