Occupy Oakland's General Strike

Laura Rena Murray

I got off the crowded BART train a little after 11am and followed a stream of people filing out to join Oakland’s general strike on November 2nd. Everyone clutched signs and backpacks as they ascended the stairs, talking excitedly about the day’s events.

Downtown Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed “Oscar Grant Plaza” by the Occupy Oakland group, was already packed with a boisterous crowd of thousands. People waved handheld signs in front of a raised platform where speakers periodically rose to address the crowd. A black banner that read “Death to Capitalism” had been strung across 14th Street facing the Occupy Oakland encampment on the other side of Broadway Street.

The air felt electric with the momentum of the mass gathering. Schoolteachers, laborers, union representatives and college students joined Oakland’s Occupy activists, who encouraged the city’s residents and businesses to join them in a general strike, the first general strike in the country since 1946. The day of action had been called on October 26th following a violent police raid on the encampment the previous evening, where officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd.

The strike included plans to shut down the Port of Oakland, the 5th largest port in the United States. A large white balloon floated above the crowd, a camera affixed to the bottom. People sporting homemade t-shirts with protest slogans, business suits and rags swirled around each other as everyone searched the crowd for someone they knew or perused the sights. Colliding strangers repeatedly paused to read one another’s signs and followed by animated conversations, as each relayed their reasons for attending.

Behind the stage, two elementary schoolteachers paused to greet a former colleague. Emily Zulpo, 32 and Christina Loomis, 35 taught first and third grade at Futures Elementary in East Oakland. The two women said they had taken personal days in order to attend the protest. “The union is encouraging teachers to participate,” Loomis explained. “This is not an official strike against the district. It’s a sanctioned action.”

Zulpo said she was increasingly concerned by cutbacks and felt it was making her job more dangerous. “We don’t have a security guard anymore and we should have one,” she said, pointing out the skyrocketing poverty rates and high crime statistics in the school’s district. Ninety-five percent of the students who attend Futures Elementary are eligible for discounted or free lunches.

Both Zulpo and Loomis listed off their school’s dwindling resources, which included eight staff layoffs, including the school nurse and physical education teacher. The cutbacks included eliminating the school’s library.

A recent notification that their class sizes were expected to swell as other schools were forced to shut their doors prompted the women to attend the strike. “They’ve just announced that 5 schools are being shut down,” Loomis said with a furrowed brow. “We’re expected to do more and more with less and less resources. It’s a joke.” Zulpo and Loomis said they were forced to pay out of pocket for teaching expenses, spending over $500 for supplies.

As Loomis and Zulpo were describing the obstacles they faced, 30 year-old Pedro De Sa stood nearby, sympathetically shaking his head at their stories. After growing up poor in Brazil, De Sa moved to the United States with hopes of pursuing a degree in higher education. However, he said the rising costs of community college and his dwindling paycheck forced him to drop out of school in 2005. “The whole idea of the 99 percent,” De Sa said, “it’s the richest country and people are suffering.”

De Sa has been living in Oakland for seven years and works as a warehouseman at Gallo Winery stacking wine boxes on pallets for ten hour shifts. He considers himself lucky to have decent wages and benefits, which he attributed to the union, but says that many of his friends have been unemployed for years.  

“It shouldn’t be luck,” De Sa said. “People should have the capacity to work and sustain themselves.”

He pointed toward the other side of the plaza where various groups were setting up tents to disperse pamphlets. He had stopped by a booth that was collecting testimony from passersby about their lives and involvement in the strike. De Sa decided to contribute his own story as well. “Democracy is not a spectators game,” he said. “You have to participate.”

Most of the businesses in downtown Oakland appeared to be closed for the day, some displaying signs explaining they were shut down in observation of the strike.

One business owner, 36 year-old Nenna Joiner, closed her store to join some friends at the plaza for part of the day. “I can’t shut down but I do support them,” she said. As a small business owner, Joiner said she typically works 16 hour shifts, six and a half days a week. Her storefront on Telegraph Avenue faces the plaza.

