Occupy Oakland’s Port Action, and After

by zunguzungu

I spent the day yesterday fixated on little things. For about five hours, I was handing out copies of the Occupied Oakland Tribune, and as a result, my mind was locked on the pragmatic problem of distributing it, as well as on the tiny interactions I had with the thousand or so people I talked to. I have never been called “brother” so many times; I have never been thanked, so earnestly, by so many people whose first reaction was “no thanks, not another piece of papers” followed so closely by “Yes, please I will have one”; and I have never had so many heartfelt conversations with strangers who were now neighbors. That, in itself, was a revelation, if not a revolution. And I don’t know how many people were there yesterday, but I know this: we handed out the 4500 newspapers we printed without breaking a (metaphoric) sweat. We could have doubled or tripled that amount, easily, and at no point did more than one in ten people seem to already have a copy. In other words, we couldn’t even come close to saturating our market, even with 4500 copies. If you use that as an indication of how many people were at Occupy Oakland yesterday, you’d have to guess the number was deep into the tens of thousands.

But as I said, my mind was fixed on little things, because the totality of what happened yesterday was outside and beyond my experience. When I think back to what happened yesterday, and I try to grasp the enormity of it, I remember things like fighting tears while trying to describe to my partner over the phone what it looked like to watch this crowd come over the overpass into the port:

But that picture doesn’t do that crowd justice. Neither does this one:

And even this video from a news helicopter trying to zoom back enough to encompass the entire crowd doesn’t quite capture it, though it gets close when you realize that he can’t zoom back enough to get the whole crowd in the frame. That tells you something true about that crowd. But the most true thing about that crowd, I think, is the fact that it was simply too big to comprehend, something that will be reflected in the hilariously low estimates of its size that people are making. The port is huge, making up this entire loop of Seventh Avenue and Middle Harbor Road, bisected by Maritime St:

And we filled it with people. We filled that entire loop with people. It felt like every intersection was occupied by a group in the neighborhood of a thousand, but the important thing is that all that vast empty space in between — and seriously, if you weren’t a bike, like me, it meant miles and miles of walking — was occupied by human beings. No one at the port seriously tried to get around us and keep the port open — mainly because they were in solidarity, with only a few exceptions that I saw — and the police presence was almost non-existent. This was not a struggle. This was an unmitigated triumph, with the outcome never really in doubt. There were just so many of us that the Port of Oakland was, last night, a medium sized city in its own right.

But let me back up and talk about what I saw. There were multiple waves of bikers, buses, and marchers that converged on the port, leaving at 4 and 5. I left Oscar Grant Plaza by bike, at about 4, but not with the Critical Mass bikers who had already left. When I and my friend Chris biked over the overpass from Adeline and 3rd:

Critical Mass bikers had already blocked the first berth. What you can barely see in the picture above, there at the bottom of the hill, where the trucks are backed up and stopped — and the point where Chris and I both said “Holy Shit!” and he sped forward and I reached into my pocket for my camera (pretty good shot from a bike, huh?) — was this:

That’s a hundred or so bicyclists riding around in circles, a hundred fragile little steel and aluminum frames of muscle and blood standing between enormous container trucks and their destinations. And then again at the next intersection:

One truck driver was angry for reasons I couldn’t understand; the part I heard was him demanding where we had been when [something else] was happening, but the rest of the truck drivers ranged from stunned and passive to enthusiastically supportive. That’s not a scientific survey, obviously, but it represents what I saw: almost toal support from the truck drivers.

At this last intersection, there was an impromptu people’s mic discussion over what to do next; someone had heard that the next intersection was crucial, and while it was easy to shut down individual intersections, it wasn’t clear to us exactly what the larger shape of the port was, or how to shut it down as a whole. There were discussions of the difference between truckers leaving — generally, unloaded trucks were allowed to leave — and blocking the berths themselves so that the shift change (at 6:30) would be able to go home, and how to do it, but people were not generally clear on exactly where we should put our energies.

While that discussion continued, I biked forward to the intersection of Maritime and 7th, past a long backed up column of trucks, until I and the four or five people I was with reached what turned out to be blocking traffic, this train:

This picture might be a little confusing, so let me explain: on the other side of this train is an intersection which was still unblocked. You can see a few bicyclists, but you can also see trucks passing through it freely. That motorcycle is from one of the three or four police officers who were also there. It was a surreal scene; the bikers on the other side waved at us on this side as our numbers increased and increased:

Can you see the police officer on his motorcycle there? As we waited and waited (it took about 20 minutes) for the train to clear, we all sort of smiled at each other, shared food and water with each other, and chatted with a driver who got down out of his truck and explained the layout of the port to us. He was completely helpful, and had a note of  awe in his voice and eyes as he explained where each road went and where the main berths were. And then he just kind of stood there with us, and with our one police escort, as we all waited for the train to pass. It was a long train.

