Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Oakland General Strike

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell

On the morning of November 2nd 2011, I drove northbound on Interstate 880 towards Oakland. We were coming from Santa Cruz, just getting off Highway 17, and now holding a steady 70 rpms just to keep a safe pace while barreling out of San Jose. As the unruly East Bay traffic flowed around me like a poisonous river, my two companions sat beside and behind me. The sun was shining and no clouds were in the sky. Through the car speakers a Jello Biafra and DOA song played, written in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal. Biafra sings:

“It would be a little obvious to fence off all the slums, hand out machine guns to the poor in the projects and watch 'em kill each other off, a more subtle genocide is when the only hope for the young is to join the Army and slowly die, Wall Street or Crack Dealer Avenue, the last roads left to the American Dream.”

We were to arrive in downtown Oakland in time for the noon rally, part of the city-wide General Strike called by Occupy Oakland in the aftermath of the police raid on their camp on October 25, 2011. On that date ex-Marine and Iraq War Veteran Scott Olsen, who was peaceful participating in the demonstration, was shot in the head at close range with a tear gas cannister by an as yet unidentified riot cop. This incident cemented the immediacy of the Occupy Movement and further exposed the contradictions institutionalized in the American political system on all levels.

Soon we exited 880 near downtown and drove towards the tall buildings. Above them three helicopters hovered in place. We found a parking spot beneath a Chase Bank billboard and walked towards 14th Street and Broadway. There are not that many open businesses in downtown Oakland, lots of vacant storefronts. Some of the stores were closed for the day with signs of support and solidarity with the 99% taped on their doors and windows. One of the businesses opened for the day was a book store called Bibliomania. We went inside and one of my companions bought a George Orwell omnibus. He read a quote from 1984, “There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

As we walked closer to “Oscar Grant Plaza” which lies directly in front of Oakland City Hall, I heard amplified voices and the chopping of helicopter blades. In the window of a Democrat campaign office was a black and white cardboard stand-up of Barack Obama. In blue and white paint on the window it said, “STAND WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA.” In red, someone had crossed out “STAND” and wrote “Sell out” underneath. In the window of a Men's Warehouse store which had closed for the day it said, “We stand with the 99%.” We crossed the street and walked across a concrete island where a woman had set up a microphone and PA system. She saw my guitar case and approached us. She said they were doing an open mic all day and asked if we would we like to play something. We thanked her, but declined. At the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street there was a flatbed trailer from which a stream of people spoke through a PA. People filled the streets, sidewalks, and plaza. Five people dressed all in white were tangled together in a white rope. They moved in interpretive strides, attempting to go in different directions but hindered together by the tangled white web.

Our attention was drawn to the CitiBank at 1333 Broadway. A cluster of roughly 100 men, women, and children sat in the entrance on the sidewalk. Near them was a two-person tent erected on the sidewalk with “OCCUPY THE BANKS” written on the side, and “WE ARE THE 99%” written on the back. A young teenage girl held a sign that said “Please sir, I want some more,” and another young girl held a sign that said “PROTECT SCHOOLS NOT MILLIONAIRES.” On the sidewalk near the front of the CitiBank Occupation sat a sign that said “Rubber Bullets are for Bullies.” The Occupiers sang together, to the tune of “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,” but they sang “We got the power in our hands.” A middle-aged woman in the back held a sign, “THE PEOPLE ARE TOO BIG TO FAIL.” I walked over to the glass door entrance to the CitiBank branch and read the piece of paper taped on the inside, “NOTICE TO ALL CUSTOMERS This Financial Center of CitiBank is TEMPORARILY CLOSED…” Under that there was an apology for the inconvenience but it was mostly covered up with a pink sticker on the outside of the door that said “MAKE OUT NOT WAR.” Many onlookers stood in front of the bank occupiers, watching and taking pictures. A black and white sign on a corrugated pillar said “THE SYSTEM HAS NO FUTURE FOR THE YOUTH… THE REVOLUTION DOES.”

