TL; DR: An incident with a truck driver stopped by our F29 action made me realize that during the May 1st General Strike and any other actions, we must let workers of non-targeted companies do their job and get paid—for both strategic and moral reasons.
For the “Shut Down the Corporations” F29 action near Riverside, CA, Occupiers completely blocked the intersection leading into Schneider Logistics, a Walmart distribution center, to prevent trucks from going in or out.
I and a girl I’d been talking to, Bethany, went over to the driver of one such stopped truck—a diminutive Latino guy, maybe about 40 years old, with striking, dark-lined eyes (I feel the need to describe him because when I hear “truck driver,” the image that comes to mind is a 300-lbs white dude)—who had come out of the cab to reason with us. We filled him in on why we were there and showed him a couple pieces of propaganda. He insisted that he worked for a company called Ferguson, not Schneider Logistics. His plain truck—unemblazoned with any logo, unlike the Walmart trucks a block over—seemed to confirm that. Nevertheless, our goal was to “Shut Down the Corporations”—not just Walmart, even though that was our target. I looked up Ferguson on my iPhone and found that it was a major plumbing supply company.
I figured he’d be paid even if we blocked him, since after all, this wasn’t his fault. We were like, an act of god. But I asked him just to be sure. “What will happen to you if you don’t get there?” He looked away with a shrug and said, “I don’t know.” He was near tears.
An argument now whipped up between the people lying in front of the truck and others who were trying to get them to let the guy through. One woman declared, “I came out here to shut down business as usual! If we let this guy through, are we gonna let the next guy through? Where does it end?” A mini-GA erupted, with people getting on stack and everything, and people bickered at each other passionately as a Spanish-speaking girl spoke with the truck driver, seeming to either be explaining us to him or reassuring him.
Bethany said, “I’m torn,” and I admitted I was, too. We both agreed that this protest was in the truck driver’s interest as well, and that technically he should join in, if anything. It occurred to me that the central issue here was money (isn’t it always?), and wondered aloud if we should take up a collection for the guy—as a sort of reimbursement for the inconvenience. Bethany readily agreed (although she added that it wouldn’t help much if he was fired over this) and between the two of us and a random guy we asked, we gathered $50. I was worried that the truck driver wouldn’t accept it, so I folded it in a piece of propaganda and handed it to him. He refused, thinking I was just giving him the propaganda, so I had to open it up to show him the cash inside. He seemed to restrain himself from crying yet again and took it with only a bit of reluctance and seemingly with some relief as well.
As the bickering continued, the driver got back into his truck, backed up, and turned into a parking lot, which I realized had an outlet to the main road. Thank god, he (or the Spanish-speaking girl) had found a “third way”: a resolution to the problem that didn’t include either us having to back down or him being stuck there for god knows how long. Later on, a fellow protester explained that a similar thing had gone down at another similarly blocked intersection around the corner, and that he thought it was fucked up since these guys don’t get paid unless they make the delivery. At that moment, my heart toppled right off the fence into the realization that what we had done was very, very wrong.
I’m sure some people, as they read this account, must have immediately pegged me as naïve and full of white privilege. And they’re right. Although I grew up in the lower-middle class and put in a year working at the bottom rung of a corporate retail operation, my thoughts and actions in this incident clearly reveal my lack of knowledge of what it’s really like to be in the lower class, let alone an immigrant. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like if I did, I would have known the risks we were exposing him to by our blocking him and would have urged everyone to let him go. The idea that we were blocking him for his own good would have struck me as totally arrogant and insensitive.
Apparently this had been a major issue in the ports action as well: many workers were pissed off at the port shut-down since it made them lose out on a day’s pay. It perpetuated the cliché that Occupy largely consists of middle-class, college-educated whites who are completely out of touch with the rest of the 99%, even though they claim to speak for them.