When it finally passed, we rode through and blocked the intersection, without drama. The police simply rode off and let us:

After a while of this, I biked out to see what else was happening, and hooked up with another group of bikers who seemed to know where they were going. But it turned out that they were leaving and I had inadvertently left the port and circled back nearly to the beginning (see the map above; I had taken seventh across the freeway and all the way back to Adeline, where I had first entered), so I turned around and entered the overpass that had been empty when Chris and I had first gone over it. It was no longer empty; this is on the going-up side:

 That black cop car turned sideways was blocking traffic from coming in, usefully, but the cop was outside, talking and having his picture taken with protesters:

I don’t know what to make of that, but it was the least confrontational, most friendly interaction between Occupy Oakland and the police that I’ve seen, and most of the day was in that vein. The police did not try to stop us from occupying the port. When I got to the top of the overpass and looked down, it became clear why that was. The six busloads of occupiers that left at four had been joined by the marchers who had left at the same time, and that entire stretch of the port had become a block party. Here’s the same overpass I had ridden down earlier, from a slightly different angle:

But here’s what we found at the bottom:

It was overwhelming.

It was already overwhelming, in fact, when an uncountable multiple of marchers — who had left at five — began crossing the overpass behind us. Those are the pictures I began the post with, a throng of beautiful faces that came and came and just kept coming. It was absolutely overwhelming; the area I was in was already full (all the pictures above are from before that enormous second march even crossed the overpass), and those people just kept coming, that giant procession of humanity whose size overwhelmed and filled the gaping industrial chasm around us. The cheering was deafening. The sun was blinding, or maybe those were the tears in my eyes as I tried to describe to Millicent what was happening. I failed to describe it. I still don’t really have the words. Words and pictures are insufficient.

The very front of it (and only a tiny portion of it):

Instead of trying to capture that whole crowd (that chopper footage does a better job than I could have), I tried to catch a few small individual pieces of it here and there.

The bike rack (note that the overpass is still choked with people):

Someone had torn down this sign, and the guy on the skateboard was waving it around; I asked him if I could take his picture, because this pair of signs is too good not to include:

Most of the truck drivers had left their vehicles and were wandering around the crowd, some with stunned expressions on their face, some shaking hands and chatting. One truck driver was honking his horn, trying to get cheers, and getting them.

Overwhelmed port-o-potties were the norm:

The taco/burger trucks that were there ran out of everything, too; I managed to get the last banana muffin cake, which @hyphy_republic scorned.

This happened:

And this group of interfaith clergy were singing beautifully:

I wandered around for a long time, talking with friends — who were hard to locate in such a crowd, but also so abundantly present that you kept meeting friends, new and old — waiting for official word that the port was closed, even though it obviously was. The entire place was filled with occupiers; no matter what the port officials said, the port was closed. Which was sort of the point. I ended up talking to the BBC — who got my name through the blog/twitter and wanted to interview me, briefly — and if you were listening to the BBC at three in the morning last night, you would have heard me tell the presenter that the phrase “attack on infrastructure” was a completely inappropriate way to describe a peaceful one-day shutdown, supported by the workers, and which even the port administrator said (at the press conference last night) had been peaceful and did not damage the facilities. I felt good about that, though I still haven’t managed to locate a podcast or I’d post it; this BBC article took a quote from me, but misleadingly called me a “spokesperson,” which was not an impression I gave them, and weirdly chose not to use my last name (and implied that I’d refuse) when the way they found me was through my twitter feed (that has my last name on it). I believe very strongly that we are powerful because we are doing this in the open, and I also believe, very much, that referring to anyone as a “spokesperson” of this movement is to advertise your own ignorance about what it actually is. But old habits die hard, I guess.

And that’s it, really. I was exhausted, and wanted to go home, so I did. As I left, I passed through and past assemblies, parties, and groups of every description, ranging from serious general assemblies that were discussing the next move:

To full-on dance parties:

But I had to sleep; I’d been up since five. Other things happened that day and that night, but while most of the mainstream media has its gaze so thoroughly fixated on property damage — all that BBC guy wanted to talk about was the “attack on infrastructure” — Zennie Abraham is right to point out that 100,000 people (his count) were peaceful, while the numbers of people who escalated the situation were much smaller, tremendously much smaller.

How does this movement deal with the friction between the group and the autonomous actions of sub-groups?

Even if I wasn’t there, I still have an opinion. It is an opinion that I am open to being convinced to abandon. But it’s also an opinion that reflects the way I feel right now, at a moment when I should be feeling completely triumphant. That escalation came in two forms. Three, if you count the police who rolled through last night, arresting journalists and using tear gas and rubber bullets, again (I won’t count them because “the OPD behaved badly” is sort of implied in any sentence that contains the phrase OPD, and also because I wasn’t there and don’t know exactly what happened. More on that later, hopefully). Anyway, there’s two that are worth distinguishing: damage to property and the occupation of the foreclosed and vacant building at 520 16th street, next to the plaza. I’m at least ambivalent about both. Of the former — which I won’t talk about, since it’s the main thing the MSM has focused on and you can read about it everywhere else — I think it’s unquestionably a serious and damaging tactical error. I think it accomplishes nothing, and far from demonstrating strength or anything like that, it dilutes the message of the movement, turns people against it, and exacerbates real divides within it. And no proposal at the GA ever endorsed it, nor ever could. A lot of people believe that the vandalism is being done by police provacateurs, and while I’m not sure that’s true, the fact that so many people do think that tells you something about what a minority opinion this is.