The Occupy Wall Street Movement materialized on September 17th of 2011 after the Canadian culture-jamming magazine Adbusters suggested a peaceful occupation of Wall Street in New York City on its emailing list. The main drive of the movement is the massively uneven distribution of wealth in this country. The wealthiest “individuals” make up 1% of the population, but hold 40% of the wealth. Therefore the 99% encompasses the whole spectrum of American experience. The Movement has been criticized for its lack of focus or demand, but what those critics have failed to realize is that these simple statistics indicate the roots of a fractured democracy. The Occupy Movement came on the heels of the Spanish M-15 movement, named after the date it started on May 15, 2011. Influenced by the Arab Spring Movement, and enraged at their country's high unemployment rate and political figures who did not seem to represent them, the movement almost spontaneously emerged in Madrid when tens of thousands of Spaniards occupied Puerto del Sol square. They became known as the Indignados or “the outraged.” The movement spread to over 60 cities and towns in Spain, and other surrounding European countries. The optimistic, celebratory gatherings of dissent all but fizzled when the Madrid camp voted in a General Assambly (the process of direct democracy in which the Indignados and the Occupy Wall Street camps make group decisions by consensus) to disband in June. But soon the movement would receive a jump start by the explosion of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in September 2011. Through this convergence of dissent, the Occupy Wall Street Movement quickly spread throughout the United States and the World.

We left the CitiBank occupation and walked over to Oscar Grant Plaza. The plaza has previously been called “City Hall Park,” or “Frank H. Ogawa Plaza,” but was renamed Oscar Grant Plaza in remembrance of an unarmed man who was shot and killed in Oakland by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle early New Year's Day, 2009.

On the west side of the plaza sits the Oakland City Hall and Oakland Police Headquarters. On the website of the architects who designed the plaza, there is a blurb describing their architectural achievement, “The Oakland City Hall Plaza was designed as a peaceful and historic complement to the international business and commercial activity of the hard-surfaced plazas downtown.”

The large grassy lawn was filled to capacity with Occupiers' tents and easy-ups. Near the Eastern entrance, a shrine to Marine and Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen had materialized since his hospitalization on October 25th. Early Tuesday morning before the General Strike, Olsen, who is a member of Veterans for Peace, was standing in front of a line of police in riot gear. The police had been ordered by Mayor Jean Quan to disperse and remove the Occupy encampment from the Plaza. In an attempt to do so they used various forms of “non-lethal” force; flash grenades, rubber bullets, bean bags, and tear gas. In videos posted on the web, Olsen can be seen laying in the street in front of the police line after “police projectiles” were launched into the crowd. As a group of nearly a dozen people noticed Olsen on the ground bleeding and motionless, they shifted back towards him to help. As the small crowd massed around Olsen, a flash grenade was launched into the middle of them, which landed near the injured Olsen and exploded. The individuals who came to Olsen's aid quickly dispersed, leaving Olsen behind, but soon regrouped and were able to get him to safety. Olsen was hospitalized and considered to be in serious condition, suffering from a fractured skull. He's since been released but seems to have lost his powers of speech.

Olsen's shrine was on a preexisting circular concrete base of a flag poll. Embedded in the concrete is a metal plaque that says “DEDICATED TO AMERICAN HEROES OF ALL WARS.” A white piece of paper hung over the bottom of the plaque that said “Get well soon, brother SCOTT OLSEN.” On and around the shrine sat candles, pictures, and letters. On the ground beside it was a blown up picture of a widely smiling Oakland Police officer in riot gear holding a shot gun. Perched behind a candle was a hand written note on notebook paper; “Marine: Able to make a headshot on moving street combatant out to six hundred yards… Oakland Police: Able to make headshot on stationary unarmed Marine at 20 feet… Both swore to defend the constitution. Both are in the 99%.”

On General Strike day, there was virtually no visible police presence near Oscar Grant Plaza. But as Oakland Chief of Police Howard Jordon said, they were close by and ready to act.

