Oakland's General Strike and the Occupation of the Port of Oakland

Part 1

11/2 Where were you?

I was part of the Critical Mass, about 200 cyclists strong, that occupied the Port of Oakland with the Teamsters and unions ahead of a march of at least 5000 people (latere estimates were much higher) who would eventually occupy, and shut down, the 5th largest port in the nation, becoming the biggest general strike in this country since 1946. That’s some shit right there. I wanted to get this all down while it’s still fresh in my mind; I think my kids will be proud of it. I am, and you should be if you were there, too.

Most of my favorite authors have some kind of background in journalism. Their writing is brief but somehow it communicates a description or an idea very clearly and in few words.
I wish I could communicate like that. I tend to be long winded and overly descriptive. It causes me to lose my train of thought sometimes. I like journalistic writing the same way curly headed people like straight hair and vice versa. So I’m going to try and not get too far off topic while I tell you about my experience on November 2nd.
But it’s going to be hard to do because the Occupy Movement doesn’t lend itself very well to summary or soundbites. The media has a hard time reporting about it because of that, and it’s the reason you hear so many people saying ‘there’s no clear message’.

Why is that? My theory is that we’re so used to getting our information in black and white snippets, so used to being marketed to with slogans and campaigns aimed right at our insides, that people are freaking out about it.
The Movement isn’t following the script and it’s driving critics insane, it’s not giving them anything to drag through the mud.
Some say it’s not giving potential supporters anything to agree with, either. I think they just don’t see their particular brand, yet; they’re used to being given a limited choice to identify with. So they're missing the point because it’s not about selling them something. And change, like a man said on the radio, doesn’t look like we think it should. It’s not pretty; it’s awkward and sort of weird.

Maybe I’m projecting, though. It’s my day job to be conscious of that sort of thing in order to make pretty things people want to buy. I’ve become very conscious of my own demographic. I can recognize the marketing techniques which can be really obvious, shallow, and even insulting when I see how someone else, a computer program sometimes, has $ummed me up. (see what I did there with the dollar sign? That’s a visual metaphor)
That’s what Tyler Durden meant in Fight Club when he says “you are not your khakis”.
(Try this: at the end of every tagline or slogan you see or hear today say “now, buy this stuff”.)

Then again, maybe that's my place in the 99%, or servitude to the 1%; maybe that’s what I was protesting about.

But, for those of you that are still looking for a clear message in this thing, that’s not it. Because what I’m talking about can be traced right back to a corporation squeezing a buck out of me while they withhold it from somebody else. And that has become so much a part of our everyday life that we think it’s normal, and we even get proud about having 3 jobs to pay normal everyday bills. We call those who don't, and who complain about the system, lazy. That’s not right. That's divide and conquer, that's what that is.
It has leached into our way of life, into our clothes and phones and everything and it’s become so normal.

Critical Mass

I read about this Critical Mass taking off at 4pm and I made sure I was down there by 3:30. I had found out about it through my friends who run a local bike shop and I thought it’d be good to ride my bike with them instead of march; I didn’t want to go it alone.

Well, I didn’t see them, I reckoned then that they were just passing the word. Word got around too because there were easily 200 cyclists assembling at 14th and Broadway in what would become the first wave of occupiers at the Port of Oakland.

I didn’t know anybody or exactly how this was going to take place.
I got a little nervous. It felt like the nerves a person gets the first time they do anything, really, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been to a critical mass.
But that was a long time ago. Come to think of it I should have been more nervous then.
I was 17 and there were only 13 of us and we were in Pensacola, FL riding in an action against car-culture, pissing off Southerners by backing up traffic for a mile on a two lane street.
At least on the way to the Port we had safety in numbers. I think about that now and I realize that part of my nerves were also from thinking about the police response to the protesters a few nights before when Scott Olsen was injured so badly. How would they respond to us? How would I respond to them?

I didn’t know who the organizers of the critical mass were but there was a call from the soundstage at the intersection for everyone participating in the critical mass to assemble around a particular flag. Cyclists were making their way through the people and started grouping up along side them behind the street-wide banner that marked the front of the march. The call came out for the cyclists to now assemble in front of the banner. We’d actually be leading the march. That was fucking cool. That’s when I got excited.

Already I had spotted a few guys that had done this sort of thing before. I decided I’d stay close to them; they seemed to know what they were doing. The route to the Port was being hashed out by a couple of these guys but there were only about 50 bikes in front of the banner and the rest were still massing up behind. They didn’t seem to hear when that call went out and I felt like I was seeing how quickly something like this can become confusing and disorganized. I was soaking this all in, too, watching it all. Now, they tell you not to look like a tourist when you walk around a strange city, you don’t want to be staring around like you don’t know where you’re at or you’ll look like an easy target for a mugging or something. In the context of a protest march, though, I thought this behavior made me look more like a narc, but I was really into what I was learning so far, really into these people around me.

By the looks on most of the faces behind the banner, the cyclists', I could see that they couldn’t hear half of what was being said to them or knew where to go. I pointed this out to the guy with the bullhorn who had called for us to assemble, and then all of a sudden it was my job to let everybody know what to do.
For a minute there I guess I was an organizer. That was cool, too. I rallied everyone to the front.

This spontaneous organism would set the tone for the rest of my night.
It was very tense for me sometimes; I’d never done this before. I’d say that most everybody there were exercising the 1st Amendment for the first time, and for me it was important that someone around me knew what the hell was going on, and others must have felt the same way. Later that afternoon I know I felt eyes on me the same way I was eyeing others for a sign of what to do.

