'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On the Picket Line at the Port of Oakland 

Yesterday morning, I got up at 3:45am, quickly got dressed, and traveled to the West Oakland BART station for the 5:30am march to the Port of Oakland. I exited the station about five minutes late, along with about 30 to 40 other people, which was just in time, because this was an action that required that we cover the approximately two and a half mile distance from the station to the port gates as quickly as possible. As I looked around, I was surprised by the large number of people that had congregated at such an early hour of the day.

The march began shortly thereafter, and I've heard estimates that there were about 1500 and 2000 people walking briskly down the wide boulevard towards the port, accompanied by the screeching woosh of BART trains entering and exiting the Transbay Tube, but around 800 to 1000 seems more likely to me, but then again, the science of estimating the size of crowds is notoriously imprecise. Given that the weather was dank, mid-40s and drizzle, I was impressed. We arrived at one of the gates at about 6:15am, after having another group go to another gate. I'd say about 200 to 300 of us marched in a picket line, while another 100 or so watched and pondered the police presence, which was mild. Shortly thereafter, a couple with a young boy, probably about 4 years old, gave out some raisin cookies to us.

There was a wide array of participaton among the left: the International Socialist Organization, anarchists (including some people from AK Press, naturally), the Industrial Workers of the World Food and Retail Workers Union (also anarchist, from what I have heard), teachers from the Oakland Education Association that endorsed the call, young gays and lesbians (the young radical contingent Feminists & Queers Against Capitalism, plus others upset about the torture of Bradley Manning, with one wearing a Free Bradley Manning sticker on his jacket). As this suggests, there were a lot of young people, a multiracial group of young African Americans, Latinos, whites, gays, lesbians and some Asian Americans, with the young people of color and the anarchists connecting the port shutdown to the killing of Oscar Grant, as it is becoming more and more obvious that his death was a seminal event in the intensified radicalization of young people in Oakland. And, of course, there was Clarence Thomas and some others from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, as well as someone from the Alameda Central Labor Council, along with some older radicals, such as, for example, David Solnit, one of the anti-authoritarian, anti-globalization organizers of Direct Action to Stop the War in 2003. I'm guessing that there were some California Nurses Association people there, too.

Thomas played a prominent role in making sure that everyone remained focused on the purpose of the action. Initially, when we first arrived and set up the picket, some young male anarchists with bandannas got up in the face of the cops and yelled typically insulting, inane things at them. Thomas and other ILWU people got on that right away, telling the organizers that these guys were doing stupid bullshit and needed to stop. They did. My impression was that the ISO participated in the planning and organization for the event instead of limiting themselves to proselytizing from the outside. The ISO people, along with others, communicated information and told people what needed to done (please touch the curb, we have to do that for it to be a legal picket). So, the anarchists and the ISO must be getting along. There's a lot of cross-pollination associated with Occupy Oakland, as the young organizers come from a variety of groups.

I can't say this from personal knowledge, but it looks like the ILWU workers in the port supported the action, if you measure it by the fact that it was reported that none crossed the community picket. The more challenging issue is the extent to which the blockade required truck drivers, employed as independent contractors, to sacrifice for the possibility of better wages and working conditions in the future as well as for other workers, like the ILWU ones in Longview. Predictably, the commercial media made much of the displeasure of drivers not being able to enter the port, but there were other organizations of drivers that expressed support for the action by reference to their demeaning working conditions, such as, for example, their low pay and lack of any rest room facilities.

As the sun rose, the mood in front of the gate was festive. We are unstoppable, another world is possible. Someone brought a speaker in a carriage attached to their bike, and Bloq Capital cranked up some hip hop, power pop and funk in the center of the circular picket line. Along with a young lesbian flag team, they set up an impromptu dance club. I know Louis Proyect over at The Unrepentant Marxist looks askance at this sort of thing, but, when you are walking around slowly in a circle in cold weather, as we were yesterday, it really picks up your spirit, which it did in this instance. Humorously, the line went crazy over their energetic dancing to The Go-Gos We've Got the Beat, and joined in. A few of the cops smiled. I suspect that I will always think of this protest whenever I hear that song again. It was all part of a cultural effort to subvert the power and authority of the police, a subject that I may post a brief blog entry about if I find the time. And then We've Got the Beat faded into the ferocity of Le Tigre's New Kicks, a powerful, now nostalgic 2003 anthem given a new importance by yet another manifestation of the same struggle, and the dancers chanted in unison with the lyrics, This is What Democracy Looks Like! This is What Democracy Sounds Like! And as the song wound down, everyone yelled, We say no to war! No war! We say no to war! No war! It was one of those epiphanies when, for the briefest of moments, our most fervent dreams became real.

At around 10:30am, the organizers announced that the arbitrator had determined that the picket made it unsafe for ILWU wokers to enter the port, effectively closing the port for the morning shift, and we thereafter departed. As you probably already know, the ILWU could not endorse the blockade, but can refuse to cross a community picket line. For me, the striking aspect of the blockade was the participation of so many young people and their organizational skills. Of course, one should avoid exaggeration, an action like this is going to primarily attract leftists, but the mere fact that they are willing to publicly engage in such militant political activity is significant. There is something important happening here generationally, a willingness of some people under 30 to embrace anti-capitalist social perspectives and act upon them.

Beyond the more common chants of the We are the 99% kind, here are a few of the more distinctive ones specific to Oakland that rippled through the crowd as we returned to the West Oakland BART station:

Labor, Black and Brown, Oakland is a Union Town

Fuck the Police, From Oakland to Greece

We are the Proletariat

Oscar Grant Didn't Have to Die, Shot Him in the Back, Wouldn't Look Him in the Eye

All of them reflect the multiethnic working class synergy that is emerging in Oakland, a synergy generated from concrete social conditions, such as, obviously, the brutality of the Oakland Police Department and the BART police, and the harshness of their economic distress. At a small rally upon our return to Oscar Grant Plaza, Jessica Hollie, an Occupy Oakland activist and ustreamer from East Oakland, gave a brief, passionate speech about how the 1% is impoverishing everyone by separating us through fear, fear of places like West Oakland, East Oakland and Richmond. For them, she said, we are all the same, all they care about is how they enrich themselves at our expense. She emphasized the urgency of working together, declaring I care about you, and I hope you care about me. In this, she touched upon the essential need for collective organization and emotional support as an alternative to the current predatory economic system. Earlier, on the way back from the port, I saw a man poignantly express something similar with a poignant sign that said, After the Banks Fail, We Still Have Each Other. Leftists must engage this need for mutual support during a time of crisis that if we are to have any future relevance.

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