Next to an International Workers of the World easy-up and table giving away pamphlets and abbreviated versions of the Wobblies' “Little Red Songbook” there were three men furiously screen printing on a small table. Dozens of people stood in line while the men screen printed an image of a Day of the Dead style skeleton in a sombrero running with a machete, a circle of words around him; “Day of the Dead. Occupy Oakland. General Strike Nov. 2, 2011.” My companions wanted to wait in line to get a print but the printers ran out of ink. They quickly started printing again however, using chocolate syrup instead of ink. At another table inside the Occupy Oakland camp, another group made coffee in French presses and gave it away. Two more participants set up another screen printing table and began printing a completely different poster of a cityscape and clenched fist. It said “Hella Occupy Oakland” on the top and bottom and “Power to the people” on the fist. On a nearby light poll was a sign that said, “Justice 4 Sean Bell.” Sean Bell was shot and killed by undercover, plain-cloths NYPD officers in Queens, the night before Bell's wedding. As Bell and two of his friends left Club Kalua where they had just celebrated Bell's bachelor party, the plain-clothes officers fired into their car 50 times, claiming that they believed Bell and company had a gun, which they did not. Sean Bell was killed but officers involved were acquitted on all charges. In May 2008 Reverend Al Sharpton led protesters to block vital areas and bridges of New York City, in an effort to “slowdown” and disrupt city business. Sharpton, many members of Bell's family, and surviving victims were arrested during these acts of civil disobedience.

At the Eastern entrance to the plaza lawn, an older man held two signs. The sign in his right hand said, “Consider a Maximum Wage,” and the sign in his right hand said, “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. — V.I. Lenin".

On a wooden platform inside the encampment all the materials needed to make signs were scattered about. Participants squatted or sat around the platform making impromptu signs. Two young women made a sign together, the result was a quote from the Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five song “The Message.” It said, “It's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going UNDER!!” Across the platform a young man carefully made his sign with red, white, and blue markers, “AUDIT B of A's FDIC-INSURED DERIVATIVES.” One of my companions made a sign with black and red paint. Her sign consisted of a line by Jim Morrison, “THEY GOT THE GUNS BUT WE GOT THE NUMBERS.”

Directly in front of the entrance to Oakland City Hall, there is a hard surfaced amphitheatre where two people spoke back and forth from a round, stair-lined stage in the middle of the crowd.

“You all are breaking the law right now,” said the female speaker. “We did not get permission to be here.” Then the male speaker said. “Who am I suppose to ask for permission? Myself? These are our streets!” Then the man asked the crowd, “Whose streets are these?!” and the people answered, “Our streets!” A young man sitting in the crowd held a black sign with white writing with a quote from the film 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure' was painted; “Be Excellent to Each Other.” The next person on the mic was a Filipino hip-hop artist and activist from Los Angeles named Kiwi. He recited an acapella rhyme to the thousands in attendance; “It's like what the fuck, we've done had enough, Obama ain't doing nothing so we standin' up, it's just us, they got cops in armor, live and direct from Oscar Grant Plaza, say ooo Mama there goes that man!” The crowd repeated this line and he continued: “They took our homes from us and put us out on benches, we settle for the crumbs, they keeping all the riches, a whole movement started just based off the percentage, the 99, the majority of us on the grind, a system meant to put the people down by design, they go and grab the money, so we seize the time, it's beginning of the revolution redefined…” After each verse Kiwi would bring it back to “ooo Mama there goes that man!” and the crowd would repeat. At the end of the rhyme he said, “I hope you all got the memo that the work ain't done when we're finished with this demo… I said, I hope you all got the memo that the work ain't done when were finished with this demo.”

The encampment was impressively large. After the early morning police raid of the camp on October 25, the Oakland Police Department barricaded and fenced the plaza off. When Mayor Jean Quan permitted the Occupy Camp to return, it doubled in size, if not tripled. The Occupy Oakland camp had a kitchen, library, and medical tent. It was a city in itself on a micro level. Down the steps from the elevated grassy lawn was a hard surface where more General Strike activities were underway. Three Buddhist monks wearing orange robes sat and played small drums. An American Indian man in full headdress, holding a colorful staff with a bald eagle head on top, stood directly behind the monks and stared forward. On the ground in front of the monks was a painted sign advertising a “Peace walk” for “a Nuclear Free World.” Another sign to the right said “NO MORE FUKUSHIMAS.” Close by, under a tree near a white brick building a DJ table and speakers were set up where a man spun records and a teenage girl rhymed on the microphone. A sign hanging in the tree behind them said “United Roots.”