There is, of course, an obvious solution to this: plan actions WITH the workers. To their credit, Occupy Riverside informed and even got the blessing of the workers union at Schneider Logistics. That’s great, and we should continue to do the same for future actions, but you can’t plan for everything. It may not have even occurred to the event organizers that other truck companies used the inlet into Schneider Logistics. If something unplanned like this happens—if we have the power to deprive a worker of a day’s pay against their will and without advance notice so they can make any necessary precautions—we must let them go. It’s only fair; I took measures myself to ensure that I could participate in the action without any repercussions. I didn’t just ditch work that morning; I cleared the day off with my boss like two weeks in advance (and since it was a vacation day, I even got paid for it). Why should we penalize those who don’t have the same opportunity? We must make sure everyone in the 99% is taken care of while we change the system as a whole. During the Montgomery bus boycott, people weren’t forced to stop riding the bus; the organizers coordinated car pools to both achieve the objectives of the boycott AND fill the needs of the participants.
However, even in cases where we do invite workers to participate well in advance, take steps to provide for their immediate needs, yet they decline, we must still let them do their jobs. You may be thinking, “What?? Why?? Then what’s the point of even doing the action?” This is basically the argument of the woman who insisted that we can’t let one go through because then we may as well let them all go through, which is classic slippery-slope fallacy, which we accuse conservatives of using all the time. “You can’t legalize gay marriage! Then you may as well legalize bestiality! Where will it end?” The fact is that the maximum number of trucks we had the opportunity stop was four. I know for sure at least three of them were from different companies. Three entirely different national or even multi-national companies aren’t going to care if we stop one of their trucks for even a couple hours. The power of a strike comes from the involvement of ALL workers in ONE company; not one worker from each company. The fact that Schneider Logistics was our target matters. Only by throwing all our weight at that one target were we able to—before we even got there—shut it down for half the day. If during an action we come across any opportunities besides our target, we may as well let it slide because otherwise those efforts will be too scatter-shot; the company won’t give a shit, but it’ll make all the difference in the world to the worker—precisely the opposite effect we intended.
The time may come when preventing people from working against their will may be strategically crucial (blocking union scabs come to mind), but that will be when we have reached a certain critical mass that we have not yet achieved. We’re still in the process of winning over the hearts and minds of the people in order to reach that critical mass. And if we aren’t able to win over someone’s heart and mind by explaining how our action is to his benefit, we’re certainly not going to win him over by docking his pay.
However, beyond the debate as to whether blocking him is in the best interest of the movement, the fact of the matter is that letting him go was the flat-out right thing to do. Many of us, myself included, have gone into activism because we’re driven by our moral centers, outraged by all the injustice and devastation in the world. How ludicrous and ironic, then, for us in our efforts to save the world to unleash cruelty ourselves? This guy almost started CRYING after we’d stopped his truck for five minutes. What sort of situation must he be in to have had that reaction?And how can we not react mercifully in response? I, for one, must do so, if I ever witness something like this again.
One of my favorite attributes of activism is that it has real-world consequences, that it’s important, unlike, say, watching reality TV. But it has a dark side: we’re fucking with people’s lives here. I know that may seem like, “duh,” but there’s a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing something viscerally, and this incident suddenly made me feel, down to my core, the weight of what we’re doing.
The thought of a situation like this one being duplicated all over the country by the hundreds during the May 1st General Strike or other actions sickens me. From what I’ve read, the organizers of the General Strike are already reaching out to labor, and I hope that in doing so, they’re attempting to prevent things like this from happening, but, as I mentioned, because some things just can’t be planned or controlled, I implore individual protesters to allow workers who are not participating in the action to do their job and earn their pay. We have a long fight ahead of us. Instead of gunning for the short-term, let’s take care of each other while we fight for the long-term, and in doing so, hopefully, we’ll have won over more members of the 99% for next time.
[A post-script: I’m not entirely convinced that rounding up $50 to give to the trucker was the right thing to do. A guy that Bethany told about it gave her a high-five, but I’m still worried that I offended or shamed him. It also smacks of bribery to me; of the apparent belief of the 1% that money is the solution to everything, that every man has his price. The only barometer I really have as to whether it was right or not is how I think I would have felt in the truck driver’s shoes, and frankly, I think I would have appreciated it (or most likely, given his reaction, immensely relieved). When I got a Christmas bonus from my company, I sure as heck appreciated it. If, during the year I slaved away at Starbucks, a customer had given me a $50 tip, I would have been thrilled. I know those are different situations, but my point is that I’ve never not appreciated or been offended by unexpected cash. So I think it was okay.]