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Reflections on Oakland’s General Strike

Approximately 50,000 people turned out to mass actions held during the Oakland General Strike on November 2nd, called by the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant plaza, and supported by dozens of community based organizations, unions, and activist groups. The actions shut down every major bank in downtown Oakland, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Chase, and then shut down the port, and in the process built solidarity beyond anything we have seen in the SF Bay Area since the days of the movement against the US war on Vietnam.

The call for this general strike mobilization came from the General Assembly at Occupy Oakland immediately following the violent police attack which razed the encampment and fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the peaceful crowd (inflicting a critical brain injury on young Iraq vet Scott Olsen) thus galvanizing the Occupy Oakland movement into the national and international spotlight. A petition started by Causa Justa :: Just Cause at the moment of the attack, and picked up by, garnered 60,000 signatures in support of the 1st amendment right of the Occupy Oakland camp, and against police abuse. A mere 24 hours after the police attack we delivered this petition to Mayor Jean Quan — 60,000 signatures from her base — with an entourage of community and labor organizations demanding that the police stand down. That night back out in the streets when the fences came down and the camp re-established itself with an outpouring of community support — with not a cop in sight — it was clear that the general strike was going to be a historic moment.

Reflections on Oakland’s General Strike

Occupy Oakland General Assembly while reclaiming the camp after the police raid and after forcing the police to stand down.

Reflections on Oakland’s General StrikeThe answer to the General Strike call came from all over the SF Bay Area, from organizations, unions and groups spanning different sectors of the progressive movement, from unaffiliated individuals, and from an emerging formation knows as “Left Bay 99.” Left Bay 99 developed after a successful mobilization on 10/12/11 to “Foreclose Wall Street West”, which brought together Causa Justa :: Just Cause, UNITE/HERE 2850, Occupy San Francisco, The Ruckus Society, and dozens of direct action activists, unions, and community based organizations. That mobilization shut down Wells Fargo’s corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco and, maybe even more importantly, left us all eager to collaborate again, and to continue building across sectors towards a movement of the 99%. [watch videos and read press coverage here]

Coming out of that mobilization, community organizers and activists came together to discuss what we could do to support Occupy SF and Occupy Oakland, and what we could contribute to those efforts.  We were involved in different ways, some as members of the general assembly and camps in each city, some in solidarity as grassroots organizations, and all in advancing demands of the 99%.  We believed that these emerging relationships were important for building a long-term movement for racial justice, gender justice, and for building an alternative to the plunder and suffering that the current economic order causes in our communities here in the US, and to communities around the world.

The exciting combination of seasoned organizers and newer activists formed into committees to advance the work.  Camp defense was a high priority, and we created a rapid response network that could mobilize people in the case of a police raid.  We leveraged relationships with elected city officials that organizations and unions built over the years to secure meetings with the Mayor of SF and the Mayor of Oakland, advocating in each meeting alongside Occupy campers for the right of the camps to remain, for an end to police violence and harassment, for the release of people who had been jailed unjustly during protests, and in support of the first amendment rights of protesters.  In addition to that, we formed an action committee that worked with campers to develop and carry out mobilization plans, and a communications committee to support those actions with media work, all of which came together as a major contribution to the general strike in Oakland on 11/2/11.

Our organization, Causa Justa :: Just Cause, was deeply involved in all areas of this work.  We called the first mobilization on 10/12/11, seeing lots of alignment between the critique of Walls Street and our bank accountability campaign work against Wells Fargo Bank. And as the momentum grew we continued investing time and energy, committed not just to our own campaign but to making a contribution to building a movement bigger than any one campaign or organization.