Joiner described business traffic slowing down with the increased police presence on the street. Water, food and toilets had also become an “issue” for the encampment, she added. However, she held an affinity for the strikers.

“This is an opportunity and we all have a part to play,” Joiner said. “I’m on both fences. I’m two or three months from being out in the cold.”

She considers herself working class and described the inner conflict she felt as a result of the protestors’ occupation. Joiner said as a businesswoman, she understood the city’s concerns regarding zoning laws as a businesswoman but a part of her still felt “close to the street.”

“Its a reflection of the diversity of issues in Oakland,” Joiner said. “There’s a lot of disenfranchisement.”

I headed back to Broadway with the hopes of getting some coffee from Tully’s. After working my way through the crowd, dodging cameras, bicycles, wheelchairs and strollers, I found the doors locked. Like most other businesses in the area, Tully’s was closed for the day. I heard people asking one another where they could get water and if there was a storefront within walking distance. 

Resigned, I weaved my way through the sidewalks, which seemed to become increasingly crowded by the minute, to the curb in time to see the Berkeley contingent arrive. Students and faculty from the University of California Berkeley campus had organized a four and a half mile march from Sproul Plaza down Telegraph Avenue to the encampment. An RV nicknamed the “Think Tank” and sprayed painted with flowers, hearts and an upside down American flag accompanied the marchers and bicyclists.

One student wandered away from the RV to seek some shade. Nick Mitchell, 28, said he hoped the mass action would “address the crisis of higher education.” As a post-doctoral student in Berkeley’s African American Studies department, Mitchell spoke about the increasing tension between the city’s police force and the campus’ Occupy Cal participants.

“Since the 1980s, there’s been a decrease in funding higher education and an increase in funding prisons and police,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been trying to connect the crisis in higher education to the prison industrial complex.”

Originally from Boston, the towering grad student currently lives in West Oakland. He said the attack on the Occupy Oakland encampment the previous week “put the fire under my feet.” As a result, he attended five of the general assemblies held in the aftermath. Although the attack sparked his interest, the format of the group’s meeting kept Mitchell coming back.

The general assembly was a scheduled meeting that occurred several times a week at the encampment. A group of less than a dozen people, called the Facilitators Working Group, orchestrated the general assemblies, where attendees could participate in submitting and voting on proposals regarding Occupy Oakland’s actions and logistics.

“The consensus process allowed for a large group of people to participate in the decision-making process,” Mitchell said. “It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve seen and it made me want to come back and be a part of this”

He looked up and gestured at the size of the crowd, saying he was impressed by the unification of Oakland’s residents. The sheer number represented a move toward accountability for Mitchell. “If there’s a real shift in the political culture of this country, that will be more transformative than legal remedies,” he continued. “I would love to see better government programs and better banking regulations.”

Also in the Berkeley crowd was an admissions officer, Stephanie Minor Bertagnole, who decided to take the day off after attending a mandatory staff meeting in the morning. She joined the students for the march down Telegraph Avenue and was in search of a friend who planned to join her at the Occupy Oakland encampment. Bertagnole displayed a homemade sign on the handlebars of her bicycle, which read, “I am the 99%” above a photo of the Guy Fawkes mask from the movie “V for Vendetta.”

After locating her friend, Jill Schwocho, the two women headed toward the bike station, where participants could leave their bicycles unlocked for free and wander unencumbered. Volunteers handed Bertagnole a ticket in exchange for her bike and she joined Schwocho to circle the plaza.

They paused in front of a vigil that had been erected for Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran who suffered a fractured skull after being hit with a tear gas canister shot by police on October 25th. Candles and posters surrounded a large photo of the young vet. Several dozen people sat meditating nearby as part of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Across the street, six cops watched the plaza. It was the first time I’d spotted a police presence that say. After conferring for a couple minutes, the officers disbanded, moving in multiple directions.

