Occupy Oakland General Strike: A Firsthand Perspective

Yesterday, I marched with the Occupy protesters participating in the general strike in Oakland.   My experience was quite positive.   The marchers were peaceful and, though the movement is rooted in a deep dissatisfaction with the forces guiding the organization of American society, the protesters seemed optimistic in their solidarity, rather than angry or violent.

The events of the day were deeply meaningful, as is the Occupy Movement at large.   The occupations demonstrate the fact that a large portion of the American population - not just the liberals - is unhappy with the current socio-political system and the tangible impact it has upon our daily lives.   Yesterday's general strike ups the ante.   It reminds us of just how badly we need the contributions of "average" Americans and reveals the injustice inherent in a system that severely undervalues those contributions.   I am willing to bet that most Americans would place more value on the work of a school teacher than that of a hedge fund manager.   If we had to banish one profession from our country, we would oust the hedge fund managers in a second.   Why, then, do teachers earn a fraction of what hedge fund managers make?

This sentiment - that the contributions of non-wealthy American are undervalued - is reinforced by the tens of thousands of people who flooded Oakland by the end of last night, largely shutting down the docks at the Port of Oakland. This temporarily halted flows of capital and emphasized the importance of American workers to the functioning of society.

Of course, there are many wonderful aspects of American culture and society.   We are, after all, a grand experiment in democracy.   We are a country founded not merely on geography, but on the ideas of liberty and equality.   There is much in American history that we can and should be proud of.   However, in many ways, we often fall short of those ideals, and that is what must be rectified if we are to live up to the potential that such a foundation offers.

At the march yesterday, I saw people carrying signs protesting oppressive student loans, the failings of public education, unethical banking practices, inadequate healthcare, exploitative corporations and a lack of concern for the environment.   Critics of the movement argue that the presence of such varied interests at the occupations is evidence of the movement's lack of coherence.   But just the opposite is the case.   All of the societal problems mentioned are the result of a cultural philosophy that at times values materialism - and dare I say profit - over respect and compassion for our fellow human beings.   To narrow the message of the movement down to a few easily comprehensible demands would completely miss and minimize the point.

What the Occupy Movement and the general strike hope to convey is the notion that we need a paradigm shift.   If we are to maintain a society that is healthy - physically, financially, intellectually, and psychologically - it is crucial that we place human decency above profit and material gain.   If, as a society, we adopt such a philosophy, exploitation and negligence in all forms will be reduced.

For example, if certain corporations would exercise greater compassion, their CEO's might be satisfied with making say 70 times what their employees make, rather than hundreds or thousands of times more.   If banks would respect basic human decency to a greater extent, they wouldn't make loans to people they know can't afford it, only to later foreclose on the same people.

As for the issue of police violence in Oakland, it is the disproportionate response that angers most supporters of the Occupy Movement.   I recently read an open letter to the people of Oakland from the Oakland Police Department.   In it, the officers explain that they are confused by the fact that Mayor Jean Quan last week ordered the removal of protesters from Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza only to allow them to return the next day.   I imagine the police feel they've been thrown under the bus.   They also assert that they, "love Oakland and just want to do our jobs to protect Oakland residents."   To be sure, the police are in a difficult position.   But to use tear gas and other violent methods against peaceful, unarmed, law abiding protesters is inexcusable.

When it comes to mainstream media coverage of the movement, it is woefully inadequate and often misleading.   Network and cable news reporters frequently berate the movement for its supposed lack of a message, not understanding that the message being conveyed is actually quite profound.   Reporters openly make fun of the protesters and intentionally choose to interview the few fringe participants, rather than those who represent the vast majority of protesters.   At the risk of sounding jaded, I will suggest that such slanted coverage is due to the fact that mainstream media outlets are often supported by corporations that are a part of the very problems against which the movement is protesting.

It is not easy to attain a decent quality of life these days.   The middle class is shrinking all the time.   The dependable jobs our parents had - nine-to-five jobs that weren't terribly likely to disappear and paid enough to comfortably raise a family - are few and far between.   When you're making $10 per hour and you have no benefits, it's not easy to pay for health insurance, student loans, rent or mortgage payments, utilities, gas, phone bills, groceries, and childcare.   It simply should not be this hard to achieve a comfortable lifestyle.   It should not be this hard.   And that is what the Occupy Movement is really about.