Still carrying my guitar case I walked to a short row of portable toilets so my companions could use them. As I waited I saw a printed sign laying in front of a girl sitting on the ground that said, “POLICE BRUTALITY WON'T SILENCE THE 99%.” A small palm tree planted in a landscaped patch beside the toilets had a sign sticking out of the mulch beside it, “PLEASE WATER (THE CITY HAS STOPPED).” Directly below the tree a homeless man with one eye open, lay on a park bench. A yellow sheet of paper, stuck to concrete with pink electrical tape, said “City Workers & Occupiers Together for: General Strike Wednesday (no work, no school, no shopping) to protest the shooting of USMC Iraq War Vet Scott Olsen as another instance of Oakland Police brutality and mismanagement and further evidence of the wrong priorities of City government/the continued transfer of $$$ from people (schools, libraries, parks, child/elder/disabled care) to police. Shut Down the 1%.” A man holding a stack of papers walked through and taped a white paper on the “occupotty” (a personalized name someone wrote on the door). The print started with three words, “THIS IS ABOUT” and continued, “PEOPLE STEPPING UP TO ADDRESS OUR BROKEN SYSTEM, PEOPLE WHO SENSE SOMETHING IS WRONG AND ARE READY TO FIX IT, WE ARE NOT JUST PROTESTING WE ARE VOLUNTEERING PEOPLE WHO ARE WILLING TO TAKE RISKS TO CREATE CHANGE, THIS IS ABOUT ADMITTING THAT OUR WAY OF DOING BUSINESS WAS CREATED WHEN PEOPLE THOUGHT RESOURCES WERE UNLIMITED AND NOW WE KNOW BETTER, THIS IS ABOUT KNOWING WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THERE IS NO MIDDLE CLASS, THIS IS ABOUT NO LONGER BEING WILLING TO SIT IDLE, LOST IN DISTRACTIONS, FEELING ISOLATED & POWERLESS, THIS IS ABOUT TAKING BACK OUR GOVERNMENT FROM THE CORPORATIONS AND THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, THIS IS ABOUT ESTABLISHING A COOPERATIVE COMMUNITY, THIS MAY BE OUR LAST STAND BEFORE MARSHAL LAW, CHAOS AND VIOLENT REVOLUTION.”

When my companions were ready we walked to one of the two cafe/restaurants in the near vicinity. As we stood in line a woman approached us, “Um, we are actually running out of food.” We left and walked next door to another restaurant that was overflowing with people. It was a cafeteria style ordering line. At the end near the register a young man wore a shirt that said “Unfuck the World.” The options were limited on the menu due to shortage of ingredients. We ate sitting in chairs in front of the cafe windows, the afternoon sun shone on us warm and bright. I could sense that one of my companions was itching to get back to Mendocino County. My other companion and I had one more thing to do before we left. We found a spot on the edge of the camp, not far from the I.W.W. tent and screen printers, and I opened my guitar case. From it I pulled my six-string banjo, or what some call a “gitjo” or “banjitar.” It was hand crafted by my friend and his father in Northern Washington. I tuned it up and we sang the Italian anti-facist song Bella Chaio, whose English translation goes like this: “One morning I woke up, goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, one morning I woke up and I found the invader. Oh partisan, carry me away, goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, Oh partisan, carry me away, for I feel I'm dying. And if I die as a partisan, goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, and if I die a partisan you have to bury me. Bury me up in the mountain, goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, bury me up in the mountain under the shadow of a beautiful flower. And the people who will pass by, goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, and the people who will pass by will say to me 'What a beautiful flower.' This is the flower of the partisan, goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, this is the flower of the partisan who died for freedom, who died for freedom.”