Hundreds of people seemed oblivious to the cops as they gathered in a circle to hear the general assembly. A young man performed poetry and blushed at the resounding applause when he finished. Behind the assembly, approximately two dozen tents were pitched. A toddler peered out from under a tent flap at the commotion as people rallied for the next march.

After the majority of protestors departed for the Anti-Capitalist March, Bertagnole and Schwocho settled on the curb facing Broadway to rest their feet. They watched a woman on stilts dressed as “Rosie the Riveter” chased another person in a black top hat with a sign reading “Corporate Greed” in the street, also on stilts.

“I’ve been coming since the night after the riots,” Schwocho said. “There needs to be bodies in order to make changes happen. I’m another body to be counted. Representation is important.”

Although she was uncertain about the end goal of the Occupy movement, Schwocho said she decided to participate because of the mass inequality of wealth distribution. ““The ability to work hard isn’t enough to ensure survival anymore,” she said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

The 28 year-old student shared that this was the first time in her life that she had health insurance and was able to access adequate healthcare. In addition to expanding medical access, Schwocho said she was concerned by the home foreclosures on her neighbors and the closing of 70 state parks. “There’s such a diverse list of goals for everybody,” she observed. “There’s so much to change.”

Before departing for her class at UC Berkeley, Schwocho decided to stop by the food tent to pick up a plate. The food station was a flurry of activity, with volunteers lined up under the tent assembling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salads and other snacks.

A slender 8 year-old girl snapped on a pair of latex gloves and joined another volunteer, Trishna H., at a side table to await a pizza delivery. As her mother doled out fruit, the girl proudly told me it was her first day volunteering at the food tent. “If you want to help you can,” she said.

Trishna smiled down at the girl. “I’m working in the kitchen because it seems like its really pragmatic and direct,” Trishna said. “Food is constantly given out. There always seems to be something to give.”

The girl waved her hands to redirect my attention. “Capitalism is evil,” she said solemnly. Then she pointed to a stocky man rummaging through the shelves and told me he was in charge of the kitchen. “You should talk to him,” the girl recommended.

Obligingly, I introduced myself to 44 year-old Melvin Smith who was discussing the storage of donated canned goods with another volunteer, Jennalise Bernhardt.

A well-dressed upper-middleclass woman, Bernhardt said she started helping out in the kitchen the previous Thursday. “I make food at home and bring it back the next day,” she explained. “We can’t have an open flame so we have canned goods and snacks.”

Bernhardt pointed out the compost and recycling station and said the volunteers were vigilant about maintaining sanitation. The shelves were stocked with jars, cans and boxes of dried goods. The food tent also included a solar fridge to store milk and eggs. And there was an overabundance of bread donations, which had to be discarded daily if it was not consumed. “The essence of capitalism is in bread,” Bernhardt said.

When asked why she decided to volunteer, Bernhardt said nutrition was important to her and she identified with the communal effort to feed people. “There’s so much waste,” she said. “I’m circumventing the waste. It keeps me in the kitchen.”  

Next to the food tent, an enormous Teamsters truck blared music into the crowd as the driver, Doug Radonich, 43, unloaded cases of donated water and food purchased from Costco. “We’re here in support of the Occupy movement,” he said.

Although he lives in Hayward, Radonich said he had been to Occupy Oakland five times on his own. “I’m tired of corporate greed and attacks on the middle class,” he said. “We’re taxed to death.”

Radonich was frustrated when he spoke about the climbing foreclosure rates and the decrease in loans. “I hope the politicians wake up and realize the 99 percent is pissed off,” he continued. “We’re not going to take it. I think we should throw them all out and start over.”

When Radonich turned off the music so announcements could begin as the Anti-Capitalist marchers returned, I could hear the helicopters circling above. The crowds were starting to rally and build momentum in preparation for the march to shut down the port.

Exiting the plaza, I saw a woman leaning against the wall, a canvas bag resting on the ground. Sandi Morey, 71, was seeking refuge from the noise and commotion of the bustling square. Although she appeared tired, Morey was animated when describing her efforts to rally her neighborhood through their collective email listserv. “I’m trying to get people to come out here to see what’s really going on,” she said.

