Thursday, December 15, 2011

[olympiaworkers] Occupy Takes Over the Ports: A Report from Oakland

Dec. 14, 2011 The Progressive

by Josh Healey

In all my years of marches and demonstrations, I had never been on a
picket line at 3a.m. Yet here I was on this oh-so-early Tuesday morning,
out on a quiet street on Oakland's waterfront alongside hundreds of my
fellow Occupy activists. All of us were cold, tired -- and cheering louder
than ever. Why the noise? We had just received word that the port
authority had cancelled yet another work shift, and the docks would be
closed till morning.

"We did it!" a young woman behind me shouted.

And indeed we had -- not just here in the Bay Area, but up and down the
west coast, the Occupy movement claimed victory in undoubtedly its boldest
action so far.

From San Diego, CA to Anchorage, AK and over a dozen cities in between,
the Occupy movement staged a coordinated day of action on Monday, December
12 aimed at disrupting the coast's various ports, dubbed by activists
"Wall Street on the Waterfront. Occupy Oakland had already shut down the
Port of Oakland once as part of its general strike of 40,000 people on
November 2, and put out the call to action for this protest to our sister
Occupy cities. We had done it before locally, but this time, with the
national focus and possibility for heightened repression, the stakes were
even higher.

Occupy activists framed the port shutdown as a solidarity action in
support of two labor struggles along the coast. We highlighted the
International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU) dockworkers in
Longview, WA, whose union members have been attacked both physically and
politically by the international grain corporation EGA. Monday's action
also stood in solidarity with independent truck-drivers at the Port of Los
Angeles, who are paid bare-bone wages and denied the right to unionize.
One of the main port terminals, SSA, is owned in large part by Goldman
Sachs, the Wall Street financial giant that symbolizes the worst of
corporate greed and corruption. Targeting the international commercial
supply chain, and supporting the port workers in their ongoing campaigns
for justice, was a direct, one-day strike to the economic power of the 1%.

For the Occupy movement itself, however, this was our opportunity to
retake the initiative and claim new ground in an increasingly hostile
atmosphere of repression. After the aggressive police evictions of most
Occupy encampments around the country last month, many wondered if and how
the movement would continue without its signature bases. The West Coast
Port Shutdown, alongside the national "Occupy our Homes" direct actions
against foreclosures the week before, show that if anything, the movement,
still only three months old, is moving in a more radical, more coordinated

I spent the day on the streets of Oakland, participating in the largest,
and surprisingly perhaps least confrontational, action across the country
that day. I arrived to Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall
at 12p.m. on Monday, where a small crowd was gathered. By that time,
Occupy Oakland had already shut down the morning shift at the port, with
hundreds of activists blocking port entrances starting at 6 a.m. After
several hours at the plaza of music and occasional speeches, things picked
up at 3 p.m. with a larger crowd of over 1,000 people taking part in a
rally that featured veteran activist Angela Davis, hip-hop group Zion I,
and, receiving the biggest applause of all, Scott Olson, the Iraq war
veteran who became a movement hero after he was critically injured by
police in an October demonstration.

The Occupy movement is not about standing around listening to speeches,
though, and crowd members soon made it clear they were ready to march.
Along the now-familiar march route from city hall to the port, and even at
the port gates, the Oakland Police Department was almost nowhere to be
seen. Maybe they did not want to be seen shooting tear gas on peaceful
protesters again, or maybe there were too many of us to be able to do so,
but one thing is for sure: they were not missed by the marchers.

By 5p.m. when we reached the dock terminal, the crowd had swelled to over
3,000 people. Soon after our arrival, Boots Riley, the rapper/activist of
leftist hip-hop group The Coup and one of the lead organizers for the day,
made a welcome announcement: the dockworkers had been sent home again! We
had successfully shut down another shift, this time before we even set up
our picket line. A roar went up in the crowd, and the festive atmosphere
continued with music and dancing alongside - and sometimes on top of - the
empty big-rig trucks lining the road.

Word started coming in about the other Occupy actions around the country.
We heard that activists in Portland and Longview, WA had successfully
forced the closure of their ports, while other cities' actions were unable
to shut them down but still made a powerful presence. We also learned that
police had cracked down on activists in Seattle, San Diego, and out in
Houston, which was one of several non-Pacific cities to hold solidarity
actions the same day. According to the original Occupy Oakland resolution
calling for the port shutdown, we had decided that if there were any
police crackdowns, we would continue the blockade to the following day. At
the makeshift General Assembly that took place at the port at 7p.m., a
speaker asked the thousands of people in the audience, "Will we keep our
word?" The rousing cheer from the crowd was all the answer anyone needed.

