On November 2nd, 2011, I stood on Adeline Street Bridge, watching tens of thousands of people pouring into the Port of Oakland, shutting it down for the day. An awesome sight; where had I ever seen anything like it before? The demonstrations of the Vietnam era? No, not quite. While they were just as large, they were peace marches against the war whereas this was part of a day-long general strike, a strike against the power of Wall Street and the one percenters who have hijacked our country. It took me back to what I saw in France in 1968.
In the late 1960s I was traveling low budget, working in vineyards, hitchhiking, sleeping under bridges or in youth hostels, visiting medieval castles. After six months in Europe, I went to North Africa and the Middle East, then back to see more of Europe. I got a ride on a Greek freighter, working my way, washing pots and pans in the galley. The ship was headed for the French port of Marseilles. The month was May.
But as we neared our destination, the ship changed course. “The port is closed,” the captain said. “There’s a strike.” He spoke little English and I understood no Greek, so that was all I knew for the moment. We were now heading for Genoa, Italy, where we docked the next day. There I left the ship and set about to see Italy. I was thinking of going to Rome, but I’d barely set foot on land when I heard news of something really big happening in France. It wasn’t just a local dock strike in Marseilles.
Being the incorrigibly curious person that I am, I had to see it, whatever it was, and the place to see it was obviously Paris. So I set out northward, hitchhiking up through Switzerland and into France, where I lucked out and got a ride all the way to Paris. I was doubly fortunate in that the driver was a Britisher who had spent much of his life studying French history, specializing in the late 19th century. “This is 1871 all over again,” he told me.
What happened in 1871? I wanted to ask, but was too embarrassed to reveal my ignorance of French history. I could nevertheless look around me now and see that the whole country was shut down, clearly in a state of extreme upheaval.
The driver turned on the radio from time to time, and we heard President Charles de Gaulle making an impassioned speech to the nation. Not understanding French, I only caught the closing line. “Vive la république!” Then they played La Marseillaise.
“He’s finished,” the driver told me. “Just like Louis Napoleon.” He spoke with the assurance of one who knew his subject.
We passed fields and vineyards. When we got to the toll roads, we were asked by the local toll-keepers for donations to support the strike.
It was evening when we reached Paris. Darkness had fallen, and a loud banging sound of explosions could be heard from not too far away. “Do you think they’re shooting it out?” I asked. The driver shook his head. He looked worried
“Let me off here,” I said. “I have to see what’s happening.”
“That wouldn’t be wise,” he advised me.
The explosions were somewhere off to the right.
I promised him I would be careful, and, thanking him for the ride, I set out in the direction of the blasts. Looking back at my youthful curiosity, I still shudder at my presumptions of immortality. Having already passed through so many ostensibly dangerous places, I’d come to feel as though I were a non-material being, a ghost-traveler, immune to the hazards of the road.
The dark streets were empty, and all the lights in the buildings seemed to be off. I could hear the hollow knocking of my footsteps on the pavement, and I wondered where all the people were. After walking a few blocks, I came to a broad avenue where a large crowd was gathered. As I got closer, I saw they were behind a barricade fashioned of cobble stones and whatever was at hand. Making my way to the front of the crowd, I saw in the distance a phalanx of riot police. They were launching bombs or grenades in our direction which burst with a very loud sound and a flash of light. I guessed that they were intended for psychological effect, as they didn’t seem to be causing physical damage or injuries. Nobody seemed bothered by them.
Finally the gendarmes charged, and everybody ran up side streets, then regrouped. I watched this repeated several times over. Finally, late in the night, I found a space on the floor of a large crowded hall where I could unroll my sleeping bag. I think it was in the Sorbonne University, which was occupied by the students.
In the morning I went out to see what was going on. Everything was fairly quiet, with only a few cars on the streets. The gendarmes were nowhere to be seen, not even the traffic cops who normally stood in the intersections. In their place were the demonstrators, the students and workers, directing the traffic. That sight impressed me, a world of no gendarmes. They had been driven from the streets, and the world of Paris was now in the hands of the demonstrators.
It was an eerily calm and peaceful world. Shops and stores were closed. No windows seemed to be broken. Debris littered the streets, and there were still the remains of barricades here and there. Nobody manning them now, the police being gone.
I thought of the riots which were then taking place in so many in U.S. cities, where there’d been burning and looting, but there was none of that here in Paris. I marveled at the order and self-discipline of the French; truly a cultured people, who rioted without breaking windows. I used the word “riot,” but was it a riot? Or was it something else?
I saw it all, but I had no idea what I was looking at. A revolution? Was this what a revolution looked like? Surely it couldn’t be a revolution, but what was really going on around here?
Being unable to speak French, I finally found someone who spoke English, and I asked, “What’s happening?” The guy looked at me as though I were the biggest idiot he’d ever in his life encountered, and he said: “Can’t you see for yourself?”
Finally I looked up Bernard, a friend who lived in the Latin Quarter. I’d met him a couple years earlier, on my way to Japan. He’d been out in the demonstrations of the night before. Since he was a friend, I felt I could ask him the question nobody else seemed willing to answer. “What is going on?” I asked him. “Can’t you see for yourself?” he replied.
I stayed a few more days in Paris, then set out for England. But on reaching the port of Calais, I found that it too was closed. Why had I even bothered to go to Calais? I should’ve known it would be shut down like the rest of France.
So I went a different way; I went to Germany and up through Scandinavia. Eventually, I came back to France, and everything seemed to be pretty much back to normal. Gendarmes were directing traffic at intersections, just as they always had. It was like nothing had happened The massive, nationwide strike, shutdown, whatever it was, was over. Gone.
On some streets, artists were vending posters with revolutionary slogans. That was all. As before, it was useless to ask my friend. “You can see for yourself,” he would have said.
Later I learned the tragedy of what had happened. The nation-wide strike I’d witnessed had been more than a protest; it had been a bid for change, in effect, a revolution, that failed because the very large French Communist Party, which controlled the unions and dominated the left, had taken over the strike and sent the workers back to work.
The May rebellion took place more than forty years ago, but the story of what happened in France was enough to make me eternally suspicious of the establishment left–whether it’s the allegedly radical Communist Party, or the supposedly progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Others seem to feel the same way today. When Occupy Wall Street came into existence last September, activists carefully steered clear of the Democratic Party, the party which has offered so much hope and delivered so much disappointment. And so Occupy has established itself outside of our broken political system, and this has been key to its instant traction and phenomenal growth as a movement about occupying public space, buildings, and our imaginations.
Vive la France? Vive l’Amérique? Mais non! Vive Occupy! Vive le monde!