May Day with Occupy Oakland
The author describes the Occupy movement’s action in Oakland last week, in light of a very different mood in the city that greeted the general strike called six months ago.
On May 1, Occupy Oakland joined other protest movements in major cities across the country and around the world in a general strike to observe International Workers Day. For the city of Oakland, it was the second citywide strike attempted in six months.
Occupy Oakland had called for a general strike on November 2, 2011, the first in the country since 1946 when police violence following a walkout by female department store workers in Oakland led to a strike of more than 100,000 people. Last year’s action, which closed the fifth largest port in the United States, also followed a violent police raid. Officers had attacked the Occupy encampment with tear gas and rubber bullets, provoking the rally of thousands of protestors.
A majority of the supporters and protestors last Tuesday had also participated in the November 2 general strike. But this time, the physical structure of the tent city was gone. Many of the interest groups represented at the first strike were absent, leaving a noisy but relatively sparse gathering of a couple hundred strikers who appeared braced for violence.
In November, teachers had arrived to demonstrate against education cuts, environmentalists were opposing park closures and labor unions were protesting the loss of jobs and burdensome taxes, to name a few. The smaller group of May Day strikers seemed to share a more integrated ideology, yet the litany of issues remained broad, including education, healthcare, environment, jobs, poverty and the “war on women.”
November’s boisterous crowd of thousands had packed downtown Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza—renamed “Oscar Grant Plaza” to memorialize the unarmed young man shot by a transit police officer in 2009. Last week a few makeshift tables holding literature and posters replaced the plaza’s long since dismantled Occupy Oakland encampment. Many of the strikers in attendance sported gas masks or handkerchiefs to cover their noses and mouths and makeshift shields. One protester stood nervously on the corner with a sign tied across his backpack, which read, “I am unarmed. Please don’t shoot me.”
The anticipation of violence was a far cry from the electrifying excitement of the November strike, when schoolteachers, laborers, union representatives and college students joined Occupy activists in a festive mass action with relatively minimal police presence. Last Tuesday, it was difficult to look in any direction without seeing a large group of officers in riot gear. Children and families were missing from the crowd, and many people nervously withheld their full names.
Under the whirl of helicopters, 25-year-old Claire stood bracing two large metal banners. One simply read “Gender Strike” but the other was a more provocative image of two hands adorned with long yellow fingernails, middle fingers sticking up in between an “FTP” slogan. She identified herself as part of the Occupy Patriarchy group, which formed to “deal with issues of patriarchy within the movement and the larger patriarchal society.”
Claire had also attended the Occupy protest outside of Oakland’s Child Protective Services office earlier that morning. “CPS upholds the more heteronormative family,” she explained. Many Occupy activists had used the rally as an opportunity to speak out about their own experiences of having their children taken by CPS.
Another woman, 60-year-old Sawyer, claimed affinity with the Occupy Patriarchy group because it challenged assumptions that men should be the leaders and speakers of a movement. Her beliefs were echoed by Brenda, a 74-year-old retired teacher who was dismayed by some of the aggressive Occupy tactics. “There would be less violence if women were in charge,” she said, glancing at the line of grim-faced police officers.
Shortly after noon, a protestor rounded a corner and shouted into the plaza, “We’re being attacked!” A violent outburst erupted between protestors and the cops, as men tackled by cops rolled around amidst reporters and fellow protestors, cameras and iPhones brandished to record the arrests. At 12:19 pm, a round of tear gas exploded followed by two more rounds a minute later. The crowd dispersed, then regrouped to challenge the advancing police line. Police fell back a block while taunting protestors marched toward them.
In the plaza, Lolita Rivas sat quietly holding a sign that called for jobs to return to America. The 65-year-old retired secretary for San Francisco’s Department of Mental Health was dismayed by the violent outbursts that would continue to erupt throughout the day. “A lot of people are afraid of the kids who are causing trouble,” she said, gesturing toward the thinning crowd. “Breaking windows and all that, I’m not into that. Decent people are not going to want to come out.” Rivas had attended the rally because she was worried about the futures of her children and grandchildren. “This is my country and I love it but all the gains we made are being eroded,” she said.
Many of the attendees expressed surprise at the amount of anger present at the gathering. “The ethos of this movement is non-violent but there are breakout groups,” Linda Hodges explained. A church administrator, she had been a supporter of Occupy Oakland from its day of inception. “I was overwhelmed by the love and generosity I saw here,” she said. “Those are very feminine values.”
However, Hodges described watching protestors become radicalized and disheartened as a result of police brutality on the Occupy encampment. She recalled witnessing the police surround protestors, “kettling them in,” and then writing them tickets for not dispersing. A pacifist herself, Hodges said it was easy to understand the escalating anger. She pointed at a pig piñata that someone had dangled from a lamppost. “Seeing that scares me,” she said. “Seeing the shields, gas masks and bandanas scares me.”
As the crowd geared up for the afternoon march—with a protestor reciting the number for the National Lawyers Guild over the megaphone—42-year-old Kim Younan was threading her way through the street. As she rode the escalator down to the BART station, she addressed a BART employee stationed to the side. “They’ve gone too far,” she told him. “I understand freedom of speech but when you have to close the streets to get a point across, it’s dumb.” A self-identified conservative, Younan said “you should make your point to the bank or government but don’t block people’s way of living.”
The city’s shops and cafes reflected her attitude. On November 2, many of Oakland’s storefronts had remained closed for the day’s duration. But on Tuesday, most remained open, patrons gawking out the windows with sandwiches suspended in front of their mouths as they watched the standoff between the Oakland police and Occupy protestors.
“Everyone’s going through the same thing; everyone’s losing their houses,” Younan continued. She had lost her job a few years prior and currently faces home foreclosure. “At first I was for [Occupy] but then they were disrespecting the law. Now we’re getting tired of them.”
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