So goes California, so goes the nation?

The city of Oakland in California has become the militant heart of the occupations movement in the US following a brutal police crackdown. Alex Andrews for openDemocracy talks to Brad Johnson, an activist who lives and works in Oakland, about the events there, the general strike called by the occupation and the prospects of the movement internationally.
openDemocracy Opendemocracy
1 November 2011

The Occupy Oakland protest in California has been a particularly hot zone of confrontation between the police and occupiers and now seems to be at the cutting edge of militancy in the occupation movement.

On the 25th of October the police deployed tear-gas and rubber bullets against occupiers to disperse the occupation. This resulted in the injury of Scott Olsen, a 24 year old Iraq war veteran, who received a fractured skull as a result of a police projectile and now has lost the power of speech. Outcry about the police interventions reached such a point that Jean Quan, major of Oakland, was forced to apologise.


These events precipitated the most militant action called by an occupation general assembly thus far, a general strike to be held city-wide on the 2nd of November, accompanied by a shutdown of the Port of Oakland, the fifth biggest port in the United States.

Alex Andrews for openDemocracy talked to Brad Johnson, an activist who lives and works in Oakland, about the events, the general strike in Oakland and the prospects of the movement internationally.

openDemocracy: Let's start with the basics. Where is the Occupation in Oakland located, and how long has it being go on?

Brad Johnson: The Occupation in Oakland is located in the heart of downtown, right in front of City Hall. On the front lawn of City Hall, you could say. There is a little amphitheater there as well that, by a coincidence of architecture, has proven instrumental. It has been going on a little over two weeks now. The Plaza at which we're meeting (officially called Frank Ogawa Plaza) has been dubbed Oscar Grant Plaza by activists for some time now, in honor of an African-American gunned down by a transit cop on New Year's Eve of 2009.

oD: One of the things people have noticed about the "occupation movement", is the odd composition of the occupiers. In the UK at least, it has often not been the "usual suspects". Indeed, they have often been dismissive. What would you say the composition of the occupation was politically and in terms of age, gender, race etc? What is the internal politics like? Is consensus being used? And how well? Are the usual leftist types there, e.g. anarchists, neo-communists, Bob Avakian Revolutionary Communist Party USA types?

BJ: Well, I think there may well be a distinction to be made between the composition before the police action on October 25th, and the composition after. I'll start with the pre-October 25th composition. For the first two weeks, it tended to be a more edgy, peripheral, anarchist crowd. Non-campers would show up for the General Assembly (GA), but the campers themselves seemed the defining element. Politically, you had different shades of the Left. I did not encounter a lot of the libertarian crowds that have been reported elsewhere. 

By and by, though, I think even those not camping and attending the GA were supportive of it - in spirit. That the unions were on board seems borne out by the very large mass demonstration after the camp was broken up the morning of October 25th. Following that, and the police action that followed, the assemblies have been been much more stratified - and enormous.

oD: How many are we talking?

BJ: The numbers that I've seen consistently thrown out have been in the ballpark of 2,000 - 2,500. But others have projected higher. Only the police have projected lower.

oD: So would it be right to say the occupation is far more generalised as a result of the police brutality? That it was sort of a breaking point that brought passive civil society supporters (i.e. unions) into active participation?

BJ: Yes, I think that is very fair and accurate. In many respects, I think I am representative in this respect. As I say, I was a marginal, even skeptical, supporter of the movement prior to the police action. I suspect, based on conversations, that it's not simply a matter of "how brave" we protesters were that day; or "how badly" the police behaved. Something about the action itself played out for people in a very visceral way. If many like me had a sort of cognitive support for what was happening, the images (and/or participation) that evening gave it an emotional charge.

oD: Generalised then weaponised affect?

BJ: It would seem. I don't know how sustainable that is. But that's what makes it all so very interesting and exciting.

That said, I'm increasingly unsure what to do with the police brutality aspect. Here in Oakland, that is a major source of conversation. But there is a part of me too that feels like it could be a diversion from the greater goal. However, far be it for me - one who is not on the baton-end of such physical injustice - to shut down the conversation...The whole balance needs to be delicate, a fragile compromise. It's a question of knowing how to train one's ire against police brutality in a constructive way to the greater target of systemic economic inequality.

oD: And what would you say the specifically local grievances were? You mentioned Oscar Grant. There is also the very strong, and very militant student occupation movement in California, from which a number of the big slogans have come ("occupy everything", or "occupy everything, demand nothing") as well as some of the ideas about prefiguration and antagonism. How has the local sociological composition influenced events, particularly with the move to the the general strike?

BJ: Well, obviously the Bay Area has long been an inviting territory for contentious political positions and demonstrations. But you have a confluence of circumstances at this present time that is stoking that general tendency into something potentially quite radical. You have, as you mentioned, the presence of large but marginalized populations, whose experience of systematic violence is very real and tangible (police brutality, profiling, etc.). You have, as well, a highly educated group of people - via the University of California system and beyond. You have a population who are very savvy technologically, who are often ahead of the curve when it comes to using social media for activist mobilization and you have a state (California) that is as crippled politically as any state in the United States. The last point, I think, is crucial, too. There is a saying in the States, that "So goes California, so goes the nation" and in many respects, that cliché is spot-on.

oD: So, the composition has been drawn to an extent from the actually poor, minority groups and people of colour?

BJ: Yes. Oakland has somehow mobilized, at this point, a very widely stratified representation, both racially and socio-economically. At this point, it seems very difficult to theorize why exactly, and whether there is some prescription for other cities to follow. The hope - my hope anyway - is that if nothing else what Oakland has managed doesn't so much form a kind of measuring-stick for others, but a rallying point.

oD: How did things move from the police brutality to the general strike?

BJ: Things moved so very quickly - an aspect of the emotional charge, I believe. We met on Wednesday, October 26th without having taken Oscar Grant Plaza. We didn't know if we'd be able to meet there. Contingency plans were in place to do so elsewhere. But when it became apparent that the police had, in essence, stood down, the fences surrounding much of the plaza were torn down  whereupon it was immediately suggested we do something big. The words "General Strike" were uttered within the first hour. And Twitter exploded.

We broke into discussion groups of about twenty - there were about 2000 of us in attendance, I'd say. We just wanted to feel out where everybody was, what the objections were and so on. This went on for about an hour. From there, it became a matter of back and forth at the General Assembly. One note: we have a modified consensus-making process in Oakland. We do not require 100% consensus, but 90% (not necessarily "agreement" -but willingness to not stand in the way). The measure passed, I think, with roughly 97% of the vote.

oD: So can people block in GA meetings?

BJ: Yes, definitely

oD: Is there a vote? Or is it just feeling plus stand asides and blocks?

BJ: There is a vote. What happens for big issues is that we break into small groups of 20 or so and votes are taken there as Yes, Abstention, or No. We have a counter, and the count is returned to a designated count-collector. If 90% is not met, then the measure is returned to those who submitted it to work. If there is less than 80% approval, you're encouraged to amend it quite a bit.

I'm quite frankly amazed each evening at how well it works. I was expecting a cluster-fuck.

oD: Okay, so let's talk about the port shutdown and the role of the unions.

BJ: I'll focus on the Longshoremen's Union, as I do not yet know the full extent of other unions and their planned participation on Wednesday - they may not either. As for the port workers, their contract does not allow them to participate in a general strike. But they are very supportive, and are keen to be creative in their support. They have told port shutdown organizers that it would not take much more than 500 to shut things down between shifts. That is, if we were to march down there and divide the new shift of workers from the port, the new shift of workers would not cross the line. Thus, technically, they would not be striking - but neither would they be forcing the issue. I personally would like for us to shut down the port the entire day, but it was decided to do so only for the final, evening shift. So, starting at 7 PM.

oD: So an economic blockade.

BJ: Yes.

oD: Okay, so it is pretty clear by this point that the politics seem explicitly anti-capitalist? Are they?

BJ: There is a symbolic power to the local banks, which is quite easy to march on; but I think we are quite right to focus as much energy as possible on the tangible aspects of wealth (goods, etc.). So, yes, at least in Oakland things are becoming much more explicitly anti-capitalist.

This seems inevitable to me in some respect. Once you've abandoned the voting process as a means to change, the only other real route is that of the economy. This, I think, too, is one of the crucial differences between the Tea Party & OWS outside of the other cosmetic things and what gives OWS its worldwide appeal.

oD: Do you think Oakland is outside of electoral politics? It isn't the new direction for the Democrats in waiting, then?

BJ: They may well try. And this attempt on their part to co-opt the movement for the coming national elections will very likely be the next major challenge.

oD: What do you think of the prospects for the strike actually being general and spreading across the US?

BJ: That, I don't know. I expect this week's to be fairly localized. More of a mass demonstration using the term to draw headlines than a proper general strike. But one can hope. I know that other cities are going to do various marches in solidarity and what not, but strikes are hard to do these days. My sense is that if the national unions realize the occupy movement is more or less their last best gasp, it could become more widespread. I wouldn't object to a flurry of smaller "general" strikes happening as they can and will. If by chance they coalesce into a large sustained one, great. But it seems nearly impossible to plan for that.

oD: Moving to the big picture, where do you think this is all going?

BJ: Where is this going? I don't know. Right now I think we're still very much in the phase of embodying dissent. Not just giving it voice, but simply a body. For many not involved, OWS remains a symbol of dissent, but I think as things progress, and if the conversations continue, that symbol will simply expand. Dissent is not likely to go away. The fact that an election is right around the corner is what makes all this so much more uncertain. Election season is capitulation season, as well. But the uncertainty is the movement's biggest asset right now. People cry foul at its amorphous state, and lack of demands, and what not. And one could do the same regarding my very ambivalent hope. But that's rather the point of it all: the Commons is not a place for hope to be found and identified; it's a place where it's created. 

I'm certainly no optimist. I'm ambivalent even with respect to hope. But enthusiasm - there's something to that.

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