Occupy Oakland Strike Hints at Escalation of Civil Disobedience Tactics

 
on November 03 2011 9:33 AM

During a Wednesday afternoon mic check at Zuccotti Park, Erica Sherlock stepped forward bearing some news from Occupy Wall Street's counterparts in Oakland.

One of the goals of Occupy Oakland today has been fulfilled, Sherlock, 22, told the crowd. The Port of Oakland has been shut down.

General strike! someone in the audience shouted, producing some scattered applause before people dispersed.

Sherlock was a bit premature, but by Wednesday evening the protesters in Oakland had succeeded in halting activity at Oakland's port, the fifth busiest in the United States and a key conduit for California produce bound for other countries. The port issued a statement on Wednesday affirming that operations were effectively shut down and urging protesters to allow your fellow 99% to get home safe to their families, the New York Times reported.

Occupy Wall Street began with a simple act of civil disobedience, but Occupy Oakland's success in disrupting commerce on such a large scale represented an escalation of that tactic. It also offered a glimpse of the movement's capacity for more confrontational direct action.

I think just sitting in the squares for month after month, at some point it's got to move to something beyond that, said Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center. It's got to be something that's direct and nonviolent confrontation with the parts of the setup that people think are unjust.

Specific Issues: Their Role

Lafer said acts of civil disobedience targeted at specific issues could be most effective, citing a recent action by Occupy Riverside protesters who sought to prevent a foreclosure auction. By focusing on a specific instance of perceived economic injustice -- in this case, the role of banks in unscrupously luring people into risky mortgages -- such actions could prove more effective than seeking change through elected officials, Lafer said.

It's something that could really catch on like wildfire, because I think there's a very big sense, especially with people paying underwater mortgagers, of unfairness and stuckness in the political system, Lafer said. There's more promise, although it's very daunting, in trying to go in that direction than in thinking somehow you're going to change the fundamental shape of the political system. We're talking about home loans, student loans, even some people calling on municipalities to strike and protest financing which is usurious.

Observers and members of the Occupy movement have questioned its relation to the political process, with some suggesting that the protesters should work to translate popular frustration into votes or grassroots organizing. But protesters for the most part have eschewed that route, reflecting a general view that the political system is corrupt or compromised. Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, argued that relying on direct action like the Oakland strike allows the movement to operate outside of conventional political channels while still putting pressure on elected representatives.

On the one hand to have more successful mass direct actions is going to mean a broader base of institutional support, but at the same time it might create a little bit of an interesting dynamic tension between the organization and the Democratic Party, which is trying to embrace this movement, Vitale said. So I think for example one of the things to watch for in Oakland is the extent to which politicians embrace these more confrontational direct action tactics or step away from them somewhat.

Oakland Mayor's Stance

In fact, Oakland mayor Jean Quan said at a Wednesday press conference that we support many of the demands, particularly the focus on foreclosures, fair lending practices and making capital available to low-income communities. The Oakland strike was endorsed by unions representing the city's public school teachers, community college instructors, city government workers and University of California, Berkeley teaching assistants, continuing a trend of organized labor aligning itself with the Occupy actions.

Not everyone was so supportive. A disgruntled truck driver who was trapped by the Oakland protest told the San Jose Mercury News that the 1 percent down here is protesting, the 99 percent is down here working. If various Occupy branches start moving towards more disruptive acts of civil disobedience, they could risk alienating segments of an American public that polls have found to be largely sympathetic.

It's a risky strategy, said Francesco Polletta, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. I think the movement's main success so far has been in introducing claims and frustrations about economic inequality into public discourse. They've been really successful I getting broad support, so I think they have a stake in maintaining that broad support.

The other risk was on display as the Oakland protest spiralled into violence on Wednesday night, with a small offshoot setting fire to garbage and shattering windows. Large acts of civil disobedience are likely to test the movement's discipline and its ability to prevent violence.

I think if the protesters remain nonviolent and make it clear they're committed to nonviolent civil disobedience, they're going to be a lot more likely to have a lot of public sympathy, said Jeff Goodwin, a professor of sociology at New York University. If fighting breaks out or protesters start destroying property or attacking police, I think a lot of people are not going to be sympathetic, even if they kind of understand that people have legitimate grievances.

You can contact the reporter at j.white@IBTimes.com

READ MORE: Oakland Mayor criticized by Police Officers for Her Response to Occupy Oakland

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