An Oakland resident for 35 years, the former music teacher spoke about her involvement in the civil rights movement and the 1946 General Strike. “I was raised in the labor movement, singing off the back of trucks at age six,” she said. Morey’s activism focused on animal rights and the environment, which she considered intrinsically tied to the Occupy movement. “Wall Street is facism,” she added. “The corporations own the government.”

Morey said she was disappointed by the portrayals of the Occupy Wall Street movement and felt that it didn’t adequately convey the involvement of various communities. She gestured down the street. “Women with strollers are down at the library protesting,” she said. “They’re the Stroller Brigade.”

I left Morey to join Bertagnole as she headed down Broadway toward the port, departing before the march kicked off. When we reached 12th Street, a commotion on the corner caught our attention. Someone had smashed six windows of the Wells Fargo Bank. Shattered glass covered the pavement and messages reading “F*** the banks” and “Don’t f*** with Oakland” were sprayed painted on the walls. Several spectators stood with their mouths hanging open as the bank’s employees hurried to move barriers in front of the gaping holes. 

Although many people expressed anger and outrage towards major banks, most agreed that non-violence was important and felt betrayed by the destruction of property. “That’s not what this is about,” muttered one bystander as she watched a gathering crowd take photos of the broken windows.

As we continued down Broadway, we encountered a cluster of police officers standing among squad cars, vans and motorcycles. All of the cops looked solemn as they looked over their shoulders at us. Two helicopters continued to circle overhead.

When we reached Jack London Square, Oakland’s typically bustling waterfront district appeared to be a ghost town. The retail shops and restaurants were closed. The streets were empty, aside from the occasional semi-truck thundering past. As Bertagnole and I walked down the deserted street along the railroad tracks, a car approached. The passenger rolled down his window and screamed, “Get a job!”

“I have a job,” Bertagnole said, looking rattled.

We arrived at 3rd and Adeline Streets, the entrance for the Port of Oakland. Around 4:30pm, the marchers arrived bearing a banner that read, “Occupy Oakland General Strike.” They flooded past, marching up over the bridge toward the port, stranding several cars and semis on the road. A marching band played “This Land is Your Land.”

Various groups bearing banners cheered and shouted, “We are the 99 percent.” The signs announced groups for prison reform, unions, immigration reform, sex worker rights, healthcare reform, nutrition groups, LGBT organizations and the disability action brigade. Professors and high school students marched with bicyclists, strollers and wheelchairs.

As the marchers overtook halted semi-trucks, people climbed on top of the trucks and shipping crates to take photos, wave to oncomers and take a rest from walking.

Twenty-three Veterans for Peace lined up to face Homeland Security vehicles, clasping their hands behind their backs. Russell Kilday-Hicks, 54, watched the face-off. He recalled memories of protesting against the Vietnam War when he was fifteen. “That time felt a little like this,” he said, looking toward the vets, “it was hopeful.”

Kilday-Hicks said he left work early to attend the march because he believed another world was possible. “We need to liberalize democracy,” he explained. “We need a paradigm shift for the survival of the planet.”

A representative of the California State University Employees Union, CSEA SEIU Local 2579, Kilday-Hicks talked about the political sway of the strike. “There are some union leaders hoping we can channel this to the Democratic Party elections,” he said.

To the right of the veteran standoff, protestors began climbing a railroad scaffold to hang sings and wave to oncoming marchers. Within twenty minutes the towering scaffold appeared crowded, but more people continued to climb up.

A truck driver climbed out of his cab and sat watching as others climbed atop his truck. Mann Singh was smiling. The 42 year-old driver from Pittsburgh was on his way to park the truck and go home when his vehicle was swallowed up by the march. Rather than appearing annoyed, Singh said he was happy about the protest. “Its for us,” he said.

