Occupy Oakland is participating in the West coast port shutdown organized for today. Here’s my account of participating in this morning’s action — my perspective is very limited, but I felt it was worth presenting the unspectacular side of the Occupy movement.
I arrived at the West Oakland BART station right at 5:30 a.m., the time we were scheduled to start heading out to the various berths. I looked around for Kurt and Craig, the ministers I was hoping to meet, but couldn’t find them in the pre-dawn darkness. The organizers started us walking towards the terminal; we moved along at a pretty quick walk; this was a serious and committed crowd of people.
I joined the contingent heading to berth 30-32. One of the organizers told us that members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 said they would not cross a picket line, so we formed two picket lines at the two gates near us. It was not the best-organized picket line I’ve ever seen: people kept drifting away and standing in the middle of the road in front of the gates, then drifting back. I saw a few people wearing shirts or carrying signs identifying themselves with organized labor — some members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) carrying a banner of their union, someone with an IWW banner, and one or two others. The OEA members and the Wobbly stuck to the picket line.
OEA members on the picket line
I got to talking with Mark, a physician who works for one of the Bay area counties. I asked him where his accent came from. He described himself as a “New York Jew,” said he was originally from Brooklyn, and admitted to being a Dodgers fan. He was an old-school leftist, and we had a good conversation about systems thinking, and the limitations of economic theory that’s based on an assumption that individuals are basically rational actors. He also said he had seen some SEIU members, but they must have gone to another one of the berths.
Someone shouted that riot police were coming. I did not want to get arrested, so I grew watchful. A line of riot police came down along the road, marching purposefully; I was not pleased to see that their riot gear was emblazoned with the word “SHERIFF” since the Alameda County Sherriff’s office has a bad reputation: the Bay area chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild has a couple of pending lawsuits against Alameda County for illegal bookings and excessive violence, and news reports have implied that the most egregious use of excessive force against Occupy Oakland came from the sheriff’s office. Besides, the Occupy protesters made me nervous: I watched some of the young protesters put on gas masks and pull out treatments for tear gas and pepper spray. I stepped out of the picket line to think about things for a moment. But everyone seemed calm, so I decided to rejoin the picket line.
The riot police were carrying and wearing a lot of gear: bullet-proof vests, helmets, face shields, body shields, and what I was told were tear gas, projectile weapons, pepper spray, etc. Not as bad as the drawn bayonets used at the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but worse than the protest I went to in 1980 at Seabrook nuclear power plant in 1980, where the riot police there looked like ordinary cops wearing face shields and carrying night sticks. In any case, the riot police took up their position inside the gate of berth 32; presumably someone thought we were going to tear down the gate and go rampaging through the port.
One of the Occupy organizers told us that we were waiting to hear if the port’s arbitrator would tell ILWU workers to go home. A man wearing an ILWU Local 10 jacket came down to look us over; he was accompanied by a man who was, I was told, the arbitrator. After a time, they left. We kept walking the picket line. It was pretty boring.
By this time, I was getting tired of the drums and the boring chants. This is not a singing movement, which is too bad. I suspect some people these days dismiss singing as old-fashioned; but singing can be subversive, and in the past protesters have been arrested for singing:— “On June 14 , Elizabeth Donnelly was arrested for singing, ‘We’ll catch the boss and put him in the sauce and never let him go,’ to the tune of ‘A hunting we will go.’ Several others were arrested that day, including Bessie Katsikaras, for the second time. She replied in court, ‘God gave me my voice, and God is the only one that can keep me quiet.’ ” (The Strike of ’28, Daniel Georgiana [New Bedford: Spinner Publications, 1993], p. 100.)
We kept getting snippets of news: One of the gates didn’t have enough people to keep the picket line going, but some protesters on bikes zipped over and strengthened their numbers. The Port of Vancouver got shut down for the morning shift. The riot police broke up the protesters in San Diego. And so on. These snippets of news helped break the boredom of walking the picket line. But I was more interested to see that the few times a tractor trailer drove by, the driver blew the air horn in support of us.
Finally at about ten o’clock, I had to pee. I went over to the one public toilet nearby and got in line. I counted: 15 people in front of me, at least a fifteen minutes wait. The line moved slowly up. Then the young woman standing behind me in line whooped: she had just gotten a text that the arbitrator had sent the ILWU workers home for the morning shift. We agreed that it was not exactly where you want to be when you hear that news: “Which picket line were you on when the port was closed?” “Um, the line to pee.”
After that, we walked back to the BART station; we passed a couple dozen tractor trailer rigs, and most of the drivers blew their air horns in support of us. Then I got on the train and went back home.
View from the picket line.