11/04/2011 06:20 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2012


Wednesday's general strike in Oakland pointed up some of the promise, and the problems, of the loose-knit Occupy Wall Street movement.

When it began in New York, less than two months ago, I wondered what the protesters were trying to accomplish. I also wondered why it had taken so long for a protest movement to focus on Wall Street.

The big protest in Oakland Wednesday marked another big step in what I think the movement is actually about, i.e., an attempt to create a new intellectual space, as it were.

A space both within people's minds, as in changing consciousness, and a space within the media flow.

It's a new presence on the scene, and a logical political development as such. But it's a delicate sort of thing.

"The 99%" is a brilliant concept. And so is the focus on Wall Street as the epicenter of casino capitalism.

The "Occupy" part of Occupy Wall Street gets more problematic, when taken literally. And the Occupy fill-in-the-blank becomes more problematic still.

Take Occupy Oakland, for example. What does it mean to "occupy Oakland?"

Oakland has a lefty mayor, Jean Quan. It's not easy to find a more politically correct mayor than Quan, a UC Berkeley-educated pol who backed the disaster known as Ebonics during her stint on the Oakland school board. (Quan is an inoffensive sort elected in a surprise as a little scrutinized widespread second pick in the city's well-meaning new ranked choice "instant run-off" system. She managed to offend all sides through her desire not to offend. First by siding with the protesters but being out of town when the police moved in to end the encampment, then by letting the encampment start up again.)

Before Quan, Oakland's mayor was Ron Dellums, a self-avowed socialist who railed against the military-industrial complex for decades in Congress.

Which is to say that Oakland is not exactly the belly of the beast. To the extent there is a big machine, and to the extent that it's run from anywhere, it's sure not run out of Oakland.

Oakland is already occupied, or close to it, in the sense of being on board with the 99% concept.

But if something else is envisioned, something more literal-minded, something like the Paris Commune of 1871, a short-lived assumption of power by the working class, founded on theories of participatory democracy, well, that's another matter entirely. Especially considering that the general strike called for Oakland on Wednesday did not materialize.

A general strike is not just a large protest, it's a mass work stoppage. That didn't happen, nor did it come close to happening.

Even the brief closing of the Port of Oakland was not a strike. The actual workers didn't go out themselves, they were prevented from working by the protesters. And now they are back at work.

Then there was the problem of Wednesday night.

As of 5 p.m. Pacific Wednesday, the Occupy Wall Street-affiliated general strike in Oakland appeared relatively stable, quite large, quite spirited, and not a general strike. Despite many activist claims in the morning, the Port of Oakland was not closed at any time during the day.

The crowd was well into the thousands, but certainly not sizable enough to occupy much of the city and most businesses and public agencies had remained open. There had been some vandalism, but not much and what there has been has been largely quelled by other protesters. The often aggressive Oakland police had a lower key presence.

In the early evening, after a large march to the port by a swelling crowd of protesters, the port was closed. Some protesters tried to get on and block the Bay Bridge, but were themselves blocked by California Highway Patrol officers who had anticipated the move.

Most protesters either dispersed or returned to downtown Oakland. And there, very late on Wednesday night, a familiar pattern ensued. A small group of protesters turned to vandalism and taunting of police, seizing an empty building which had previously housed a social service agency, before more than 100 were arrested.

Oakland was the scene of big and frequently violent protests in 2009 and 2010 over the killing of Oscar Grant -- for whom Occupy Oakland has renamed the plaza they've taken over -- an unarmed black man killed by a white transit cop (an unfortunate fellow who says he thought he'd pulled his stun gun). There was much looting and vandalism done in the name of protest. The police blamed most of the violence on a small band of anarchists, as they do now.

But small band or not, the violence gets big media coverage, as anyone who understands media would expect. Unless the problem is solved, i.e., the rough stuff is done away with, the Occupy movement has a terrible problem.

When I was in Campuses United Against Apartheid, part of the successful movement to force the university system to divest its investments in corporations doing business in apartheid era South Africa, at UC Berkeley, I got a lot of experience in protest politics. Especially Bay Area style.

The Bay Area has its own permanent protest cadre. Angela Davis of '60s radical fame was a somewhat fading figure a few decades ago during the anti-apartheid movement, and she was front and center again on Wednesday in Oakland.

And there's a phenomenon I call premature vanguardism, in which activists spending all their time in the eye of the storm come to imagine that, since they have all this media attention, they must be leading a wave of social change and that, if they decide something, it has vast import.

There are many predictable calls from conventional liberals for the protesters to get behind predictable programs, to become, in other words, like them. But since the protesters operate on consensus, something very hard to achieve, and are an expanding and contracting mass depending on timing and circumstance, that's off-target.

Group dynamics reward those who put in the most time, and almost by definition those folks will be those who are most divorced from the mainstream. The only question is how doctrinaire they are, and those doctrines aren't likely to be club-able.

Nor should they be.

Think tanks and cocktail parties usually aren't mechanisms of political breakthroughs. They're mechanisms of routinization.

A protest movement is something different, a vector of change that acts as a beacon, not a position paper.

Ironically, the routine that many protesters despise is a danger for their movement. An occupied park or other public space is daring and controversial for a time. But if it is allowed and, over time, ignored -- which would be a sophisticated establishment response -- it can become part of the background scenery. Like Hare Krishnas used to be.

And the temptation to go beyond that by turning to more aggressive confrontation runs the risk of marginalizing the movement by turning off the very 99 percent they want to speak for.

Probably all they can agree on is better political theater and selective acts of opposition, like getting people to withdraw their funds from big banks. And, so long as the theater is not destructive, that has real value in stimulating and re-centering debate.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive