By ten a.m., when I arrived by bicycle at Oscar Grant Square (formerly Frank Ogawa Square) the crowd had already taken over the intersection of 14th and Broadway, probably the busiest crossing in the City. For a brief moment I spotted an Oakland Police Department patrol car blocking off 14th and Franklin, a block away, but then it disappeared. Skeptical, I walked two blocks toward 7th Street, in the direction of the main Oakland police station, looking for the massed assembly of heavy blue that surely must be lurking around the corner. Nothing! I reconnoitered the perimeter in two other directions with the same result. Then and throughout the daylight portion of the rally, until the late afternoon rush hour, when one small unit of five motorcycle officers helped block off traffic for the Critical Mass bicycle contingent, the OPD were nowhere to be seen. The day before they had sent out a whining sort of email complaining that the political leadership was jerking them around, poor things. It seemed today that they were pouting and refused to come out and play. Or perhaps they were expressing solidarity with the strike? If they were hoping that in their absence all hell would break loose, and people would come begging them to please come out and bash in some more heads, they lost the bet. In their absence, all heaven broke out. People had freedom of expression, and they took it peacefully. At each of the triumvirate of Big Banks — B of A, Chase, and Wells, perhaps two thousand demonstrators massed outside the doors, stood within inches of their plate glass windows, maybe even pressed noses to the glass like peasants at the castle, but not one brick was thrown and not one window suffered a ding. Without the agents of violence to provoke them, people expressed their anger nonviolently. What a lesson.
For me as an alte kacker, who’s been going to demonstrations since 1961, the most wonderful thing about being part of this demonstration is that I didn’t know anyone. I met two old lawyer friends there, and that’s all. I might have met some new friends from the La Pena Community Chorus if I’d hung around the square until 5, but I took off before that with the bicycle contingent. Seeing all these young new faces I almost cried with joy. We have lived through some decades of darkness when it seemed that the ruling class could just have its way with us and we would suffer in silence. That’s over. These young folks are us, reborn. They have come here for good reasons. Many good reasons! Whether it’s the recent white college graduate, loaded with debt, who can’t get a job (see pic) or the 15-year old African-American boy from West Oakland whose poem, “I have given up,” brought the assembly to its feet (pic), or the homeowners facing foreclosure, and many others, they’ve got real grievances. Lots of them. And even if they’re not personally impacted (yet), their sense of fundamental fairness has been violated by the road the country has taken. Lots of people made homemade signs, and I took as many pictures of them as I could. (All up on the web here.)
The Declaration of Independence of 1776 contained a long list of grievances — “repeated injuries and usurpations” — and you can read the parade of slogans on the demonstrators’ signs as rough drafts of such a document. The Declaration came 13 years before the participants put forward and compromised on the set of particular demands that makes up the Constitution.
Today, the demonstration had just about enough organization for the task at hand. Someone had planned out a route of march on the banks and somehow the main contingent stuck to it. Members of the SEIU, in bright orange vests and with bullhorns, managed to steer the moving mass in a loop around downtown and occasionally halt it at intersections, not perfectly, not even very well, but just well enough to prevent disasters. At some intersections, when the crowd was strung out, volunteers emerged from the demonstrators to urge people to make room for cars to get through. At others, the drivers were stuck and had to wait. Some honked in irritation, some honked in support.
The entertainment in the amphitheatre before City Hall appeared well organized the entire time. Acts followed one another with minimal delay and each number fit in somehow with the broad panorama of feelings and rhythms that moved the crowd.
Things got sketchier in the march on the Port of Oakland. I moved with the bike contingent that moved out, or tried to, ahead of the walkers. No one seemed very clear on the route, and we ended up looping into the walkers and having to disentangle ourselves to move to the front again. This was my first ride in a Critical Mass-type event and I learned about the method of riding doughnuts in an intersection to stop all auto traffic in all directions. Individual motorists pleaded their case for being allowed to go through — having kids in the car was usually a winner — and were allowed to pass. There were hundreds of bikes, more bikes than I’ve seen in one place since the Davis Double in 1980. At our first rallying place, five 18-wheelers were parked side by side facing away from the port, effectively blocking Middle Harbor Road, leaving only a narrow channel for passage. I had no idea who put them there or why, and I don’t think anyone in our group knew, but those trucks appeared to be there in support. A tractor-trailer operator facing into the port got frustrated and hung on his air horn without letup. A young longshoreman, ILWU member, explained that the deal was to let people get out of the port, but not to get in.
OPD were not present at the port, but about a dozen County Sheriffs on motorcycles and about as many mounted California Highway Patrolmen stood waiting by this first truck barricade, and after some time, in response to orders unknown to us, mounted their heavy machines and advanced on our milling bike cluster, trying to get through the narrow channel between the big trucks. “Stand still, don’t let them through,” went the cry, and two cyclists had their wheels hit and wrecked by the advancing motorcycle squad. I caught the incident on video. There were no injuries to persons. This was the only physical contact between police and the demonstration that I saw during my time in the action from 10 am to 6 pm.
After a while, the three trucks that had barricaded Middle Harbor Road at this point backed up, turned around, and drove away. Most of the bike contingent continued deeper into the Port, up to the intersection of Maritime and 7th Street, right under the BART tracks. Several dozen bikes occupied the center of this busy crossing, and we had cars and 18-wheelers backed up in three directions. The car drivers pleaded to be allowed to go home. Someone on a bike called “Mike Check,” we gathered round, and the speaker called for a vote. All in favor of letting the cars go through? There was a clear majority for letting the cars through, and the spoke-wheeled ranks opened up to let the autos thread their way through. But what about the trucks?
A gentleman wearing a Machinists’ Union T-shirt asked for and got the bullhorn and made an argument for letting these trucks through. These were exploited contractors working sweatshops on wheels, they just wanted to go home and we should let them through. We should instead go block the gates of the one or two docks were ships were still unloading. (Disclosure: I am a former member of the Machinists Union.) It sounded good, and I was persuaded and peeled off with a number of others to go join smaller groups of bikers clustering and sometimes circling in a picket line at gates deeper in the Port. There it became obvious that nobody had a clue what we were doing. One young loud-voiced biker came into our cluster and asked, “Who’s in charge here?” He was met with laughter. “We’re all in charge.” And, “Nobody’s in charge.” Someone else got a text message from Mother Jones’ correspondent indicating the Port was shut down and we were done. There was no tactical communication with other groups and no visible coordination with ILWU leadership, in whose territory, after all, we were pedaling.
After a while I rode back to the intersection of Maritime Boulevard and 7th Street and found that the cycle blockade was diminished in numbers but still in effect. One driver, a heavy-set middle-aged man, pleaded with the handful of bikers who stood in front of his 18-wheeler to let him through. “I just want to go home,” he argued, picking up on the Machinist speakers’s argument. On questioning, however, it turned out that before going home he was going to deliver his load at a nearby gate. I chatted with a couple of other drivers whose rigs were pointed into the Port. One was pulling a flatbed trailer and intended to go pick up a load. The other had a similar plan. Contrary to the Machinist’s argument, these drivers weren’t done with their day; they weren’t planning to drive their big rigs home, they were working. And, since this was a strike and we were a picket line, we stood. It has to be said that these drivers took the delay stoically. They could have, of course, pushed their towering rigs forcibly through our spindly barricade of limbs and tubes, but they had probably seen other labor stoppages at the Port and they shut down their engines and waited. Shortly before six pm, the leading contingent of the marching demonstrators reached this pivotal intersection and reinforced the flimsy barrier of bikes with a solid mass of humanity. Another “Mike Check” and another speech began. With darkness approaching, I turned my bike around and pedaled for home.
My photos and videos of the day are up for public view at Picasa Web Albums.