I’m chronically late for the revolution these days. Partly because I sometimes have a hard time getting motivated for marches after decades of marches, partly because I’d rather take my time and be prepared than rush out the door and partly because Occupy Oakland marches actually start on time!
The morning march began from West Oakland BART station at 5:30am in order to be at the port in time to block the morning shift. When I went to bed at 11pm last night, I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m., knowing even that would be too little sleep. I was right, but got up anyway and was on BART headed to West Oakland by 6:30am.
A slow trickle of protesters made their way out of the port area as I walked in, probably headed to work after the pre-dawn march.
I caught up with the blockade at Gate 55, where approximately 250 people circled in a moving picket line and dance party. For the next two hours we all walked the picket, milled about, photographed, chatted and occasionally danced when the music came on. Our gate made up about half the crowd, with the other half being split between two other gates. Some commentators later claimed there were thousands there in the morning, but I think 500 by mid-morning is much more accurate.
Just after I got there, a light, misty rain began to fall, wetting the asphalt, but not dampening the spirited enthusiasm of people feeling their power.
Arriving just ahead of me were a handful of people in masks not-so-cleverly chanting “fuck the pigs” while carrying a slogan-covered tent. I was glad to see that the majority of the crowd was a bit more focused on the issue at hand. Since I would be filming, photographing and tweeting this action, I set an intention—largely inspired by the counter-example of the tent kids—to not photograph, video or talk about the police all day unless they got out of hand. I mostly kept to that. This was about us and about the issues, not the cops.
A line of trucks and their drivers waited, mostly patiently, parked up and down the sides of the road, stuck behind the blockade, unable to move in the gridlock. A few, especially those without trailers, were able to maneuver enough to turn around and leave, many giving us supportive honks as the drove by. This action was initiated by Occupy L.A. in support of port truckers working for a company controlled by Goldman Sachs. Forced to work as independent contractors instead of employees, they are unable to unionize or bargain in any way for better working conditions or higher wages.
The crowd, while spanning all ages, was mostly young. Being on a Monday, many people had to work who otherwise may have joined in. Unlike the general strike, this wasn’t an attempt to shut the whole city down, just the port. Many of those who joined on November 2nd could do so because their whole workplace shut down. Today, this would have been on their own time. The 5:30am start time didn’t help boost numbers either.
Two protesters had what must be the most hilarious protest sign ever: a life-size cardboard cutout of Lieutenant Pike, the notorious “Pepper Spray Cop” from U.C. Davis, with a hole cut in the face so that people could stop by and get their picture taken as him. Hella funny. Besides that, there were the usual collection of printed and homemade signs and Anonymous masks. (Yes, I know they are supposed to be Guy Fawkes, but no one really cares and the meme has been totally appropriated at this point.)
At one point in the morning, a mic check was called and it was announced that riot cops were approaching Gate 30, about half a mile away. A group of about 50 of us pealed off and walked that way, past the lined up trucks and westward with a grand view of the Bay Bridge and S.F. skyline in the misty distance.
The report was false. I suspect it came from the young protesters who had climbed up the Berth 30/32 sign above the gate. I would be up there later myself, taking pictures and admonishing them to tone down the hype. Seeing no commotion ahead, I stopped to talk with one of the truckers, asking him what he thought of all this.
We spoke for a while and he had quite a bit to say on the issues surrounding Occupy. I’m wishing I’d filmed him, now, since his personal story was moving. The short of it is that five years ago, he’d been homeless and living in a shelter, got a job flipping burgers and gradually bootstrapped himself up. While he’s grateful for the help he received from the shelter and others, his overall outlook carried a heavy dose of victim-blaming.
While wanting to hear his story, I found myself also wanting to interject other perspectives into his blame-the-poor narrative. When he claimed that people are losing their houses because they think they’re too good to work at menial jobs, I had to point out that, first, there are very few jobs available, partly due to outsourcing; second, many people work two of them and still can’t pay their mortgages and feed their families and; third, many of the mortgages were predatory or fraudulent in the first place.
Outsourcing was one point where we thoroughly agreed. He pointed out that his truck was made in Mexico and the lack of quality means that he, as an independent contractor, had to spend his own money constantly repairing the shoddy equipment, taking money off of his table. “Right,” I said, “and all those workers who used to make this truck in the U.S. at union wages are now unable to pay their mortgages. And it is truckers just like you in L.A. who are today fighting for their rights to not get screwed by a company that got bailed out by taxpayers.” Did he connect the dots? I dunno. The conversation was cordial, so maybe he took something away from it.
