Writing about current and ongoing protests on Wall Street in New York and in several other cities around the U.S. is probably beyond the remit of this blog, but I have been following events closely and I’ve spent a bit of time trying to understand them in a historical context of similar movements in American history. One of the more interesting things I’ve read was at The Awl, where Brent Cox likened Occupy Wall Street to the Bonus Army protest, where thousands of veterans of the Great War camped on the Anacostia Flats in Washington D.C., just across the river from the US Capitol and the White House. The Bonus Army protesters called for advance payment of their promised service bonuses, which were due to be paid in 1945.
Brent Cox’s comparison of the Bonus Army and Occupy Wall Street mostly lies in the methods of protest, in both cases involving the intention of the protesters to stay put until their grievances were redressed, and in the general economic background at the time of each protest. Cox points out that camping out in a position such as Zucotti Park or the Anacostia Flats is not the same as civil disobedience targeted at breaking a specific unjust law; there’s no certainty that you’ll be arrested or attacked as in the case of the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. Because the laws and issues protested have no real public face grounded in every day life, for both the Bonus Army and the Occupy protesters around the U.S., there’s no way to directly challenge the basis of these issues. Once the encampments are set up, what happens next is up to how the authorities choose to respond and to the demonstrators’ own ability to control the direction of their protests. In Britain, for example, the protesters camped outside St. Paul’s cathedral in London have sparked off an internal debate within the Church of England over whether removing tents and protesters would entail church sponsored violence. It wasn’t the debate Occupy London envisioned having when it first set up camp, but in some ways it’s a significant side effect of the protest.
Where the occupations get more interesting to me is in the invocation of a General Strike in Oakland this Wednesday. Last week protesters clashed with the Oakland Police Department, who were set on clearing protesters from their encampment at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway. The violence resulted in several protesters suffering serious injuries, including Scott Olsen, a 24 year old Marine veteran who served two tours of Iraq. Like in London, the official response to Occupy protests took the aims and methods in a different direction, reshaping Occupy Oakland into as much a movement focused on the city’s police department as it is on the excesses and failures of capitalism. At the same time, the protest needed to take a different form to keep itself alive, and to avoid a repeat of the confrontation that led to Olsen being hospitalised. So calls for a General Strike were another way to address the original intention of the movement, and a way of widening Occupy Oakland to the workplaces and public spaces of the city. This also allowed leaders of the movement to call on some historical memory to galvanize its followers, invoking the 1946 General Strike in the city, one of the most significant of a nationwide wave of strikes that came out of American workers’ dissatisfaction with their share of the profits American companies were making at the end of World War II.
The General Strike of 2011 wasn’t sanctioned by Oakland’s union workers, although it did gain endorsements from a string of local union chapters, and the city’s Mayor Jean Quan called for a calm and small police response. The aim of the strike appeared to be to shut down the city’s port, and by Wednesday evening it had succeeded in preventing vehicles and workers from either entering or leaving the port. According to the New York Times, the city also estimated that approximately five percent of its public workforce did not show up for work, including 300 teachers. Later on Wednesday evening, a smaller group of protesters, estimated by the Times to be around a hundred young men, broke away from the larger demonstration and clashed with police in an empty building near the port.
I feel partly supportive of the aims behind a General Strike. If you listen to Boots Riley, one of the leaders of Occupy Oakland, speak during the group’s press conference announcing the strike (from 2:58 in the video below), there’s a valid agenda linking the Occupy movement’s concerns with twenty-first century capitalism with the struggle of International Longshore and Warehouse Union members at Local 21 in Longview, WA. The following speaker, Clarence Thomas of the ILWU, demonstrates further the investment that workers have in a movement such as Occupy Oakland, suggesting that this is more of a “dry run” than a full-blooded General Strike.
That said, there’s a whole host of problems involved in calling a General Strike today. Fred Glass, a Labour History professor at the City College of San Francisco, pointed out in this interesting primer on both the 1946 and 2011 General Strikes that the leaders of the Occupy Oakland movement need to consider the contractual obligations union workers in Oakland have, which might include No-Strike clauses or strict limitations on their ability to miss work, not to mention the financial hit they would be taking by missing a shift. Whether the dock workers at the Port of Oakland had much say in the blocking of trucks from entering or leaving the port on Wednesday night is unclear. So I think there are valid concerns about Occupy Oakland advocating a General Strike. The movement itself, whether in Oakland or New York, has some clear, well thought out arguments on workplace issues, as a key part of its wider agenda, and obviously a large number of participants are workers (or would like to be), so labour has a big stake in this. If workplace-based direct action is going to be the next step for Occupy protests, then the movement will have to be more responsive to the needs and difficulties which face American workers in 2011, chiefly among which is the limitations on being both an employee and a participant in a political movement critical of capitalism run amok.
Credit for photos:
1. From the National Archives’ Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985. http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=593253&jScript=true