After reporting on Occupy Oakland’s large and overwhelming peaceful protest yesterday, I woke up this morning to read about arrests, tear gas and vandalism. Yes, some property was destroyed. In the afternoon I saw a black-clad group smashing the windows of a Chase bank and a Whole Foods. Later in the evening, some occupiers took over an abandoned building that once housed a homeless advocacy group (since closed due to funding cuts). At some point, a bonfire was set, cops arrested plenty of people and more property destruction occurred. But the title of USA Today’s article, “Port of Oakland reopens after violent OWS protests,” misses what mainly happened, as did most of the mainstream media’s coverage.
There’s a lot to be said about the general strike yesterday in Oakland—in which thousands of people shut down banks and the fifth-largest port in the country—but here’s what I found especially striking about the strike: extreme message discipline. We usually think of message discipline in relation to political campaigns and the conscious attempt to mechanically repeat talking points. But here I found another kind of message discipline—of a more organic variety—in which people spoke about the same issue not out of a pre-designed plan but because their shared experiences were remarkably similar.
City workers complained about pay cuts; parents cited the recent announcement to close several Oakland schools; striking teachers highlighted the challenge of teaching without sufficient materials. All placed blame squarely on giant banks and the unchecked power of corporate America. As the protesters marched through downtown to shut down the banks, the mood was equal parts anger and joy: anger at the banks and joy at the prospect of finally doing something to vent their pent-up frustrations.
“I’m in foreclosure right now, and Chase is trying to take away my home the week of Thanksgiving,” Brenda Reed told the marchers as they gathered in front of a Chase office. “But I am not moving!”
Under Reed’s instruction, hundreds whipped out cell phones to call Jaime Dimon, the CEO of Chase, while others wrapped crime-scene tape around the bank, which had already shut down in anticipation of the protests. Someone scrawled, “Withdraw only” on the ATMs, and a large banner was unfurled that read, “Occupy the Banks.”
From there the march moved to Bank of America, which was open when the crowd of many hundreds descended upon it. For a few minutes bank employees attempted to carry on business as usual, but the deafening roar of “Shut it down!” soon sent people scurrying. By the afternoon, every major bank in downtown Oakland, including Citibank and Wells Fargo, was shuttered. On the other hand, local financial institutions, like the Community Bank of the Bay, were not picketed and remained open.
The scene back at Frank Ogawa Plaza was festive, with non-stop musical acts and dozens of booths passing out literature and offering various kinds of support. The crowd was remarkably diverse, ranging in age from newborns to a 101-year-old man and including teachers, construction workers, high school students and plenty of the unemployed.
One of the more popular booths encouraged people to “share your 99% story.” When I stopped by, dozens of people were writing accounts of what led them to participate, and the stories—moving accounts of homes lost to foreclosure and healthcare bills leading to bankruptcy—were posted around the tent. People have been quietly suffering through the economic crisis, and one sensed that the experiencing of publicly sharing private struggles with thousands in the same situation eased the burden.