Occupy Wall Street protesters yell towards police in Oakland, California. (AP Photo/Darryl Bush)
The details are familiar to many by now.
On October 10, hundreds of members of Occupy Oakland descended on downtown to take over Frank Ogawa Plaza. Twelve days later, occupiers marched through the city in their first action. Then, in the pre-dawn hours of October 25, Oakland police—aided by officers from seventeen other agencies—raided the camp, employing tear gas and flash-bang grenades. That afternoon a protest rally and march was held, leading to a violent nighttime confrontation with the police in which Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran, was hit in the head with a projectile and suffered a skull fracture. The following night an overflow crowd filled the plaza, with nearly 1,500 voting to hold a general strike on November 2. In the words of a widely circulated flyer, “All banks and corporations must close down for the day or we will march on them.”
To review: in less than two weeks, Occupy Oakland went from its first public action to calling for a city-wide general strike. That’s one hell of an escalation. In my previous life as a community organizer, our campaigns were launched with the understanding that they would be long, drawn-out affairs—weeks of door-knocking, the initial meeting, our first collective action—with the butcher paper taped to the walls measuring the progression in months.
So what accounts for the breathtaking speed of the events in Oakland? The sketchy record of the Oakland Police certainly deserves some credit, especially with the injured Olsen and the video footage showing an officer tossing a flash-bang grenade into a crowd of people trying to help him. And then there’s Mayor Jean Quan, who has also been a key if unwitting ally. Absent during the raid, she has attempted to explain her shifting positions with remarkable incoherence, and was recently booed when attempting to speak at a general assembly. At meetings of Occupy Oakland, many of the people I spoke with watched the unfolding occupation with sympathy—but just watched. It took the raid, the images of tear gas clouds and a bloodied Scott Olsen to get them into the streets. As Saul Alinsky wrote, all action is in the reaction. A former organizer, Quan will not soon forget that axiom.
Organizers have taken the openings created by the city’s response and doubled down, using the anger over police behavior and growing distrust of Quan and channeled it back into the original targets of the Occupy movement. And let’s admit it: marches and rallies are tired tactics, at least when spent listening to official leaders mouthing approved lines while holding signs in which those approved lines are written. By calling for a general strike, Occupy Oakland has gone into the deep end of the left’s swimming pool, navigating imaginative and uncharted waters.
“Everyone was really receptive,” said one woman after spending the afternoon handing out strike flyers (nearly 20,000 were passed out during the first two days). “Just that the term ‘general strike’ is being discussed in the American public…” her voice trailed off. “We’ll see what happens Wednesday.”
That no one knows what will happen is a key source of motivation and excitement. We’re taught to dream big, but often when I’m shuffling along at a protest I feel those dreams shrinking to the size of the sign I’m holding, like a cog in someone else’s grand machine. In Oakland we are still cogs, but the machine belongs to us, and it’s moving in a direction that’s not entirely clear. They’re something liberating about an uncertain future.
Of course, it’s easy to argue that calling for a general strike is foolish overreach. “It’s not possible to organize a general strike in one week,” said a member of the California Federation of Teachers during opening comments at the first strike-planning meeting. His was a reasonable statement. Even as Occupiers like to remind people that Oakland was the site of a general strike in 1946, it’s hard to imagine something similar happening today.