Violence, democracy, and a general strike

The efforts to clear out Occupiers in Atlanta, Oakland, and San Diego emphasize the difficult stalemate between local governments and the emergent Occupy movement.

Although local officials may be mostly sympathetic to the concerns of the Occupiers, they’re also responsible for maintaining public safety,  public facilities, and managing already strained local budgets.

But the awful violence in Oakland stands as a cautionary tale to mayors and city councils, who really don’t have a good sense of what they can expect, and certainly don’t want to set into motion a similar chain of events.

In addition to the pictures, the injuries, and the political fallout, the Occupiers are back, with tents restaked in Frank Ogawa Plaza.  Mayor Jean Quan has apologized for the violent police action and the injuries, and certainly sees her hands tied in terms of responding to whatever happens next.

And the protesters want to find a way to escalate.  On Thursday night, after roundly booing the mayor, Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly met and endorsed a general strike:

We as fellow occupiers of Oscar Grant Plaza propose that on Wednesday November 2, 2011, we liberate Oakland and shut down the 1%.

We propose a city wide general strike and we propose we invite all students to walk out of school. Instead of workers going to work and students going to school, the people will converge on downtown Oakland to shut down the city.

All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.

While we are calling for a general strike, we are also calling for much more. People who organize out of their neighborhoods, schools, community organizations, affinity groups, workplaces and families are encouraged to self organize in a way that allows them to participate in shutting down the city in whatever manner they are comfortable with and capable of.

The whole world is watching Oakland. Let’s show them what is possible.

Anyone who shows up can participate in the General Assembly meetings, and the group has adopted a modified consensus rule, which allows decisions to be taken with 90 percent support.  The general strike had much stronger support: 1,484 of 1,607 present voted for the action on November 2; allowing for abstentions, this amounted to nearly 97 percent support.

One of my cautions about consensus and this kind of participatory democracy is that it’s very hard for activists to innovate, and can generally reach consensus only on what’s already happening–continuing the occupation, for example.  Well, Oakland is out to prove I’m wrong.

Another worry is the nature of debate.  Anyone who shows up can vote.  With the injuries and violence still fresh in everyone’s mind, we have to wonder about coercion and intimidation when 97 percent of any group for vote something.

Beyond this, there’s a larger question about whether this group can actually deliver on the very ambitious project of shutting the city down.  Some share of the demonstrators will surely stay home–or rather, in Frank Ogawa Plaza, on Wednesday, but it will take far more than that to make an impact on a city of nearly 400,000.

It’s not clear that the General Assembly has anything beyond an effort at moral suasion to get unions and unorganized workers to stay out of work.  In taking their decision, the participants didn’t really have to consider whether they had the capacity to deliver.

I’m dubious, but we’ll all be watching.

It’s a volatile time, and policing has a politicized and contested history in Oakland.  All kinds of things are possible.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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