Human Shields at the West Coast Port Shutdown

Posted on December 9, 2011


Chip Johnson has another OO hatchet job in his column today, blaming Occupy Oakland for the city’s budget woes and adding the attendant claim that OO hurts the people of the city. It’s been a familiar refrain as the port shutdown—an unprecedented strike against corruption and misplaced priorities—has geared up, and as Oakland has led the way in several regions including the gulf coast.

The position may seem attractive to some liberals and progressives who want substantive change, but were hoping that the Occupy movement could deliver it by magic, in silence and without effort. Now that municipal reactions throughout the nation have forced liberals to choose sides—between empty rhetoric from age-old establishment enablers, and actual action from the so-called city-harming radicals—the movement appears less palatable to some.

The agreement on the harm that Occupy Oakland does probably has a lot to do with the media’s clarion call over the past months of Occupy actions to see Occupiers as a lot of hippies and trust fund revolutionaries shattering the collective and symbolic windows of financially debilitated cities. Its a fantastical and absurd view of reality that may satisfy people who want to pretend that they woke up yesterday to find their cities and states on fire, but shouldn’t confuse anyone who’s had their eyes open for the past decade.

For years, corporations and their corrupt government cronies have positioned their underpaid workers between their coffers and the threat of mass actions. Arguments typical of that tradition have emerged, for example, around the most vulnerable members of the Oakland Port ecosystem, truck drivers. They’ve been described as near indentured servants, working without benefits and for fixed salaries against traffic and the clock. And this is true. Port spokespeople, the media, and even liberal supporters of the occupied movement, have bemoaned the effect on these non-union workers by the previous port shutdown. Its a message that fits in well with recent communiques [and even personal “missions” to OO committees] from the ILWU international office in DC, arguing that the Occupy Port Shutdown is an unauthorized attempt to force ILWU workers into an illegal strike.

These arguments obscure reality, allowing corporations, their city hall minions and institutional union leadership to make human shields out of the vulnerable corpus of low paid, and under represented workers. Using this gambit as a way to deflect criticism of their own policies and behavior should resonate instantly as an intelligence-insulting hoax. The idea that corporations that effectively bar union representation and create a life of indentured servitude for truckers are not responsible for the misery such workers endure–but rather it is two month demonstrations suddenly causing them to experience insecurity and poverty–is absurd.

Likewise, the city and port management’s claim that the day long actions rob the people of vital resources and trade is also laughable. As Michael Siegel notes, the city is obligated to use port profits on the city’s welfare. But the city allows the port commission to regularly find new ways of investing the money in the port, while city schools and other priorities shutter their doors one after the other—vital services that would be saved with even the merest scraps from the billion dollar generating capital engine of the port.

And while the ILWU has been more militant than most unions, its clear that like every other institution that exists today with a claim of representation of popular will, they are aligned first and foremost with the welfare of the 1%. Calcified elections and representation schemes open to gaming by elites in distant capital offices do not represent the will of union membership; rather, they represent the exhausted logic of settling for the least of evils available. The claim by unions that their members are locked into boilerplate contracts cast in iron before many were even born, is typical of the kind of thinking that has kept a flailing labor colossus on its back for generations.

And, of course, it has become conventional wisdom that “labor” itself, exists only when it is unionized, and that all of the sectors ignored by unions for generations are somehow not deserving of that empowering seat at the table. The argument that tiny administrative bodies claiming to represent less than 10% of the working population are in charge of charting the economic landscape for the other 93%, is itself everything that our Yanqi Autumn movement emerged to protest.

But for some odd reason, all of these arguments work! The city’s liberals and centrists don’t, in fact, blame unscrupulous corporations for keeping truckers in poverty–they blame protesters working toward social justice for that. They don’t blame the city for squandering port funds that could revive a city budget in dire straits due to years of corrupt mismanagement—they blame protesters seeking an end to crony capitalism, instead.

And of course, protesters thus criminalized, are made into easy targets of violent police reprisals. If, in fact, these meddlers are responsible for hurting union and non-union working people, then by all means, the city should exercise a rough hand in controlling them. Because our very well-being as a city is at stake! They are hurting our corrupt structures’ ability to throw us ever-diminishing scraps while they run our cities out on a rail and into the sea.

It doesn’t matter that Occupy Oakland is composed of the very union members that the city and police claim to be protecting; that an army of non-union labor and jobless Americans have, for the first time, joined their ranks in a solidarity prevented by traditional top-down union organizing. All of that must be ignored.

Its then an easy task for OPD administrators to claim they have no other recourse but to fire sub-lethal ammunition into large crowds—this same uncontrollable municipal emirate that’s squandered the city’s money in corrupt overtime schemes and civil judgment pay-outs for their uncontrollable brutality and ignorance of the law and civil liberties.

It’s that absurd. Not sure why, then, there are so many people who believe it.  Perhaps it’s easier for some who’d rather ignore the Occupy movement until it goes away to pretend that they’re the villains, than actually put their theories of social justice to the test.