It felt almost surreal: more than 10,000 people, perhaps up to 20,000, flooding Oakland’s streets for a General Strike featuring a litany of grievances about capitalism. Never mind the 1960s, this felt more like the 1930s—mobilized in just one week’s time, marching against corporate power and, for many, against the capitalist system itself.
It was the nation’s first General Strike since Oakland’s last one, in 1946. This giant left-progressive convergence shut down the city’s financial downtown and its port, the 5th busiest in the U.S.
Under a hot sun and cloudless skies, a virtual city of the left sprung up for a day: kids, families, young and middle-aged activists and seniors, artists, musicians, venerable Black Panthers and leaders such as Angela Davis, union officials and rank-and-filers, and a cultural and racial mix that should form the bedrock of any lasting movement.
From homemade cardboard signs to a huge black anti-capitalism banner spanning an entire intersection, protesters paraded liberal and radical ideas alike: Tax Wall Street and the rich, boycott big banks, a maximum wage, community-led redistribution of land and food-growing, and much more.
The mobilization had substantial labor support, including from California Nurses Association, the California Federation of Teachers, the Oakland Educational Association and the Alameda Labor Council. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union also voiced support, and many area union leaders joined the mobilization.
For several hours, several generations mingled, marched on (and sat in front of) banks, mingled and dialogued in the streets, meditated, and engaged in teach-ins. A Teamsters tractor trailer trucked in food. At about 4 p.m., a few hundred teachers and students from local high schools and colleges joined in and led a massive procession toward the port.
It was a remarkable and inspiring scene, a river of people filling boulevards in the name of reform and revolution. Police presence was minimal (until later in the evening), as Oakland’s Police Department and its Mayor Jean Quan continue to hear national outcry following the city’s violent crackdown on demonstrators two weeks ago.
By about 5:30 p.m., the crowd poured into the Oakland Port’s main through-fare, occupying shipping berth entrances to block corporate commerce. Crowds picketed the berths and held mini-general assemblies, discussing strategies and ideas for that night and for future actions. One occupier held court on the destructive power of derivatives as the crowd repeated his words and facts in “people’s mic” fashion.
At around 8 p.m. word went out that the Port had been shut down, yet protesters sat tight awaiting final confirmation. By 9, most remaining demonstrators left the Port, many headed back downtown to assess and plan future actions.
It was a long and fascinating day, and a significant step in rekindling American radicalism and progressivism. For this marcher, who celebrated my birthday with 8 hours of marching and speechifying in the streets, the Oakland action was a gift and a dream come true. Just one week earlier, I’d sat in a small break-out group at a packed Oakland general assembly, expressing concern that a General Strike planned in a week could easily backfire. But thank goodness I was in the minority, and urgency and passion prevailed over caution.
For any of its imperfections, the Occupy movement is giving this country—and many long-time activists—a reason for renewed hope and action. In this sense it reminds of the 60s: the kids are right, and they are showing the way. They, and us, will make many mistakes, but these are far outweighed by the power and energy this movement is showing, and by how it’s changing the discussion in America.
“Some of us have waited 30, 35 years for this day,” Rick Ayers, a professor at University of San Francisco, wrote in Huffington Post the day after the Oakland strike. “Others have never seen such a thing. For some reason -- being pushed to the breaking point by the greed of the wealthy, inspired by the audacity of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Spain and Greece -- this has finally broken open.”
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Nation, Mother Jones and The Economist. www.christopherdcook.com.