And then it was time; we rode out.

Part 2

I’m still trying to reconcile the rest of that afternoon and evening. It’s been a week now and it’s all still very present in my mind while the Occupy Movement is still very present in Oakland and elsewhere and the feeling is very exciting.

I came home that night feeling like I had participated in a separate but very important action. What I believed I was going to be a part of was a huge march, one face among thousands, heading in the same direction. What I ended up being a part of was the first small wave of people, not the march you see pictures of, to begin shutting the ports down ahead of the larger marches, holding them until they got there, confronting a lot of confusing, dangerous and new situations. That’s being honest. It was a big deal to me.

The plan was simple. We would make our way to 7th and Marina after shutting down the first entrance and essentially bottle up the entire port without having to stop at each entrance. The whole idea of the strike was to shut the port down, stopping the flow of commerce from going in or out.

We formed a picket line, circling and chanting on our bikes at the first port. Someone I assume was a union man told us that it was necessary or else the other unions wouldn’t honor the picket line. Some unions won’t cross another unions’ picket line even if they aren’t actually on strike themselves and that’s allowed in their contracts.

Sowing Confusion

Things were going really well (for us, anyways). When it was apparent that dozens of semis weren’t going to get out is when the confusion began. Our numbers were divided by a lack of clear leadership and direction, as well as police motorcades. Add to this a suspicious amount of protesters actually starting to advocate for the longshoremen who were now stuck at the port and the drivers who were idling there and you get total confusion.

I remember one cyclist in particular who would continually speak to the truck drivers and come back with their reasons as to why we should let them pass. To me it was like his heart was in the right place but it was like he was asking them all if they were okay with us protesting and then coming back to start a debate about it when of course they want to leave. I noticed him approaching and speaking with the police as well, but I don’t know what he talked to them about. I do know that within a short amount of time we were distracted from blocking the trucks and they were starting to sneak by while we argued about letting them pass.

Looking back it’s amazing to see how this developed. First there were obviously longshoremen who were done for the day trying to leave in their cars or pickup trucks. I was guilty of blocking one of these guys until a guy came up and said “Brother, would you mind letting the longshoreman go home?”

Imagine being asked the same thing only in reference to a man driving a semi truck that was hauling a shipping container and you have the basis of the confusion being sown. Not the picture of a man on his way home.
I was not there to be a traffic cop and I wasn’t there to search containers to prove whether they were actually carrying a load. I don’t know exactly how it works but I’m pretty sure that hauling those containers, empty or not, to and from ports in order to be shipped or dropped off is the commerce we were there to halt.

More people were beginning to trickle in but it wouldn’t be until sunset that I would see the march leader, Boots Riley, or anyone else in a leadership capacity show up with solid information about what to do next.

7th and Marina

But we had our goal of 7th and Marina and cyclists who had broke off earlier were coming back in ones and twos calling for more bikes at the next stop. Those of us that had had enough of the angry truckers trying to run us over at the first port, and enough of the pointless debate about letting trucks through, decided to go help elsewhere and make our way to the intersection.

Not long after we got there, the 20-30 of us were confronted with the same situation all over again, only this time it wasn’t union men or longshoremen arguing for the truckers it was a small contingent of cyclists and a few mediators on foot who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
In addition to who had cargo and who didn’t the argument was now about the working man who we needed on our side, the real 99%; the working man we don’t want to piss off because he’s just trying to get home; we were holding up the working man who gets paid low by-the-load wages, rents his own truck, has no healthcare.
We were assured that they were for our cause and would gladly protest tomorrow.
What the hell was I supposed to say to that? And one cyclist was worse than a message board flame war, screaming, cursing and hurling insults at others there.

The mediators I mentioned before, who appeared out of nowhere, reminded me of what NPR hosts must look like. Salt and pepper cropped hair, mom pants and a mellow demeanor that suggests they just want to communicate and understand. They were asking individuals if they had tried explaining to the truckers what was going on, tried to reach an understanding etc. By individuals I mean the cyclists who were blocking the trucks.
By the time they got to me I was through with explaining what ‘no trucks in or out’ meant and that we weren’t stopping anyone from going home. If they wanted to go home they could get out of their trucks and walk to BART about 30 minutes or less down the street.
At least they’ve got homes. I’ve got friends who have lost their homes because of greed and now I’m supposed to step aside to let these people go home? With shipping containers on their trucks?

I tried asking that lady as nicely as I could why she didn’t just talk to the truckers herself, I wasn’t about to move out of the way. We had just seen what happens when the trucks were presented with even a small opening. They gunned it. One driver had come out to the intersection screaming and bullying cyclists until they moved to regain their personal space when she turned and screamed “Go! Go! Go! Dammit Go!” The semi hauled ass out of there a foot from the cyclist.

That’s when it was the most tense. It wasn’t a message board where you could calmly type your views, I was on the spot. The people opposing me were right there engaging me. I might not have been riding with the Freedom Riders but I was facing violence to prove a point that speaks to something as big as a national movement and I don’t think many people have had the opportunity to do that. It tests your resolve, that’s for sure. You start thinking, shit, is it worth it?

It’s messed up now to think about it in light of my family but I’m glad I rolled right in front of that second truck trying to get through.

cont’d in Part 3