His main gripe with today’s action was not the message, but the method. He felt that it was wrong to inconvenience people who are not the ones causing the problems. On that point, I only said that it was totally understandable how he’d be upset, losing a day’s work and being stuck there, unable to even enjoy a day off. I was recalling what one of the ILWU rank and file members from Longview Local 21 had said to me a week and a half ago about this very subject: if other workers are inconvenienced by a work interruption that is part of one group’s fight for better working conditions, they should take the day off to reflect on this movement and why they too should be part of it.
I think this man’s contradictory attitudes—that the American financial and political systems are corrupt and unjust, yet essentially telling people losing their homes to get a job—show how deeply ingrained the old narratives are about hard work and the American Dream. These are the stories we tell ourselves, often unconsciously, about who we are as individuals and a society, becoming scripts that we act out on our life’s stage, rarely questioning who wrote made them up and who benefits.
Occupy is collectively rewriting these fairy tales and the movement can be viewed as a crowd-sourced editing project, with every voice contributing a part of the picture. We don’t know the answer or what the new narratives or narratives will look like. For now, the simple recognition that the old stories and scripts are no longer working is enough.
Arriving at the gate, a smaller picket line of less than 100 people was circling. I joined two young guys up on the sign, climbing up the side to get a better, or at least different, photo and video angle. At one point, a small line of cops approached the existing line behind the shut gates. The two guys up there with me began yelling to the crowd that cops were coming. Previously they’d yelled that cops were leaving when some vans drove over to a different part of the port. I admonished them against this sort of false alarm, observing that it was probably just a shift change (which turned out to be the case). I suspect this is where the earlier report of cops attacking this gate came from as well.
Just to the west of the main gate, there was a smaller picket line at the automobile entrance, also circling with signs. At one point, the marchers in the main circle converged for an announcement that was inaudible to me up on the sign. A cheer went up. I asked on Twitter what had happened and received a reply that the arbitrator had declared us a barrier to work and the port shut for the shift.
A few more photos and I climbed down and joined the trailing edge of the protest as people dispersed to get lunch or made their way back to the Plaza. Some people formed a small march that I would meet up with later at the Plaza, but I hung back, stopping to talk to a couple random workers.
One, a security guard—who is in a different ILWU Local—said he totally supports Occupy and the shutdown. I recorded part of that talk, but the story of his financial troubles went on off-camera. His was a now-familiar story. He’d signed a contract with Countrywide Mortgage, but hadn’t read the fine print. After three years of payments totaling nearly $25K/year, his principle had barely gone down. When the mortgage bubble crashed, his house was worth only $75K—or what he’d paid in interest. Reading the fine print and doing the math on his mortgage, he learned that he’d be paying over $1 million by the time it was paid off.
He and several people started what has now grown into a fairly large class-action lawsuit against Countrywide and Bank Of America. In the meantime, he hopes to do a short-sale of his house. He, unlike the truck drivers I talked to, completely understood how corrupt the system is and knew that people like himself were not to blame. I told him about the Local 21 struggle, since he hadn’t actually heard that level of detail behind the shutdown.
This man was—like the trucker I spoken with earlier, a couple of random bystanders I spoke with and the security and maintenance guys at the Market St. gate early the following morning—unaware what all the protest was about. Any outreach that had been done, hadn’t reached any of them. While it’s true that I observed numerous truckers honking in what appeared to be support, my impression was that, more than likely, few workers fully knew why we were there that day. He was stoked to see that this whole thing was in solidarity with another part of his union and the rest of the working class.
I made the point that if he or anyone he knew was facing foreclosure, that they should contact Occupy Oakland, that we were looking for ways to stand with homeowners to resist eviction and that fighting back was good, but fighting back together would be what wins the struggle.
After wandering around the Plaza for a while till the rally started, I went back to the boat, had lunch and tried to take a nap. Unsuccessful, I want out and caught up with the 4pm march, this time only having to run five blocks to catch up.
This march dwarfed the morning’s crowd, with 3,000 people being a fair estimate. It was spirited and noisy, with the sound truck functioning as a mobile stage for people dancing on top of it. I repeatedly ran ahead, found a good vantage point, filmed and tweeted and photographed as the march passed, then ran again to catch the front.
At dusk we were crossing the overpass and into the sunset on the last leg of the journey to the port gates. It was clear that we would once again own the space for the evening. Port managers had rerouted some ships and rescheduled two others for the 3am shift. It was easier politically, and probably financially as well, to just let us own the day, declare victory and go home. Confrontation would be costly for both sides. The Port made a calculated and honorable decision to stand down.
