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U.S.: Marches and Militancy at Occupy Oakland’s May Day

Judith Scherr

May Day March for Dignity and Resistance. Credit: Judith Scherr/IPS

OAKLAND, California, May 2 2012 (IPS) - It was May Day and Oakland was bathed in sunshine. Union workers staged militant actions; immigrants and allies marched for justice with brass bands and drummers; spontaneous street parties erupted.

There was also tear gas, flash bang grenades, screams, vandalism and arrests on Oakland Streets.

“Today, as we stand in solidarity with labour, as we stand in solidarity with immigrant workers, as we strike against this exploitative economic system, we also stand up to police violence and state repression,” Laleh Behbehanian of the Occupy Oakland Anti- Repression Committee told a rally in Oscar Grant Plaza, the space renamed by protesters for a young unarmed African American man killed by a transit police officer.

Behbehanian went on to say that Oakland sometimes gets blamed for over-focusing on police violence and “diverting the occupy movement away from its original goals.”

She addressed critics, saying, “Oakland has always stood to remind this country and the larger Occupy Movement, that the unfair economic system we protest is maintained every day by massive police violence and military violence all over this world….

“Whenever there is an unjust economic system, there is a police state to defend it….Today that police state is showing its face all over the world. But all over the world, from Oakland to Cairo, from New York to Syria, people are standing up.”

The midday rally got off to a late start, delayed by a police action. According to one protester, “hundreds of people were just hanging out a 14th and Broadway; everything was chill.” They were waiting for a convergence of several small morning marches protesting banks and various businesses.

Suddenly, police “snatched” a woman from her bicycle as she came into the intersection, the protester said, adding, “Really it seemed like it was just to rile up the crowd. That was successful; the crowd was riled up.”

After that, police used tear gas, shot flash-bang grenades and arrested a number of other demonstrators. In a bulletin issued later in the day, police said the demonstrators threw objects at them.

“The crowd surrounded the officers and small amounts of gas were deployed on three occasions in limited areas to disperse the specific small groups of people who were committing the violent acts,” police said.

Most the marches and pickets during the day were accomplished without city permits, but the immigrant rights March for Dignity and Resistance, had permits. The question of whether to take out permits had been contested within Occupy Oakland.

Those supporting a permitted march argued that immigrants, especially those without documents, feel safer with a permitted march. Others pointed out that, when Occupy had permits, as soon as a permit expired – or wasn’t adhered to, to the letter – police had an excuse to make arrests. The final decision, however, was to take out permits.

The rally was held at Fruitvale Plaza, in the heart of the Latino community, where Oakland’s immigrant rights advocates have held May Day rallies and marches since 2006. The atmosphere was festive and brought out many families with children. An Aztec dance troop set the stage and was followed by spirited speeches and then a march that police estimated at between 3,500 and 5,000.

Sergio Arroyo said he had come to support immigrant workers, especially those without documents, who face particular exploitation.

“I’m here to support folks living in the United States who don’t have a support network,” he told IPS. “The majority of workers are guaranteed that they’ll be paid at the end of the day, but there are undocumented folks who get taken advantage of.”

If the employer decides not to pay the worker, “there’s nothing the undocumented immigrant can do in terms of demanding that pay,” he said.

Asked about his support for the Occupy movement, Arroyo said, “We all fall under the umbrella of the 99. We have different strategies – no one’s right or wrong. We do it in our own way.”

Nearby, Emiana stood with friends. She’s a 79-year-old widow who works as a caregiver for elderly people, earning 40 dollars per day for cooking, cleaning, and bathing her clients. She said she even takes care of the dog. The worst is, “They don’t respect me,” she said. She works with National Domestic Workers Alliance and came to the rally to support the caregivers.

In Oakland and nearby Berkeley as well as in eight other Bay Area cities, 4,500 Sutter Hospital nurses chose May Day for their one-day strike action (the hospital locked them out for four more days) and targeted the corporation they work for, saying Sutter has raked in over four billion dollars in profits since 2007 and that its CEO earns 4.7 million dollars annually, while asking nurses to reduce sick leave and pay more for benefits.

Ann Gabler, neo-natal infant care unit nurse and head of the bargaining team addressed some 250 nurses in Berkeley.

“What we’re asking for is to maintain what we have, what we’ve fought for, for over 60 years of collective bargaining,” she said. “I’m not going to let Sutter Health take a magic marker to our contract and black out sections that they don’t like….I love being a nurse….It’s not just about us; it’s about our patients and about our community.”

Sutter issued a fact sheet that indicates that a nurse’s average full time salary is 136,000 dollars per year, and that retirees at 65 with 22 years on the job receive an 84,000-dollar pension for life.

“CNA (California Nurses Association) refuses to partner in efforts to reduce costs for patients,” the fact sheet says.

“Our goal is to balance the need to reduce costs for patients while also continuing to provide our nurses with wages and benefits that are not only competitive, but at the top of the industry for our region.”

At the end of the day, many from the March for Dignity and Resistance returned to Oscar Grant Plaza downtown. In the intersection by the plaza, there was a street party atmosphere, with drummers and a DJ.

Justin Ryan had been at the plaza and various actions most the day. He told IPS he thought May Day had been an opportunity for people with different interests to come together “and protest the general problems with the system and how it inflicts pain on the average person”.

He went on to express concern: “I’m a little worried that people will become destructive in the evening time,” he said.

And, in fact, just after dark, police reported that they had tried to make an arrest and the crowd began throwing objects at them. They said then they disbursed most the crowd. In total, they made 25 arrests during the day. They reported various acts of vandalism including a police car set on fire.

Ryan talked about property destruction. “There’s a long history in the Bay Area of large protests being a cover for people who want to misbehave,” he said. “There’s not really anything we can do – we cannot not protest, because someone will use that as an opportunity to do something you don’t agree with. And there’s always a chance that police or other interests will come and join a march and do things to try to make us look bad.”

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