Throughout the day and night of November 2, “Occupy Oakland” mobilized to shut down the fifth-largest port in the United States (briefly), storm downtown banks (until managers locked the doors), and confront police (leading to 80 arrests). The day’s events, which attracted endorsements from the local nurses’, service employees’, and teachers’ unions, stemmed from Occupy Oakland’s call for a “general strike.” But contrary to the media’s flattering and hyperbolic portrayals, last Wednesday’s demonstration was nothing of the kind.
Some historical perspective is in order. The term “general strike” has a specific meaning: it signifies a work stoppage in all unionized industries and temporary suspension of operations in the businesses they serve. This was not the case in Oakland: the event merely drew some residents and a host of union members. Some 200 city employees—about 5 percent of the municipal payroll—declined to show up for work. According to CBS News, about 360 of 2,000 Oakland schoolteachers stayed out of school for the occasion. Some students also declared themselves “on strike.” The crowd in the streets Wednesday grew to an estimated 7,000 people, who closed the entrance to the Port of Oakland on Middle Harbor Road for about two and a half hours. But apart from a few blocks downtown and near the harbor, banks and stores remained open, schools remained in session, and life went on.
Destruction in the city was mainly visited on banks, including a Wells Fargo branch that closed early after occupiers made an afternoon attempt to storm it, and where windows were later broken. A Bank of America branch, a Chase branch, and a Citibank branch were also affected on the street corner amusingly referred to by the Oakland Tribune as “Oakland’s financial district at 20th and Webster Streets.” Occupiers demolished or defaced automatic-teller machines in the area. A Whole Foods Market locked its doors and later had its windows broken by masked “anarchists.” A Men’s Wearhouse store closed for the day and posted a sign in its window professing to “stand with the 99 percent.” Demonstrators smashed the store’s windows anyway.
Undercutting the pretensions of Occupy Oakland’s “general strike” was the response from Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. On Thursday morning, truck drivers faced off with about a dozen protesters who blocked four lanes of traffic with a fence and some dumpsters. The occupiers backed down when Local 10 president Richard Mead “appealed to [demonstrators’] sense of fairness after they were told the dockworkers would not receive their full day’s pay if they couldn’t get to work,” according to the Tribune. If the longshoremen, a powerful and symbolic union constituency on the West Coast, refused to leave their jobs, then whatever happened last week could hardly be characterized as a general strike.
By targeting the Port of Oakland and destroying storefronts and ATMs—acts intended to prevent port workers from earning a living and ordinary residents from going about their daily routines—Occupy Oakland’s more militant participants revealed some of the obscure precedents and exotic psychology that shapes their movement.
Occupy Oakland’s radicals come in two varieties. First, a small, aging, fanatical neo-Trotskyist group has tried for 40 years to seize control of the ILWU. The now-moribund Communist Party USA dominated the union from its founding in 1937 until recent decades. Unlike the original Trotskyist movement of the 1930s—which nurtured eventual neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol—the latter-day remnant are sycophants of the Soviet-style dictatorships in Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Trotsky, whatever his faults, at least had the virtue of fighting Stalin—whom he compared to such small-time tyrants as Porfirio Díaz in Mexico. For the sectarian clique struggling to replace the old Stalinist crowd—and for whom a local leader like Mead is a competitor in running the West Coast waterfront union—Trotskyism stands merely for extremism.
Second, the black-masked vandals calling themselves “anarchists” have an even less well-known but more significant inspiration: nihilism, the ideology of nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary polemicist Sergei Nechayev. The nihilist outlook was summarized in a phrase attributed to a later Russian literary figure, Vasily Rozanov: “The show is over. The audience gets up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around. No more coats, no more home.” For the current crowd inside the ILWU, as well as the “anarchists,” the real enemies are neither the port employers nor the banks, but the people with “coats and homes” who hold jobs, save some money, and wish to shop at Whole Foods free from the noise of agitators with bullhorns.
At the same time, as the New York Times observed but didn’t seem to understand, the neo-Trotskyists and the “anarchists” diverge in their goals. They share an interest in fomenting disorder, but the neo-Trotskyists also have a specific political goal: they want control of a union. The Times noted, “Some members of the group that had closed the port reprimanded those who smashed windows, threw rocks, ignited a 15-foot-high bonfire of garbage and covered downtown storefronts with graffiti.” Clearly, some among those whom the media describe as “leaderless protesters” want to become leaders in the worst way.
But neo-Trotskyism and graffiti-painting “anarchism” simply lack the gravitas of their predecessors. Unlike the phonies in Oakland and elsewhere, authentic anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists understood that a genuine anarchist movement represented a principle of organization: voluntary and anti-statist, but nonetheless thoroughly structured. (They often referred to themselves as “libertarian.”) Today’s anarchists revel in chaos, not the social philosophy of the Russian Peter Kropotkin or the Russian-American Emma Goldman.
Without doubt, the most absurd aspect of Occupy Oakland has been the vacillation of the city’s mayor, Jean Quan, her adviser Dan Siegel, and vice mayor Ignacio De La Fuente. Quan and Siegel were radical activists in the 1960s, and De La Fuente is an international representative of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics, and Allied Workers International Union, AFL-CIO. The aged leftists in the dockworkers’ union consider Quan, Siegel, and De La Fuente compromised—or “co-opted,” to use the sixties phrase—and the black-masked anarchists neither know nor care about the “movement” exploits of today’s Democratic politicians almost half a century ago. Quan and her allies have appealed pathetically for dialogue and negotiation with the Occupy members. “Reports that tires are burning and barricades set up on 16th,” Quan wrote on a Twitter post. “Protestors need to call my office now.” The mayor briefly mobilized police from surrounding jurisdictions to curb the excesses of the “strikers,” then returned to a posture of confusion and dismay.
Occupy Oakland—like Occupy Wall Street and its precursors in London and Athens—represents a crowd outburst, not a revolutionary uprising. The Occupy movement reflects the consciousness of those who feel “cheated” by the system rather than an agenda for social or political reform. It’s true that such incoherent outbursts sometimes evolve, after the passage of years, into substantial social movements. But all the evidence points to the uproar in Oakland on November 2 as a dead end, rather than a new beginning, in the history of the radical left and its labor allies.