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Occupy Oakland Morphs From Protest To Strike


Demonstrators continue to march and camp out in cities across the country, inspired by Occupy Wall Street. But yesterday, protesters in Oakland tried something different. Thousands marched through the city in what they called a general strike. They paraded through the streets through much of the day then down to its busy port where they blocked entrances and closed it down. Later, police in riot gear fired teargas as some protesters broke windows and lit fires downtown.

Many downtown businesses shut their doors yesterday. Hundreds of teachers and city workers skipped work to join the march. If there's an Occupy movement where you live, we need you to be our reporter. How is it changing? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Lee Romney has been covering Occupy Oakland and joins us now from Youth Radio studios in Oakland. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

LEE ROMNEY: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And so what's happening in Oakland today?

ROMNEY: Well, today is interesting. There was a small group of protesters who tried to keep port workers from entering again this morning, and they were - they managed to hold a few trucks back, but the response was not as warm as it was yesterday. Yesterday, most of the trucks were honking in support. Today, one of them said - one trucker waved a baseball bat at them and said get a job. So I think there's a bit of frustration. You know, there's this chorus of we're the 99 percent. You're part of the 99 percent.

And some workers are starting to feel, well, we are the 99 percent, so let us go to work. But that - the port is operating normally. They did not have enough people to kind of maintain that. And then at Civic Center Plaza, there's a lot of soul-searching going on right now around the relatively small group of vandals that's been kind of responsible for escalating matters with the police. Seven thousand people turned out yesterday, and it was predominantly nonviolent, almost a jubilant atmosphere. And so there are folks who are very frustrated that what they want portrayed as a peaceful protest keeps getting undermined by a minority.

CONAN: A minority, according to some reports, including yours, there were a few people in black clothes with black masks, anarchists presumably, who were involved in this destruction.

ROMNEY: That's what - police are calling them anarchists. They're sort of a subset, and I think that folks on the plaza today were saying, well, we have other people who identify as anarchists who've been very helpful in building this movement. They've been relatively peaceful. So let's call them vandals. But they are a group that seems to be largely - many of them are from out of the area. They started coming to Oakland when there were protests over the shooting of a young African-American man by BART police.

And I think they sensed there was sort of a vacuum in Oakland where they could sort of do their actions. And so there were about 60 to 70 is what police estimated, and they do tend to cover their faces. And the reaction to them by the rest of the crowd was uncover your face. You're ruining it for all of us. They smashed some bank windows, and then, others later put a sign up saying we're better than this, sorry. And at a Wells Fargo branch, the Occupy movement folks, some of them went and actually scrubbed graffiti off the walls, and they're doing that today downtown.

Some people have started to kind of wipe some of the, you know, more incendiary comments off the wall about capitalists being, you know, hung out to dry and so forth.

CONAN: Yeah. Take us back a little bit. It was just last week, I think, that police evicted the Occupy encampment and then allowed it to resume.

ROMNEY: Yes. Oakland has Mayor Jean Quan, who identifies as a former activist, as a progressive, and so people were quite upset. I think there was a feeling that the camp had gotten a bit out of hand. They were not allowing emergency personnel or police to come in. They were choosing to sort of self-police. And again, it's such a broad movement. There was a lot of debate around that, and not everyone agreed. But it became - the city felt it was untenable. They moved in, and I think their mistake was thinking that was going to be the end of it.

There was a very large protest that night in response. And it was at that protest that about 16 police agencies here for mutual aid fired quite a bit of teargas and other projectiles into the crowd in response to some people throwing rocks and bottles. But a lot of nonviolent protesters were impacted. A young Iraqi veteran was hit in the head and had a skull fracture, Scott Olsen, and there's become this sort of cry around the country: We are all Scott Olsen. So that really emboldened the movement. The mayor then let them re-establish their camp, and it's created, you know, this resentment against her from the protesters. And now, there's a resentment by the business community and the police officers who are saying, hey, what's going on here? These are mix messages, and where does it end?

CONAN: We want callers in on the conversation. Be our reporters today. If there's an Occupy movement in your city or town, how is it changing? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We have a caller from Oakland, Colin(ph).

COLIN: Good morning.

CONAN: Good morning. Go ahead.

COLIN: My - yes. My office has been shut down yesterday and also on the date that the - Mayor Quan decided to evict the protesters. And this has been causing my employer a lot of money. This isn't really coming out of paycheck, but I think that the coverage by the media of the Occupy Wall Street movement as it's manifested itself in Oakland has been ignoring what the costs have been to the employers and the local economy. And just as a side note, I would interject that I think it will be very serious mistake for President Obama and the Democratic Party to identify themselves with the movement, which seems to be agitating just to shut down the U.S. economy in a fit of spite.

CONAN: What kind of business are you in, Colin?

COLIN: I work for a law firm.

CONAN: A law firm. OK. Thanks very much for the phone call.

COLIN: And we've been entirely, you know, our offices have been closed down for all of yesterday and, you know, we're kind of upset about the potential for, you know, further closures on account of the encampment across the city hall plaza from us.

CONAN: Lee Romney, I wanted to ask you, your piece reported that yesterday, some stores in Oakland - downtown Oakland - closed in - to recognize the general strike. Others closed, you said, out of fear.

ROMNEY: Yeah, I think it was a little hard to tell. Many people put signs in support, others boarded up. There was a camera shot that boarded up its door. And I think some of them just did not know what to expect and didn't want to be caught in the middle of, you know, another big police action. But there is a lot of discussion and sort of legitimate confusion about who is getting hurt by this.

Oakland does not have a lot of resources. We have an understaffed police force. The schools - there are school closures occurring, there have been a large number of foreclosures. Unemployment is 15 percent. And while some people think, you know, just drawing attention to the message is what's most important, there are a lot of people asking, you know, who is this really hurting in the long run?

City Council President Larry Reid has been very vocal about saying, Oakland needs businesses. You know, Oakland needs tax revenue. And the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce here in Oakland also has said that a number of commercial landlords just had some - several deals fall through for tenants who are just concerned about whether it's a good climate. The Chinatown Merchants Association, they said, hey, we can't afford to close down. And so these are some of the people who the movement, you know, quote, unquote, "is speaking for." And it's not that clear, you know, who is getting hurt in the long run.

I think there's a feeling that it's - that people have a lot of pent up frustration over economic inequality and over city and state budget cuts and so forth. And they want to be heard, and this is an opportunity for that. But if it continues to hurt the city and cut into, you know, a dwindling city budget, that's going to cause increasing consternation.

CONAN: The port, for example, is a major economic asset.

ROMNEY: Yeah. The port does an average of $8.5 million in business a day, so it was hard to know exactly what the impact was from being shut down overnight. Night is, you know, a less active time, but, obviously, an impact.

One of the reasons why the port has often been the site of protest, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has a rare contract clause that allows them to honor a community picket line if it meets certain criteria. Most unions have a blanket no-strike clause. And so, sometimes, the port, you know, the port is chosen as a symbol of, you know, the economic engine. But also, I think the demonstrators realized that if they have a presence there, they could, perhaps, persuade the workers coming on to their shifts not to cross that line.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jane(ph) in Portland. During a fairly aimless protest march over two Portland bridges yesterday at rush hour, an Occupy Portland demonstrator, unprovoked, pushed a Portland policeman in front of a moving TriMet bus. The policeman suffered minor injuries, and the protester was arrested after everyone came back to the Occupy camp. Although Portland is the most liberal West Coast city after San Francisco, the bad element among the occupiers will ultimately spoil it for the naive idealists who started that, couple that with the reality that the camp which took over the downtown - two downtown squares holds a majority of homeless, tweakers, street youths and various other social misfits.

And that's another aspect of this, that some Occupy encampments - and I don't know if it's the situation there in Oakland - have to deal with that these are good places if you're homeless to find, well, company and food.

ROMNEY: Yeah. Yes, that's true. And I think that, you know, the encampment here has really tried to also embrace that community to the extent that, you know, if anyone represents the, sort of, the have-nots, it would be someone who is homeless and has no health care and no food and so forth. But it has made for, you know, a complicated negotiations in what is effectively a leaderless movement. There's - everything is done by consensus, and there's a lot of disagreement, you know.

And I think, in San Francisco, there were some folks who asked homeless people who aren't committed to the cause to kind of move over to a different park and, you know, to control it in that sense. But here, I think, there's a feeling that that runs contrary to what they stand for. But it's hard to, you know, it's hard to manage a movement that represents so many different political views and classes and races. And it's particularly true in Oakland, which is a very diverse city and one with a tremendous amount of economic disparity.

CONAN: Lee Romney reports for the Los Angeles Times' San Francisco bureau. She's with us today from Oakland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This email from Pensacola, Florida, and Kerry(ph) in Pensacola: We've had an Occupy movement camped out for several weeks. They were in a median between the main thoroughfare downtown. But because there's typically a farmer's market there on Saturdays and sanitation was becoming an issue in that spot, the city government offered them a spot at city hall. They've now relocated into a tent city under the grassed oak-canopied lawn of the city hall. They are very peaceful and seem like a pretty reasonable group.

And I have to say that, Lee Romney, that that's probably true of the vast majority of the Occupy movements around the country. Oakland, because of that history you mentioned going back to the protest over the murder - of the killing in a BART station, is unique. And is it fair to say that had the violence not erupted last night, that the story this morning would not have been violence flares again, it would have been middle class marches joined protest in Oakland?

ROMNEY: Yeah. I think it was, you know, middle class marchers. It was people with kids. It was seniors. It was the disabled. It was union workers. It was the unemployed. It really was everybody. And I think it's important to remember that it still really was a minority. There was damage done.

But I talked to one gentleman at the encampment this morning who actually gave kudos to police for the way they handle it, you know, not everyone feels that way. But they focused more this time on the people who were lighting fires, throwing things. And they sort of just contained the rest of the peaceful crowd. I think, to them, they still felt like, hey, why are we surrounded with riot-geared officers? And there was some teargas. But it was not a repeat of last week, where every time a single individual threw something, there was a teargas around that affected everybody. There were a lot of different agencies firing different types of projectiles, and that is all going to be the topic of a city council meeting this meeting here. That's going to be very heated, I'm sure.

But it was still a fairly small number, but there are businesses vandalized. And it just overtakes the message. I think it's hard for it not to. It's what people see. They say the pictures of people lighting, you know, barricades on fire, and they associate it with the larger movement.

CONAN: Here's an email from Terry(ph) in Kansas City. The situation here has turned from peaceful to prostitution and drugs. And many people fear to stay and have, thus, gone home. I think it's gotten out of control. The main message has been lost.

This is from Alex in Delray Beach in Florida. Here, there is not one, single element of Occupy Wall Street in my neck of the woods. Unlike most of America, I couldn't be happier.

Let's go next to Jesse(ph), Jesse with us from Grand Junction in Colorado.

JESSE: Thank you, Neal. Basically, in Grand Junction, we have a very small population, and the Colorado weather has started to set in. So we've came to the consensus that a permanent occupation isn't going to do us a lot of good. The movement as a whole is in its very early stages, and one of the problems we've already ran into is the polarization of our efforts. We've had an overwhelming amount of support, but still have media sources and individuals out there putting a partisan spin on this, and not only moving away from the movement but actually working to criticize and destroy it.

So our goals for the next several weeks and months is getting the public involved with the movement, whether that's by educations or weekly rallies and marches and on-the-road occupations. One of the first occupations we're planning is on houses that are in foreclosure. Basically, we've sent letters out to the homeowners that are in foreclosure and basically said, we know you're doing the right thing. You've paid your bills on time and you deserve a home, a very basic part of the American dream. So for those folks who are providing informational support to them to help them, and we're offering to vigil on their lawns to make this issue better known.

CONAN: OK, Jesse...

JESSE: We're starting to becoming like a microcosm support for the community...

CONAN: Jesse, I don't...

JESSE: ...and if anybody that has concerns, we're asking to come forward.

CONAN: Jesse, I don't mean to cut you off, but we need to get somebody - wanted to get one more comment in from Lee Romney. And that is - this is - and that cold weather in Colorado, but other places, this has to change. It can't just be what it was.

ROMNEY: Whether it can just continue indefinitely in this?

CONAN: Yeah.

ROMNEY: Yeah. I think that's true. And it's difficult to see how it's going to evolve because I think that, you know, there's a lot of discussion - in San Francisco as well - about supporting free speech and the use of public space. I think, at the encampment here, they have - they're making a greater effort than before they were raised last week to maintain safety and security, to agree to let, you know, police in if there's an issue and so forth. So they're trying. But I still think that it can't, you know, it can't go on for months and months and months.

CONAN: Lee Romney, thanks very much for your time.

ROMNEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Lee Romney, a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times' San Francisco bureau, with us today from Youth Radio in Oakland.

Coming up on Monday, Herman Cain and a new politics of race and, of course, the Opinion Page. Join us for that. Have a great weekend. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.