The Occupy Oakland protesters called for a general strike yesterday, expressing the frustration and anger felt by many Americans who see our country’s wealth shifting to the elite and our government’s inability to do anything about it.
Thousands showed up to protest unacceptable levels of unemployment and under employment, shrinking incomes, mortgage foreclosures, concentration of wealth and power in the top 1% and real worry about the future of this country. Being a resident of Oakland, I was compelled to attend to see for myself and to express my own feelings.
The daytime events were a positive exercise in democracy. A diverse crowd consisting of students and other young adults, teachers and other workers, union members and older people formed next to the Occupy Oakland encampment in front of city hall.
Thousands assembled to march up Broadway, chanting slogans, holding signs and receiving supportive honks and waves from motorists temporarily stuck in traffic and from office workers/residents in the area. The crowd was largely good-natured and peaceful, and despite a few helicopters hovering above downtown Oakland, the police presence was virtually non-existent.
People brought homemade placards and wore tee shirts expressing their particular issue. Most centered on the main theme begun by the Occupy Wall Street protesters weeks ago. There were signs stating, “tax the rich”, “stand with the 99%”, “honor labor, tax greed”, “marching for your pension”, “end corporate control, build a real democracy”, “save capitalism from cronyism”, “de-regulation is destroying us”, “get money out of elections” and “bail out schools, not banks.”
Several different labor unions, the Oakland Education Association, professional groups (such as Architects and Engineers for the 99%), artists/musicians and neighborhood groups (such as the Chinese Progressive Association) were represented.
But another, more ominous element came out as well, a group that clearly is pursuing a more radical, disruptive agenda. Signs like “the system has no future for the youth, the revolution does”, “fuck your order, destroy capitalism”, “capitalism failed – your time is now” also were on display. Most troubling was the small group of individuals dressed in black with masks and hoods who were prepared for and ready to instigate violence. During the otherwise peaceful daytime march, these alleged anarchists smashed windows of a few banks and, for some reason, poured paint on Whole Foods Market’s window.
All this despite a strong effort by the main body of the marchers to remain non-violent. They chanted loudly, “protest peacefully.” (Although one of those dressed in black with whom I spoke said that they were dressed like that to “protect themselves,” one marcher stated that the outfits represented the Mexican revolutionary anarchist/Marxist group, the Zapatistas.)
I left downtown Oakland after these events feeling that the “strike” had been a success in terms of its size, diversity and the largely peaceful nature of the demonstration. Although few businesses were actually shut down, many voices were heard.
But the nighttime events brought troubling news. According to reports from Bay Citizen, in blocking one of the Port of Oakland’s access gates attempting to shut it down, the radical fringe erupted with violence, causing police to respond with tear-gas and arrests. Protesters broke windows, threw bottles at police, started fires in the street and occupied a vacant office building.
There were, fortunately, no reports of injuries inflicted by the police, although a car attempting to drive through the crowd hit and injured a street demonstrator. Thus, the peaceful, inclusive nature of the day’s march had been tainted if not ruined by a small minority of those bent on violence.
As I wrote in my previous article on the Occupy protests, (“Occupy Wall Street Sweeps the Country”), one of the main threats to achieving a successful, effective movement for meaningful change would be the hijacking by radicals of the progressive message to restore fairness to our system. After initially visiting the Occupy Oakland encampment last week, I had some reservations about some of the radical rhetoric that was expressed. Oakland was the site of recent demonstrations in the wake of the killing of Oscar Grant by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police at an Oakland BART station after he engaged in criminal/disruptive behavior aboard the train.
The radical element, which violently protested this killing and vandalized Oakland buildings and businesses, has clearly been a part of the Occupy Oakland effort, as seen with their “renaming” the plaza in front of city hall to “Oscar Grant Plaza.” It turned out my fears were justified.
One demonstrator quoted on KCBS news radio lamented the evening’s violence, stating that it undid all of the good achieved during the day’s march. All eyes were indeed on Oakland, and after that night, the Occupy Oakland movement has lost some respect and credibility.
Most realize that in order for the message of restoring economic equality and fairness to continue to be supported by the majority of Americans, including many middle class people and small business owners who have been impacted by our economic mess and who support the goals of the 99%, it must be delivered clearly and non-violently.
When a few radical elements disrupt the efforts of everyday people to restore American values and ideals through peaceful, lawful demonstrations, most people will turn away from this cause and disengage, missing the chance to change the system.
For the last three years, Republicans have obstructed nearly every effort that President Obama has made to restore the economy and to work towards resolving the pressing issues facing us. Republicans have shamefully wasted precious time and extended the suffering of millions while failing to even try to improve the economy and failing to even consider pressing challenges such as energy policy and climate change. As a result, many in this country have been quietly seething about this lack of action while misguided right-wing groups have dominated the political agenda and Wall Street corporations have become richer and more powerful.
The Occupy movement has given hope to many that these issues would finally be expressed in a spontaneous and energetic protest to re-take the momentum from the right-wing and re-capture the imagination of millions of upset Americans who are looking for a fair solution to our problems.
But if middle class, mainstream Americans, who believe in their right to peacefully protest and are frustrated enough to do it, see that radical groups are gaining control of this fledgling movement, groups that want to bring down the system, not restore it, the Occupy protests will lose the support of the people.
The positive energy created by the spontaneous outpouring of frustration will be lost. We can’t have a repeat of 1968, when the majority of Americans opposed the Viet Nam War but the methods and violent tactics of some protesters created the “Silent Majority,” resulting in the election of Richard Nixon. We all know how that turned out.