The port was quickly declared closed for the shift as darkness settled over the crowd and the barely waning moon rose large over the Oakland skyline to the east. People danced to keep warm, milled about and eventually converged at Gate 55 for a general assembly to decide what to do.
After an extended effort to condense the 2,000-3,000 people as close as possible to the stage and megaphone, the question was brought up: do we stay here for the 3am shift? Without belaboring the often-times laborious and repetitive process of a General Assembly in a situation like that, it boiled down to this: at a previous GA in Oscar Grant Plaza, it had been consensed that if any Occupy group were to be the subject of police brutality or arrests, the port blockade would be extended for at least another day.
There were two goals in staying: actually blocking a ship from unloading; and fulfilling the solidarity pledge to extend the blockade. Seattle had just been tear gassed and blockaders in Houston and San Diego had suffered police violence, triggering our consensed-upon pledge.
The question was, who was planning on staying tonight?
Those staying were asked to move toward the front and sit down for a planning meeting. Those leaving were asked to move back away from the stage area. This had the effect of triggering at least 1,000 people, maybe more, to begin their trek back to wherever home was, me and an old street-medic friend among them. As we made our way back to her car and then to BART where I was dropped off, the main port road was filled end to end with weary, satisfied, departing protesters.
When I first heard about the decision to extent the blockade in the event of police action, I thought it was a bad idea on many counts. In advance of any police action, it read as an attempt at deterrence. For deterrence to work in this case, it had to be enough of a credible threat that it would be taken seriously. I don’t believe that the Port Of Oakland would ever care enough to call up the Seattle cops and plead that they play nice with Seattle protesters for fear of our extended blockade. Now that violence had occurred against protesters, the extended action was nothing more than punitive. In all cases, punitive action is a strategic dead end and a pointless waste of scarce movement energy.
My primary critique was that such an action requires masses of people who had not been there to consense upon it at that particular GA. It was that small group (a quorum is a mere 100 people) who made commitment for thousands of others who had no stake in honoring it.
There would have to be a significant picket by 1:30am at the two gates where the ships were docked in order to effectively shut things down for the 3am shift. This was a big commitment, especially for anyone who couldn’t take Tuesday off and for those of us who had been up since dawn. It was also a chilly night and BART service shuts down at midnight, making it necessary to drive to the area.
I was extremely skeptical, thinking that we were making a very big mistake, taking big risks for very little potential gain. What I wrote that evening, before going out to the gates:
I believe we are blowing it. Earlier, after seeing the morning’s events unfold, I predicted that they’d just give us the port uncontested for another shift, which they did. Tonight, with a real ship to unload and dwindling support, I predict they’ll begin arresting people and keeping the gates open.
I think we’ve overreached. I think this action, now merely a punitive act of oath-keeping, could weaken the movement and weaken our credibility.
Today was powerful. We can claim victory and go home. If we cannot hold the gates, we will leave with a minor defeat at best, a major tear gas and felony charge fiasco at worst.
But, even if we win, what have we won? Another shift. And then business will return to normal. Yes, a solidarity action and keeping a pledge, if successful, will be powerful, but the risk is that we’re putting so many of our hard-won chips on the table for a very poor benefit/risk ratio.
As it would turn out, my fears were unfounded, though I stand 100% behind my critique and believe that we should never make such agreements or “win” like this again.
At 12:30am on Tuesday, December 13th, Twitter reported that there were 20 people on the corner of 7th and Adeline, where the march to the port was supposed to meet. I thought “we’re doomed.”
I drove down to the gate at berths 67/68, at the foot of Market Street in Oakland. There was a roving picket of 50-ish people, with several trucks already backed up. I drove up to the railroad tracks and the edge of the picket line, the only spot wide enough to turn around, did a u-turn and parked. Picketers cheered, mistakenly thinking I was a worker they were keeping out.
Over the next three hours, I sometimes joined the circling picket to keep warm, but mostly stood on the side, tweeting and shooting photos. There were no cops to be seen.
There was someone there with what seemed like an endless smudge stick, upwind of the picket, blowing sage smoke across the entire gate area. There was no avoiding it and after a while my nose and eyes began to burn. Sometime during the night, I started in with the snarky tweets.
As with the morning and evening blockades, we were waiting for the arbitrator to declare the port closed. Workers had shown up, parking near my truck and hanging out, waiting. Those who went and talked to them said they were totally against us, as the truckers also seemed to be tonight.
At around 4am, Boots announced to the picketers that the crew boss had shown up and told everyone to go home, so there would be no arbitrator this time. We decided to stay another 15 minutes to be sure the workers didn’t come back. I went home, wrote up most of this description and was asleep by a little after 5am, not awakening till nearly 11am.