As for the expansion into 520 16th street, I’m sympathetic in principle to this argument:

I think this is a very logical next direction for this movement to go. I want to see this movement peacefully occupying (or even “liberating”) houses that have been illegally foreclosed on by robo-signing courts, or even legally foreclosed houses that are now lying morally unoccupied. At least I want us to be talking about it, and thinking along those lines. There is a lot of opportunity here to build on Occupy Oakland’s momentum in new directions and I would like to be a part of a nonviolent campaign to do so.

But this is important: I was not part of the decision to occupy 520 16th street, however nonviolent it was, nor were the vast majority of us. It was not submitted to the General Assembly, and it should have been.

[EDIT 10:42: @reclaimUC reminds me that "1) the GA overwhelmingly approved a declaration in favor of autonomous reclamations of abandoned buildings. 2) very first GA approved a diversity of tactics to maintain solidarity over and above tactical differences" and argues that because it's "dangerous to individuals making proposals, it's also ineffective cuz agreement will never be reached." My feeling would be that the port action was widely trumpeted beforehand, and succeeded for that reason, while the reclamation of the building was not, and failed for that reason. And was it an autonomous action? Or was it a decision that was not opened to general debate because "agreement will never be reached"? I don't know. But this is a difficult enough problem that I'm open to being persuaded that I'm wrong.]

We do things in the open, or I’m not part of that “we.”  If we believe in direct democracy, then don’t we have to be honest about the fact that this decision was not made in that way, and that it is now reflecting back on the entirety of Occupy Oakland and yesterday’s strike? A lot of people who joined yesterday, and who were energized by the port action, are going to feel alienated by what happened, which weakens the movement (to say the least). And I wasn’t there last night because I didn’t know it was coming; I honestly don’t know yet what I think about that decision because I was never given the chance to think about it. Perhaps I might have been swayed by the arguments made in its favor, and perhaps I might have been there last night to protect the space from being re-taken by police, as it eventually was. But I wasn’t there last night, nor were the majority of us. By acting on their own, the people who made that decision prevented the rest of us from taking part in it, and while you may only see this as a tactical error — decisions made by only a small group will only command small support — it is a real problem, as was shown last night.

We need to reckon seriously with what that means. I can guess who some of the people are who made that decision; it is an open secret that while most aspects of the movement are out in the open, there is an inner cadre of organizers who, by necessity, make a lot of day-to-day decisions on their own. That’s probably unavoidable, at least in part. Certain decisions simply can’t be made by GA voting (though that certainly doesn’t mean those decisions can’t be retroactively vetted). I don’t know who it is that sends out the text messages for people who are on the alert list, for example, and while I’m glad that they are sent out, it does concern me that we never know who is sending them. And if it was those people who made that decision — and I don’t know if it was, because I don’t know who it was — then they are taking that power in a direction that makes me very uncomfortable. If “direct democracy” is a principle that these people do not really believe in, then I don’t see myself as part of their movement.

This is a hard problem, and I’m not sure I have the answers. There’s also a very grey area between the actions which are done by the whole body — which necessitate submitting proposals to the General Assembly and voting on them — and the various “autonomous actions” which are taken by separate affinity groups acting on their own. The movement needs to work hard to figure out how to manage the problem, and soon. But if it was an autonomous action (and didn’t run through the main organizing cadre), then it might be less damning, but it’s still a huge problem that yesterday’s day of action was undertaken in the name of the entire movement and embraced by it, while a small group of people have now changed that narrative by acting on their own counsel and excluding the rest of us from it. The port action would have been, on its own, a gigantic and huge success, but instead of talking about what an unprecedented mass act of nonviolent civil disobediance it was, we have no choice but to talk about property damage instead. Maybe that’s a good thing, or at least, maybe someone wants to say it is. But we haven’t had that conversation until it was too late, have we? When whoever it was decided to escalate beyond the 90% approved general strike and port action — in a way that clearly should have been part of the official proposal process at the GA — they excluded me. The people who occupied that building may speak in the name of the “99%,” but they leaped over the process by which the 90% get to speak. I am part of that 90%, but I was not given a choice about whether or not to be in solidarity. And that actually prevents me from being in solidarity. If this is a crypto-vanguardist movement, it will fail, and I want no part of it.

To be as clear as possible: I’m not sure whether or not I would have been in favor of occupying the building at 520 16th street. I’m not repulsed by the idea of putting a vacant building back to use, back to the use for which it was originally used. I like that idea a lot. There might be practical reasons not to do that, here, now, yet, etc, and no ethical constraints nor ideological worship of property rights prevents me from imagining a scenario in which I would be there and taking part or vigorously defending it. But I don’t have to resolve the question of whether or not I’m “for” or “against” the decision, and I will not, because I was never asked to be a part of it.