A key priority was to respect the suspicion of some Occupy Oakland campers that organizations wanted to come in and dominate.  We worked hard to maintain constant communication to campers and camp committees, so that our work would complement and amplify the camps’ work, while adding the much needed participation and perspectives of working class people of color and their organizations.  This was an experiment, and it was not easy.  It’s never fun to be called an “outsider” when you have been organizing in Oakland against the 1% for 10 years.  But people brought their most generous spirit to this project, a healthy sense of humor, and a commitment to building the relationships and trust needed to advance the movement.  An important part of building these relationships and trust is the fact that many of us are active participants in Occupy Oakland, attending General Assemblies, contributing to work committees, volunteering at the camp, and members of people of color and feminist caucuses of the camp. Activists from Arab, Muslim, and anti-Zionist Jewish communities, including members of AROC, PYM, and IJAN set up an “Intifada” tent, where overnight campers affiliated with LeftBay99 stay, and Causa Justa :: Just Cause set up a “Serve the People” tent where free know-your-rights information is provided to tenants and homeowners facing foreclosure, to immigrants encountering ICE, and where volunteers and ally organizations provide mental health counseling, referrals, and other crucially needed social services.

The outcome of this joint work was impressive.  On November 2 city workers, teachers, students, union people, elders, children, chanted, swayed and danced through the streets of Oakland. We roared, “We are the 99%” as we marched through downtown, with dozens of inspiring actions and contingents forming part of the celebratory day.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause helped organize a march to shut down the Big Banks demanding  a moratorium on foreclosures; and demanding banks like Wells Fargo stop investing in detention centers, dirty energy, and predatory payday lending.  The marches highlighted the responsibility these banks have for the economic crisis, called for them to pay their fair share in taxes, and highlighted Black and Latino families struggling to save their homes from foreclosure.  Given that both Oakland and San Francisco bank with Wells Fargo, there was also talk of the need for cities to divest from big banks and instead create local and community-based banking options.

“This economy does not benefit us, it benefits from us. It’s time to change that,” said Causa Justa :: Just Cause Immigrant Rights organizer Cinthya Muñoz Ramos. “Our communities are being pushed out of the economy, jobs, homes, and neighborhoods into prisons and detention centers as slave labor.”

At the State Building, teachers and youth demanded greater funding for education, and disabled people and homecare workers demanded greater funding for social services.  The children’s brigade started with story time at the public library, and carried signs reading “Don’t you dare steal my future!” and “Share!”

Labor had a strong presence, including the participation and endorsement of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, Service Employees International Union and Oakland Educational Association.  The Alameda County Labor Council was also supporting, and served grilled hot dogs and hamburgers to protesters, in a delicious show of solidarity.

Maria Reyes, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Mujeres Unidas spoke before the crowd, reminding us that immigrants are part of the 99% and have been waging the battle for fair treatment long before the Occupied movement kicked off.

“We take care of the 1 percent’s children and their grandparents and their elderly.  While we’re taking care of the elderly and their children, our children stay late at school or home alone and we come home from work frustrated because we don’t get treated right. That is why we want a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights so that we are treated fairly.”

Movement veteran Angela Davis spoke: “We do not assent to economic exploitation. We do not assent to global capitalism, to police violence, to corporate inequalities. We do not assent to the prison industrial complex… the eyes of the world are on our city.”

Following the bank marches people took to the streets again, shutting down the Port of Oakland,  the fifth busiest port in the US.  Jack Hayman of the ILWU stated in a press conference that the Longshoremen had stopped work on their own in the morning. The port was shut down. “The trucks with containers are backed up for at least a mile. None of the cranes are moving… and the rank and file of the Longshoreman’s Union did this on their own. The leaders of the union wanted them to work today, but they by and large are not working the port.” Thousands then marched to the port, shutting down the roads for miles around. By 6pm the Port of Oakland announced that “all maritime activities” had been shut down because of the sea of thousands of protestors descending on the port.

Dozens of protestors clambered up on cargo boxes and truck cabs as a sea of marchers could be seen coming across the bridge toward the port.

Oakland was the site of the last great general strike in 1946 when 130,000 workers refused to work in solidarity with 400 female retail clerks.

Dwight McElroy, president of the chapter 1021 Service Employees Union said, “Our city and our coworkers are taking furlough days, they are losing their homes. We have individuals having to choose between their mortgage and having their cars repaired. We need to stand in solidarity. America has caused a marriage between the occupy and labor movement — it’s something that should have come some time ago but it’s never too late.”

