We set off to the port before sunset. When we got past the bridge, I looked back and as far as I could see was an ocean of people marching their way up and over the bridge onto the port. Behind a General Strike sign, protesters of many different backgrounds and ages (there was a stroller brigade), chanted and marched onto the port.
Then all the beautiful faces blended into one. Through our unity, we succeeded in shutting down business as usual in Oakland’s first 21st century general strike. When we arrived at the port, the container trucks that were leaving for the day had nowhere to go. Of course, the truckers, part of the 99%, got it. They turned their engines off. With permission, protesters climbed atop their cabs and containers, waved flags, changed and welcomed new marchers. The port was now closed. No business coming in. No business going out.
Later as we exited, a trucker tried to get into the port. Two people bravely stopped him. First, an Asian-American man stood directly in front of the truck holding a sign that read, “We are Scott Olson,” after the Iraqi war vet who was severely injured by police in an Oakland protest the week before and is still unable to speak. It reminded me of Tien An Men square. Tension mounted as a female African-American vet then clambered on top of the grill. The driver gunned the engine again and again. Other protesters came to talk to him respectfully as he sat in his cab. In a few minutes he came to understand what was happening. He turned his engine off. The small crowd cheered. We had succeeded in holding the line, but not without the bravery of these two individuals and the support of others. At that moment, I realized I did not have the degree of courage required to risk getting run over by a giant truck.
We stopped to talk to one of the truckers waiting to leave. As an independent trucker for 20 years, he hauls cases of Gallo wine to the Oakland port. Gallo imports grapes from Australia, mixes it with other wine and exports bottled wine to Europe. He completely understood the reasons for the strike. This past year both his children were injured in sports. Even though he has insurance, his hospital bill was $35,000. Fortunately, the kids are okay now, but he said when they were being brought into emergency he couldn’t say no to expensive tests that the doctors were recommending because they had to determine the extent of the injuries. Understandably he was frustrated that he couldn’t leave the port—he was tired and needed to get home to Lodi to sleep (some 60 miles away). He had gotten off at 4 pm and he had been waiting three hours due to our shutdown. He had to come back for his next shift at 2 a.m.
The Day’s Protests and Life Force
Dozens of inspirational and same-old speeches were given from a platform truck at 14th and Broadway streets. Erika Huggins of the Black Panther Party reminded us of the history of people’s struggles in Oakland. Throughout the day, more and more people came to listen and march through downtown ensuring that no business as usual was happening. SEIU and unions of iron workers, teachers and nurses along with a multitude of students filled the streets. We walked for blocks and blocks stopping at the banks more than once to show our resolve. Spirited but peaceful, we chanted, “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.” Banks were shut down. Other large businesses like Walgreens were shuttered. At one point, a couple thousand of us were heading back to Oscar Grant plaza, the center of the Occupy/Decolonize movement, when hundreds more came to join us. We made an about-face and walked the bank route again, reinforced by our growing numbers. As we passed Bank of America on Harrison Street, a throng of protesters loudly chanted, “Peaceful protest. Peaceful protest.” It didn’t stop someone from breaking the window, but it helped assure the 99.9% of protesters who were nonviolent that calm prevailed.
The creativity of protesters had burst into bloom this week. I saw dozens of ingenious signs including messages on stilts. I passed an exhibit hailing the death of capitalism and paused at an altar for the love of our life force. I ran into my drum teacher, Afia Walking Tree, who was playing her djembe for two women free-dancing in the plaza. I think many people felt a special kind of freedom that arises when you can express your human essence in community with others.
Problems? Sure. The port is miles long. As marchers hit the port area, it was not clear where the end was. People became spread out along the route. Without clear direction, the energy dissipated somewhat. Was it resolved? Sort of. Clumps of people grouped at different points. We kept our energy up with drumming, singing, talking and texting. Sistah Boom, a women’s drum group that has been playing at protests since the 80s, filled one of the gathering spots with rhythm and sounds that reflected the unity and spirit of the day.
When the general assembly voted eight days ago to call for a general strike, many boomers doubted that it could be organized in such a short time. I remember a 20-something man in our small group who said, “A week? That’s plenty of time!” Nonetheless, the older folk who didn’t want to put a damper on the momentum, supported the overall decision to strike. And the events of the day proved the doubters wrong. The general strike turned out to be a complete success. Messages to tax the rich and employ the unemployed came out loud and clear.
A huge teachers contingent stood for our right to public education funded by the government. An interfaith group declared, “Corporations were not created in the image of God.” The spirit of almost every issue and every cause complemented each other. That said, ,I’ll admit that while I swore a lot in college, now the “Fuck ____” signs seem rather juvenile.
Other protesters’ signs managed to capture a widespread feeling. One read, “Where are you Obama?” Obama’s failure to fulfill the promises of his election campaign and presidency have certainly contributed to the anger at the humongous gap between rich and poor, which so many protesters come out against.
The second sign realistically said, “We’re near the beginning.” Of course it’s a different way of saying we have a long way to go and the mountain is high. But I’d say we’re off to a resounding start. And what’s hopeful about it is that you only have to be part of the 99% to participate. You only need to believe in the power of the people to turn the world around. Many struggles throughout the years have taught us that. The one in progress now can be described by the universal nature of the effort before us, represented by a sign that stands in Oscar Grant plaza, “Arab Spring Meet American Autumn.”