A small group of activists stayed to hold down the entrance until the next
shift at 3a.m. Along with most the crowd, I left in search of rest and
food. Most people called it a night, but I came back at the agreed-upon
meeting time of 12:30am to rejoin the ranks. The group that had stayed was
still there blocking one entrance, and reportedly numbered between 150-200
people. I do not know the exact number because I did not see that group
all night. Instead, with our newly assembled group of roughly 100
returning protesters, we went to another port entrance, this one near Jack
London Square, where we had received word that the dockworkers would be
arriving later. Communication between the two groups continued for the
next several hours, along with several rank-and-file dockworkers
themselves who provided the most crucial information.

We picketed the entrance for two hours, mostly uneventfully, letting the
occasional car out (but never in) and trying to stay warm. At 2:30a.m.,
dockworkers started showing up in their cars, and several truckers pulled
up in their big-rigs. Small teams of Occupy activists went to go talk to
each person in their vehicles, hoping to win their support despite the
fact that many of them were losing money by not being able to work. The
dockworkers, part of the militant ILWU Local 10 with its own history of
shutting down the port, were almost universally supportive, if annoyed
about being up before the sun for no reason. The truckers, who are
independent contractors who do not have nearly the same amount of job
security or monetary benefits, alternated between confusion, sympathy, and
frustration. They were willing to listen, even happier to talk, and most
importantly, seemed willing to wait until 3a.m. to see what would happen.

As the scheduled shift time got closer, the picketers livened up with more
energy, especially after a much-celebrated coffee delivery. At 3:15am, all
the dockworkers drove off, and we received word that the port had sent
them home. A cheer went up along the line, but we decided to stay a while
longer just to make sure they would not call the workers back. Finally, at
3:30am, we called it a victory and called it a night. The dockworkers were
gone, and the few truckers left were allowed through to drop off their
containers -- but without anyone there to unload them.

We had stood our ground, and despite threats and intimidation by the port,
the corporate media, politicians, and even some union leaders, we had
successfully shut down the Port of Oakland for over 24 hours. This was not
some small demonstration at the local bank branch -- the Occupy action
directly hit the bottom line of major multi-national corporations. Isaac
Kos-Read, director of external affairs for the Port of Oakland, said that
"for the day, it was a loss of $4 million to $8 million, easily."

Beyond the economic impact, the West Coast Port Shutdown pushed the limits
of what is possible within the movement. In other countries, general
strikes and economic blockades are common protest tactics -- here in the
U.S., we had not seen them since the labor battles of the 1930s. But now
in just the last two months, the Occupy movement has done both, and
strategies that seemed impossible just yesterday are now on the table for
legitimate discussion.

At the same time, the action showed the continuing need for Occupy
activists to build coalitions beyond our ranks. While the November 2
general strike had the support of the ILWU leadership and most local
unions, this action did not. This had as much to do about legal
obligations and internal union conflicts between the leadership and the
rank-and-file. Still, Occupy is at its best when it makes strong
connections with progressive unions and community organizations. These are
the groups who have fought for affordable housing, immigrant rights,
racial justice, and other community concerns for years. Many of them are
already part of the Occupy movement, but this alliance-building takes
time. We need leaders and members from these various groups to continue
doing the hard work to bring people together. The 1% would love nothing
more than to play divide and conquer. It is on us to make sure our unity
is stronger than their attacks.

So now what? What's next for the Occupy movement, here in Oakland and
around the country? There are as many ideas as there are activists, but I
would offer this proposal: while we continue to escalate our tactics
towards the 1%, our focus should be on deepening our relationship with the
99% we say we speak for. This means connecting with local issues,
occupying foreclosed homes and shuttered schools, going door-to-door in as
many neighborhoods and languages as possible. In other words: organizing.
Let us use the winter as our chance to recruit our neighbors, coworkers,
and relatives. Then we might be able to really build a strong, sustainable
movement in every corner of our crazy, beautiful United States.

But hey, that's just my opinion. Tonight I am going to the General
Assembly of Occupy Oakland to hear everyone else's, and to celebrate our
victory down at the ports. After that, who knows, I might even get a good
night's sleep.

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