As people came up to give him an excited high five or chat with him for a few minutes, Singh took out his camera and started filming the crowd. He said he couldn’t afford to keep paying out of pocket to fill his truck with diesel gasoline and he was struggling to support his family. “We’re telling the government, we make nothing here working 14 to 16 hour days and make only $200,” Singh said.

At 5:45pm, I decided to head back toward the BART station. As I walked toward the bridge, I stopped in my tracks when I saw another large mass approaching. The second wave of marchers appeared even more numerous than the first. When I asked the influx of marchers where they were coming from, several said they heard about it when they were leaving work and they decided to come down and join.

Krys Freeman, 26, said she had been ambivalent about marching initially, describing herself as a cautious person. Originally from Flushing, NY, Freeman works as a web project manager for Green Biz, which focuses on sustainability and green business. “I’ve had a distant relationship with Occupy Oakland,” she said. “I work downtown and can see the encampment from my office window.”

Although her building was locked down for the day and the employees told to work from home, Freeman was worried about retribution for not showing up at work. Her partner worked for Alameda County and also decided to take the day off. Freeman said she was distressed by the amount of violence she saw happening and decided that she couldn’t stand by and watch anymore.

“We took time to do something, be there and partake,” Freeman said. “We’re here and you better hear us.”

She was stunned by the sight she beheld when she reached the apex of the bridge and looked at the stream of people before and behind her. “Its just a beautiful spectrum of people respecting and holding one another up,” Freeman said. “I’m grateful to be among other Oaklanders who care about something.”

Freeman laughed when she described watching a group of protestors block traffic on her way to the march. “You could be antagonistic or you could be funny,” she recalled. “They just said, ‘Sorry, we’re hella occupied’ and continued to sit there.”

I asked what she thought about the destruction of the Wells Fargo or the Whole Foods earlier in the day. “Upward of 10 thousand people did nothing to damage anything,” she said. “No local businesses were damaged. Corporations aren’t people. I’m about putting living, breathing people first.”

After the general strike, I received a phone call from one of the Occupy Oakland activists, 29 year-old Spencer Mills. He had been present from the beginning of the occupation and documented the camps progression as a citizen journalist. “I knew when I heard Occupy Wall Street was starting, I knew it was for me,” he said.

Mills was born and raised in Oakland and earned an MBA. The concerns that motivated him to participate in the Occupy Oakland encampment included the “dying middle class, massive bailouts and the wars overseas.” His brother currently serves in the Marines.

Although he works full-time at a gym for a $10.25 hourly wage, Mills spends most of his free time at the plaza. “I’m sitting in the most diverse occupy movement in the nation,” he said. “We’re already changing the discussion.”

Mills said the general strike and the march on the port was a way of striking back at the 1 percent. “That’s our way of getting back economically,” he explained. “Imagine if we shut down every port in the nation?”

He arrived at the port after protestors had taken over the abandoned Traveler’s Aid building, with the purported intention of converting it into an education and organizing center for Occupy Oakland. When Mills arrived, he reported people dancing in the street in celebration. According to Mills, the police moved in after midnight.

“I’m standing in front of the police line when they launched the tear gas and flash tanks,” Mills said. “They did not give notice before using chemical weapons. They had their badges covered and their names taped.”

Mills asserted that the crowd had ignited a fire after the cops launched teargas, with the hope of diffusing the gas. He believed the actions of Oakland’s law enforcement were violent and extreme. When I asked about the violence perpetrated by some of the protestors at Wells Fargo and Whole Foods, he said the movement as a whole does not condone violence.  

“To give equal weight to less than 20 people as 40 thousand is a distortion,” Mills said emphatically. “Occupy Oakland went out and cleaned up everything they possibly could.” He claimed the majority of Occupy protestors did not know who the vandalism perpetrators were and pointed out that they tried to intercede to stop the destruction of property. 

Mills believes the Occupy movement will continue because the public is united in a disillusionment of government and major financial institutions. “People believe the American dream isn’t possible right now,” he said. “They won’t make money without us and they need to invest in us.”

I left the port at 6:15pm. People were still marching in as I departed.