Soon afterwards, a disputed number of people that ranged from the Oakland Police Department's skimpy estimate of 7,000, to an online supporters' ridiculous over-estimate of 100,000, marched on the Port of Oakland with hopes of shutting down the flow of capital. The port is the fourth largest in the United States and handles roughly $39 billion a year in exports and imports. The unmistakably massive crowd was more than sufficient to clog the port's entrance, prohibiting trucks from leaving or entering. A port spokesperson said that maritime operations had been “effectively shut down.” This was not the first march on the Oakland port. On April 7, 2003 a group called Direct Action to Stop the War organized a march to protest American President Lines, which they believed were shipping arms and military supplies to Iraq. California Anti-Terrorism Information Center informed the OPD of the protest planned for the port. Oakland was one of the first cities in the area to pass a resolution condemning the Iraq war, yet Oakland Police arrived on April 7 clad in riot gear and opened fire on the peaceful protesters and longshoremen with rubber bullets, wooden dowels, sting balls, bean bags, concussion grenades, and tear gas. Many protesters and longshoreman, many of whom were merely on their way to work, were injured by police action. The City of Oakland has paid out approximately $2 million dollars in legal settlements to the victims. In a deposition to the police board of review in April 2005 relating to a lawsuit filed by victims, current Chief of Police Howard Jordon, who was deputy chief at the time, admitted to infiltrating Direct Action to Stop the War. The group had organized a second march on the port on May 12, 2003 to further protest the Iraq War and the tactics used by OPD on April 7th.

“You don't need to have some special skill to be able to infiltrate these groups,” Jordon stated in his deposition. “You know, two of our officers (Nobuko Biechler and Mark Turpin) were elected leaders within an hour…of being with that group (on May 12, 2003). So if you put people in there from the beginning, I think we'd be able to gather the information and maybe even direct them to do something that we want them to do.”

The November 2, 2011 march against economic inequality and police brutality on the Port of Oakland was peaceful and victorious. It was not until later in the evening that conflicts seriously arose between police and participants. Much confusion and spin has been perpetuated by many media outlets surrounding events of this evening and virtual every day since. Vandalism occurred around downtown and at a Whole Foods, where the store had put up an official sign telling protesters to leave their signs outside.

A group of protesters temporarily occupied a foreclosed building downtown. As police closed in around protesters downtown an Oakland man named Scott Campbell was shot with a rubber bullet while filming police. He posted the footage on Youtube and it sparked more outrage towards the tactics used by OPD. Enraged liberal talk show host Keith Olbermann had Campbell on his television program. Olbermann asked Campbell if there was any warning that they were about to use force. Campbell said, “No, there was absolutely no warning whatsoever… There was no order to disperse; there was no warning that weapons might be used.” On the same evening a second veteran named Kayvan Sabeghi, who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was allegedly attacked by Oakland Police as he tried to walked home. Sabeghi had participated in General Strike activities earlier in the day and encountered a group of police along 14th street. Sabeghi spoke to the London Guardian from his hospital bed; “They told me to move, but I was like: 'Move where?' There was nowhere to move. Then they lined up in front of me. I was talking to one of them saying, 'Why are you doing this?' when one moved forward and hit me in my arm and legs and back with his baton. Then three or four cops tackled me and arrested me.” He said that he waited in the police van handcuffed for three hours before being booked. Sabeghi said he was in “unbelievable pain” when he got to jail; “I just lay there in pain for hours.” Even though Sabeghi was released on bail in mid-afternoon, he was still in too much pain to leave his cell. He remained on the floor of the cell until 6pm. 18 hours after being arrested an ambulance was finally called for Sabeghi. His spleen had been ruptured, it was surgically removed.