Hundreds of teachers and nurses came out as well. Sharon Blaschka, a nurse practitioner, and member of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United Union said, “I believe in the OWS movement. It’s been a long time coming. It should have happened a long time ago. The 1 percent count on the fact that we don’t have enough time to get out there and do something major because we have to support our families and they’re counting on that fact. I had patients today but I rescheduled all of them and when I called them to tell them why — they were excited about it.”

She added, “I also came with my family to support our family and our schools. The Oakland Unified School District is closing five elementary school, but yeah, we can drop a billion dollars on Libya. So, if we can drop a million dollars on the war then why can’t we drop a billion dollars into our education system?  Like they say, if you’re not outraged, your not paying attention.”

Said Nell Myhand of the day’s actions. “It was fantastic. This is the moment we have been working for — many of us for years and years,” said Myhand, who is Oakland Homeowner Clinic Coordinator for Causa Justa :: Just Cause, and fighting to keep her own home from foreclosure: “We get divided within our class. But we can see this dramatic shift when we start talking about the 99%. We can see the divisions that the top 1% capitalize on based on our differences in class. Well that’s over. We see the thing we have in common is that the banks are bankrupting all of us.”

The tone after the march was one excitement about what is to come, but there are many hurdles ahead of us.

Unfortunately, some media outlets focused on incidents of property damage instead of on the thousands of people who participated in the strike, and are intent on re-framing away from the demands of the 99%.

This serves law and order types in the city, including certain city council members, who have leaped in opportunistically, attempting to paint a picture of disorder and violence in order to advance their agenda of gang injunctions, curfews, and an overall increase in policing and decrease of rights.

And besides fighting back against these attacks on the movement, there are crucial conversations to be had within the movement now.  How do we continue building on this momentum?  How can we branch out from the camps to a much broader community-based resistance to the 1%?

There are two crucial components to this next phase:

One is to get clear on the US’s role in the international arena, since our government is the 1% to the rest of the world.  We must tie our local fights to the international sphere.  We can’t separate the lack of investment in affordable housing in Oakland from the massive investment in military occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We must make those links that will make our movement stronger, and grow our movement to the international scale, which the 1% operate in.

Two is to get clear on our demands. Only demands can help us win concrete changes that our communities so desperately need, and only demands will help us avoid co-optation.  Once we have demands, we can work with more mainstream or center forces, and benefit from their expertise and resources in policy initiatives that reflect those demands. Without demands, with the danger of co-optation looming, if our only reference point becomes the camps, then the possibilities to advance are limited.

With a strong set of demands, and a clear internationalist perspective, the 99% can continue to grow as a political force, have greater influence over the mainstream, and move one step closer to building a movement too big to fail.


by María Poblet & Rose Arrieta, Causa Justa / Just Cause

Reflections on Oakland’s General Strike

Reflections on Oakland’s General StrikeMaría Poblet is the Executive Director of Causa Justa :: Just Cause. She is Chicana and Argentine, and has more than a decade of experience in Latino community organizing. At St. Peter’s Housing Committee, María was instrumental in transforming a service provision model into a membership and organizing structure, and a grassroots leadership development and political education program. In 2009, she helped lead the merger between St. Peter’s and Just Cause Oakland that created Causa Justa :: Just Cause, bringing together the organization’s respective work in the Latino community in San Francisco and the African American community in Oakland into a single, regional organization for racial and economic justice. She has been a leader in movement building work at the grassroots, including the US Social Forum and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. Maria had the privilege of being mentored for many years by June Jordan, and was the Artistic Director of Poetry for the People before she fell in love with community organizing.

Reflections on Oakland’s General StrikeRose Arrieta: With over 20 years of journalism experience from mainstream to community media. Rose has come on board to lead our organization’s communications work. She’s originally from Los Angles and her work has been inspired by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the Chicano Movement, American Indian Movement, and lots of conversations around the kitchen table with her pro-union family.

Maria Poblet

Raised in Buenos Aires, politicized in East Los Angeles, Maria Poblet is a nerdy Latina rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Building off a decade of radical community organizing and movement building work, she lead the merger of the Latino organization she built with a Black organization, forming a single, multi-racial powerhouse called Causa Justa :: Just Cause ( Before organizing, she was Artistic Director of Poetry for the People, and had the honor of being mentored by June Jordan. Follow her on twitter @mariadelpueblo

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