Port Shutdown and the Dialectics of the Occupy Movement

I took Monday off work make myself available for every phase of the West Coast Port Shutdown.  I went into the day with equal feelings of excitement and dread: spirits and attendance had been flagging slowly but steadily at the GAs for a few weeks, and I think a lot of us were counting on this action to breathe some new life into the movement, both in fresh faces and in a renewal of our own vigor.

I was immediately heartened by the teeming crowd that turned out for the early shift starting at 5:30 at West Oakland BART.  I had expected a band of maybe 100; while I’m no crowd-counting expert, my good-faith estimate for the morning was more like 800-1000.  We shut that mother down, and then I retreated to my house to run my toes under some hot water in the tub and nap fitfully for two hours.

I got back to Oscar Grant Plaza around 3:30, in time to hear Scott Olsen address the crowd; I got to meet him later that evening, and stammered something about how we all admired him.  As we marched down to the Port for the second time that day, I became aware that this was our biggest showing since the day of the General Strike.  Though in actuality it was a bit smaller, it was nothing you could tell while in the thick of it.

In response to police repression of other #D12 actions, it was decided that we would shut down the 3 AM shift to which much of day’s work had been pre-emptively rescheduled.  So after dinner and another hour and a half of sleep, I returned again, this time to the Matson terminal at the base of Market Street.  There was no drumming or sound system, only a lone clarinetist screeching through “Misirlou” and “Walking After Midnight”.  Nobody chanted; while I think some entertainment or other participatory activity (other than walking in a circle) would have been appreciated, everyone seemed to know that the chants were not going to cut it.  Eventually, I broke off with a group of about twenty cyclists to block another entrance to the terminal.  We did a ‘biking picket’, and things quickly got very silly.

“Let’s do two concentric circles!”  “Going in opposite directions!”  “It’ll look so trippy from the chopper!”  “Let’s do a figure 8!”

I consider Monday’s action to have been a great success.  Of course the media has already settled comfortably into the narrative that just happens to maximally highlight tensions between the Occupy movement and our closest natural allies in labor.  Should anyone wish to understand these tensions on a serious level, I recommend reading the open letter from an autonomous group of port truckers; the excellent, even-handed summary from Labor Notes; and Hyphy Republic’s account of the Port Shutdown and micro-history of Occupy Oakland (be sure to read the comments as well).  But now that we know that we’re not dead as a movement, the question looms as tall as before: what next?

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading up on my Marxism, and really feeling the concept of dialectics (from Hegel et al): that reality is always churning with tension between opposing forces and only appears static for relatively brief moments, and that from these contradictions a new, synthesized reality is born, supplanting and even obliterating what was before, but nevertheless has a continuity with (and even a debt to) its predecessor.  Through this lens, I’m kind of awed by the unpredictable chain of developments the Occupy movement has gone through.  As I’ve seen it, Occupy has been:

  • A highly collaborative compiling of personal histories of hardship, from debt to unemployment to unfulfilled economic promise.
  • A disorientingly diverse outpouring of grievances and demands from activists mainstream and marginalized, serious and decidedly not.  Mostly leftist, but a few right-wingers and off-the-spectrum crazies.  Repeal Glass-Steagall.  End The Fed.  Legalize Hemp.  Forgive Student Loans.  9/11 Truth. Say Yes To Class War.  Sometimes I miss the creative signs.
  • A squat turned ad hoc human services drop-in center, stepping in with little to no formal training to meet basic needs that capitalism and the state have both washed their hands of.
  • An organic populist movement dangerously close to being tamed into a Democratic and/or non-profit industrial complex street fair.
  • A heated, wounding internal struggle between pacifists and militants and their sympathizers.  As an aside, it’s remarkable how much of a non-issue this has become; apparently the number of folks who are philosophically amenable to property destruction far outnumber those zealous enough to engage in it.
  • A heated, wounding external struggle with law enforcement over human rights to speech and assembly.  For all the radical charges from the earliest stages of Occupy, I mark this as the moment when the movement at large transcended itself and its fixation on only the most recent widespread economic injustices.  People were shocked not only at the degree of police violence but the logic behind it at all.  Eyes were opened, and questions asked about the true nature of the state and of our society.
  • A splintering off into autonomous, only loosely affiliated contingents focusing on direct coordinated actions, forgoing the proposal process and official sanction by the General Assembly.

It should go without saying that I haven’t a clue where this going next.  Many of us are feeling weary, but that’s not to say that we won’t still come out in force for something we think is well conceived and orchestrated.  But as great of a success as the Port Shutdown was, I think most of us know that our target must be different next time.  No single direct action we can take will bring the 1% to their knees, though I like to think we ruined their day.

For my part, I would like to see a ball get rolling on some sort of national congregation of the Occupy movement, which could even be the germ for–dare I say it?–a revolutionary party.  This idea has floated around since at least sometime in October, when it was all so exciting and new, and despite the repression it seemed momentum was really on our side.  Still, I think a lot of us didn’t believe we would still be here two months later, yet here we are.  But I want to do more than just surprise our former selves; I want to dialectically evolve into an ever more empowered, conscious and potent force for revolutionary change.

Who’s with me?

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