Since the day of the Oakland General Strike, the first since 1946, the Occupy Oakland encampment has been a constant controversy in city politics. After the shooting death of a 25 year old Oakland man named Kayode O. Foster, whom some witnesses have claimed to be staying at the Occupy Oakland camp, on November 10th, the city seized the moment to hand out a “NOTICE OF VIOLATIONS AND DEMAND TO CEASE VIOLATIONS” to occupiers. The notice states, “Your activities are injurious to health, obstruct the free use of property, interfering with comfortable enjoyment, and unlawfully obstruct the free passage or use of a public park or square.(California Penal Code sections 370 and 647(e) and Civil Code section 3479.)” City officials have also claimed that the Occupation was costing the city too much money, saying the demonstrations have cost the city more than $1 million. After the cities third and final notice to Occupiers on Sunday, November 13 officers from OPD, Alameda County Sheriff's Department, San Francisco PD, BART Police, Hayward PD, Richmond PD, San Mateo PD, Fremont PD, San Leandro PD, San Jose PD, Burlingame PD, and Santa Clara Sheriff's Department cleared Occupiers from Oscar Grant Plaza around 5am Monday, 14 November. The raid cost somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000. The money was taken from Oakland's $30 million reserve fund.

Concerning the shooting death of Kayode O. Foster, the founder of the Occupied Oakland Tribune, Scott Johnson said, “To be perfectly blunt, this was the 101st murder in Oakland this year. Where were all the helicopters for the other 100? Where was (Howard) Jordon…for those photo-ops? The tragic death of a young African-American man is suddenly made “important” by the political crisis around Occupy Oakland. Like the Bush administration sharpening its knives after 9/11, salivating over opportunity to reshape the Middle East, the Oakland political establishment sees their opportunity to win a few political points over a dead man's barely cold body.”

Early in the morning Monday, before the police raided the Occupy Oakland encampment a second time, Mayor Jean Quan's chief legal adviser Dan Siegel resigned over the decision to raid the camp again. He called the raid “tragically unnecessary.” He sent Quan an email in which he said that the raid “wasn't something I could give my name to.” Siegel was actually in attendance at the April 7, 2003 attempt to shut down the Port of Oakland to protest the war in Iraq. In response to the strong arm approach the OPD took on that day in 2003 Siegel, who was a member of the Oakland School Board at the time, said, “I got hit a few times with rubber bullets… The police totally overreacted. It's over the top. They were reckless, and I also saw an officer on a motorcycle run over a woman's foot.” Siegel has been friends with Jean Quan since they attended UC Berkeley together in the late 60s. Seigel was present during “Bloody Thursday” when hundreds of California State Highway Patrol officers and Alameda County Sheriff's deputies were called in by then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan to suppress a student takeover of a piece of private property demonstrators named “People's Park.” Reagan had refereed to the UC Berkeley campus as a “ haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.” Reagan ordered for the park to be cleared on May 15, 1969, and at 4:3 am 300 CHP and Berkeley Police officers cleared the park and the surrounding eight blocks.

Siegel, who was the UC Berkeley Student President at the time, spoke through a microphone to approximately 3,000 demonstrators later in the day at Sproul Plaza on the campus of UC Berkeley. He yelled for the demonstrators to “Take the park!” and the police turned off the sound system, infuriating many in the crowd. The crowd moved down Telegraph Avenue chanting, “We want the park!” Edwin Meese III, Reagan's Chief of Staff called in Alameda County Sheriff's department, bringing the total number of police close to 800. In full riot gear, they descended on the demonstrators with tear gas and buckshots. Alameda Sheriff's Deputies shot and killed a bystandard named James Rector as he sat on the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.

Less than one year later, toward the other side of the continent in Ohio, four students were shot and killed by National Guard called in by then-Ohio Governor James Rhodes. The Guardsmen were called in to suppress an anti-war demonstration that erupted after President Richard Nixon announced the American invasion of Cambodia. The four students names are Jeffery Glenn Miller, age 20, Allison Krause age 19, William Knox Schroeder age 19, Sandra Lee Scheuer age 20.

I returned to the Occupy Oakland camp a few days later. Many more shrines had materialized across the plaza. A black coffin sat under a tree with writing scrawled on its lid and sides. Flowers and offerings of bread and oranges sat perched around the coffin. In the middle a dirty white poster board with black writing said, “In honor of those who have died as a result of greed: U.S. Intervention, war, militarism, police brutality, lack of access to health care, jobs, housing, education.”

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *