Attention Occupy Oakland and Bay Area Police: The Lessons of 1934

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In a past recession, an attempt to shut down the San Francisco waterfront showed the strategic and moral folly of turning violent

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It is a volatile moment in the San Francisco Bay Area: galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street movement, the injury an Iraq War veteran suffered when police tried to clear Occupy Oakland from the streets, the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant III by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer, and a 2003 incident when police brutalized Iraq War opponents, activists are attempting a citywide strike Wednesday, when they'll try to disrupt commerce and shut down Oakland's port. "At meetings of Occupy Oakland, many of the people I spoke with watched the unfolding occupation with sympathy--but just watched," Gabriel Thompson writes in The Nation. "It took the raid, the images of tear gas clouds and a bloodied Scott Olsen to get them into the streets." Said Oakland Councilwoman Patricia Kernighan, "This is sort of a perfect storm of dysfunction."

Before taking to the streets, Occupy Oakland protesters and the Bay Area police officers preparing to meet them would do well to look back at another tumultuous moment in the Bay Area: the summer of 1934, when longshoreman struggled to unionize ports along the West Coast. The strikes and confrontations with police culminated on July 5, 1934, also known as Bloody Thursday. Three were killed and 31 people shot as widespread rioting rocked San Francisco, and both police and longshoremen attacked one another with guns, riot sticks, and hurled objects. Those bygone events and Wednesday's general strike are different in all sorts of ways. Most notably, the International Longshoremen Worker's Union, which these days has a pretty sweet labor deal, is encouraging its members to work their normal shifts on the Oakland waterfront. Still, there are similarities and contrasts at which to marvel, and lessons to be gleaned.

The biggest takeaway: during the Summer of 1934, increasing the intensity of police attacks on strikers only stiffened their resolve, spreading solidarity and exacerbating disorder; and similarly, attacks on police officers that led to serious injury or the imminent danger of it bolstered their resolve, provoking the establishment to call in more force, eventually including National Guard troops with machine guns. Whether you're an Occupy Oakland organizer or a police commander, the challenge is the same -- in a volatile situation that could turn violent at any moment, the ultimate advantage usually redounds to the side that is seen as being attacked, and especially to the side that suffers a serious injury; the trick is persuading those under you, "Whatever else you do, don't seriously injure or kill someone on the other side." In 1934, even funerals were exploited for tactical gain.

My favorite account of the dockworkers strike comes from Endangered Dreams, Kevin Starr's wonderful history of Depression-era California. He describes numerous engagements, almost all of them showing how violence tends to escalate. "
As the long line of longshoremen attempted to cross over to the dock side of the Embarcadero at Pier 18, a detachment of mounted and foot-patrol police officers charged into the formation, clubs swinging. The longshoremen resisted with fists, bricks, and cobblestones. A number of officers were pulled from their horses," he writes of one early street battle. "The police withdrew, regrouped, then fired tear gas. When a cluster of longshoremen made a move in the direction of Pier 20, police lieutenant Joseph Mignola ordered his men to fire their shotguns into the crowd. Fortunately, the distances were too great for fatalities, although many longshoremen were peppered with buckshot."

Though curious residents took to the hills of the city to watch the confrontation unfolding below, it wasn't always possible to determine who was responsible for initiating violence -- one day, for example, there were 5,000 longshoremen and 700 police in riot gear.
"Did a group of longshoremen, as some claim, frustrated by the deliberately inflammatory unloading of trucks, begin to pelt the police with bricks? Or did Captain Hoertkorn, as others claim, cry out to his men, 'Let 'em have it, boys!' when the longshoremen began to escalate the scurrility of their shouted epithets?" Starr wrote. "In any event, police and pickets clashed... Laying down a barrage of tear gas, police wearing helmets and gas masks advanced into the crowd to disperse it into smaller sectors, which mounted patrolmen and club-wielding officers on foot then attacked."

On that occasion, "groups of longshoremen resisted with thrown objects -- bricks, cobblestones, railroad spikes -- and their fists," but their most surreal method of attack (or counterattack) was used on Bloody Thursday. Starr begins by capturing the atmosphere. "As if in recognition of the staged nature of the occasion, vendors moved among the milling spectators, hawking candy bars, gum, cigarettes. All that was lacking was a program of participants," he writes. "San Francisco found itself locked into a citywide species of street theater (costly to some as it turned out) in which the fascist/Communist drama could be acted out on the great sweeping scenic northern waterfront of America's premier Pacific port, the Embarcadero."

His account of the action:
Slowly, behind a covering barrage of rifle and pistol fire, a line of mounted police advanced up the hillside through burning patches of dry grass ignited by tear gas bombs. At the barricade, the mounted police were driven back by a hail of bricks. A second assault on foot was also repulsed. Improvising with two-by-fours and inner-tubes, the longshoremen rigged an over-sized slingshot capable of propelling bricks and cobblestones at a high velocity for distances up to four hundred feet. The whimsy of this weapon--boys playing with slingshots to protect their fort--added to the real/unreal nature of the day's events. When a line of police cars headed down to Harrison Street bringing reinforcements, a group of longshoremen took up positions on an overpass and pelted the cars with bricks. Some vehicles veered out of action with smashed windshields. On their third and successful march up Rincon Hill, police in gas masks advanced behind a barrage of tear and vomiting gas.

With luck, nothing so fraught with potential for death or serious injury will transpire on Wednesday, but another passage from Starr is eerie in its parallels with the Iraq War veteran already innjured (emphasis added):

Assisted by tear gas salesmen Joseph Roush and Ignatius McCarty, the police opened fire on the surrounded men with tear gas bombs, then fired at them with rifles and shotguns. Rough later boasted in a letter to his home office that he had personally used a Federal Laboratories tear gas launcher to bag himself a Commie. "I might mention that during one of the riots," Roush wrote, "I shot a long-range projectile into a group, a shell hitting one man and causing a fracture of the skull, from which he has since died. As he was a Communist, I had no feeling in the matter and I am sorry that I did not get more."

I've emphasized the line about the skull fracture, but the dehumanization of the street protest adversary is as noteworthy. It is easy, when helmeted police and a mob of protesters square off, for each side to regard the other as a stereotype, or even less than fully human.That's the last bit of history that participants Wednesday would do well not to repeat. As Starr adds, "Roush's alleged Communist, twenty-six-year-old longshoreman James Engle, a member of the ILA but not the Communist Party or any other radical organization, fell to the ground on the Embarcadero... having been ambushed by Roush as he stood talking to a friend in a parked automobile. The Federal Laboratories long-range projectile created an inch-and-a-half hole in Engle's skull behind his right ear. Miraculously, the young longshoreman survived." 

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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