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Occupy Oakland May Day General Strike

May 4th, 2012 - 11:07 am

On Tuesday, May 1, Occupy Oakland organized a series of events around the city, all as part of what they deemed a “General Strike” in commemoration of May Day, International Workers’ Day.


Ooooh, looks very exciting, doesn’t it?

Well, actually, no. Despite Occupy Oakland’s earnest attempts to stir things up and to attract attention, or at least pose (as in the picture above) for the cameras in such a way that it looks like their protest is newsworthy, in the end very little happened, by Oakland standards at least. Some windows were smashed, some businesses vandalized, a few people were arrested, but that was it — your typical Oakland protest, in other words.

But was there indeed a “general strike”? Did business as usual shut down? Nope. Not even close.


The central rendezvous point for the day’s “General Strike” events was Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall, which the Occupiers have renamed “Oscar Grant Plaza.” In the morning, there were several “decentralized srike actions” around the city, in which the various Occupy committees would act on specific ideological agendas. For example, the “anti-capitalist” group vandalized banks, the Chamber of Commerce, and other symbols of capitalism; the “anti-gentrification” group tried to force local businesses to obey Occupy’s demand that they shut down for the day’s “General Strike”; and so forth.

After convening at the plaza for a noontime break to rally the troops, in the afternoon everyone would then once again scatter throughout the city wreaking havoc, before meeting up at Fruitvale BART for a mid-afternoon “Decolonization March” back to the plaza, where everyone would rest up for the night’s vandalism.

It was all very confusing and scatterbrained, and there was simply no way one person could keep on top of it all. So (like most of the protesters) I made Oscar Grant Plaza my home base, and monitored the comings and goings from there.


Just as I had assumed, there were several minor street battles on Broadway near the plaza throughout the day. There was no purpose or goal to any of these confrontations; in fact, the act of confrontation was the goal. Everyone would mill around waiting for something to happen, and then some cops would show up, and the crowd would go into a frenzy, for no apparent reason. The mere presence of a policeman is all that it takes to send an Oakland Occupier into either blind rage or a life-affirming adrenaline rush.

This brief video of two random street confrontations (shot by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous) illustrate the kind of flare-ups that went on all day around downtown Oakland:

In the first half of the video, a small group of police showed up, causing the crowd of Occupiers to swarm like a disturbed hornet’s nest; in the second half, everyone scatters after some anarchist set off a small incendiary device in the crowd.

Neither of these two specific incidents were significant in and of themselves; rather, the video is just illustrative of innumerable similar scenes that played out all day and all night across Oakland.

The Occupiers were all hoping that one of these flare-ups would escalate into a full-fledged riot, but (as far as I could tell at least) that never happened.


The whole day had a very Rashomon-quality to it; each person, depending on where he or she was standing, might have a completely different impression of what happened. For example: After hearing what sounded like a brewing fracas nearby, I rushed past this (then intact) news van to see the action; but the fracas quickly fizzled, and I heard a crunching sound behind me. Thirty seconds later, I returned and took this picture of the van’s smashed windshield, having missed the moment of destruction by just a few yards and a few seconds. The perpetrator was long gone (or perhaps was standing right next to me — who knew?). Yet someone else could very well have been randomly at “the right place at the right time” and witnessed the whole thing.


Similarly, several times throughout the day I was caught up in the middle of various meaningless crowd-swarms in which people would rush at the police, and then retreat, and swirl around and rush again; projectiles would fly overhead; explosions would go off nearby; people would scream and cry and call out for medics; and yet even though I was in the middle of it all, I couldn’t really tell what was happening. It was sheer chaos. Later I would see news videos of police getting hit by paint-bombs, or Occupiers getting arrested, and realize I had been just steps away from the focal point of the action, and yet had not been able to see through the morass of people to the white-hot center of confrontation.


Here, for example, an Occupier threw some kind of smoke bomb over my head, and it landed nearby and exploded. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t see who threw it, nor could I see exactly where it landed, nor at whom it was aimed. Perhaps if the bomb had landed next to me, this would have seemed like a significant incident; but since it landed 40 feet away, it felt like just another trivial and purposeless act of social vandalism barely meriting a mention.

Like I said: Rashomon.

Here’s generally how the day’s ebb and flow played out:


First, a squad of cops would line up on the street.


Next, a line of ludicrous poseur anarchists would face off against them, mainly for the purpose of trying to look cool for the cameras.


Then the cops would start to move forward, and everyone would scatter and scream in outrage.


Then some knucklehead would throw a smoke bomb or a paint bomb or a bottle or some kind of incendiary device at the cops, and everyone would rush around taking photos and screaming “Medic!” because someone got hit by friendly fire or got trampled by the crowd.


Then the cops would arrest someone and retreat, and everyone would wander away, leaving the street deserted just moments after it had been the scene of what felt like a brewing major battle.

This exact same series of steps happened over and over and over throughout the day, to the point where it felt repetitive.

So, what was the purpose of all of this? Nothing. Excitement for the teenage rioters. Moral outrage for the Occupy organizers. Overtime for the cops. Boarded-up windows for the businesses. And higher bills for the taxpayers.


After one of the meaningless battles, I took some photos of the impact points where the Occupiers’ homemade explosives landed.


This one hit a garbage can.


A paint-bomb that missed its mark, though you can see the “splatter shadow” of someone’s foot at the upper right.

There was perhaps less violence this time around because the Oakland police employed a new strategy today; instead of trying to control the whole crowd, they’d just zip in and quickly arrest individual malefactors, and then retreat. The Occupiers tried to stop the arrests, which they dubbed “snatches,” to little avail.

SFGate captured photos of a few arrests, as part of their summary of the day’s events, which they characterized as “a kaleidoscopic variety of protests ranging from skirmishes with police to dancing, chanting throngs of demonstrators peacefully waving signs.”

The “Bay Area Strike” twitter feed archive is a essentially a list of each individual clash, recorded in real-time.

But enough of these pointless skirmishes! Let’s retire back to Oscar Grant Plaza where a colorful parade of eccentric characters and eccentric messages provided entertainment for the whole family.


Some douchebag carried a homemade banner with Obama’s new campaign sloganForward,” while in the background a different douchebag waved an upside-down American flag. Nice juxtaposition!


One of the Occupy security team members behind the main stage wore a shirt that said “Defend Oakland” and pictured an AK-47.


He showed off a rather sharp-looking flip-knife which he carried around — just in case.

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