"Basically the company can say to workers as it says to its customers: take it or leave it.”
By Josh Healey
In all my years of marches and demonstrations, I had never been on a picket line at 3 a.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 against 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 direction.
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 12 p.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 5 p.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 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 7 p.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 3 a.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 12:30 a.m. 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 2:30 a.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 3 a.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 3:15 a.m., 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 3:30 a.m., 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 multinational 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 that 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, co-workers, 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.