Oakland greets John Carlos

December 5, 2011

OAKLAND, Calif.--1968 Olympian Dr. John Carlos, whose Black Power salute with Tommie Smith on the medals podium in Mexico City helped define a generation, spoke to an electrified crowd at Oakland's Laney College on November 30.

The former sprinter is on a national speaking tour to promote his new memoir, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World. His message is simple and powerful: Don't give in to the "fear of offending your oppressor."

"I want to call him something more than John Carlos," Laney College President Elnora Webb explained during her introduction speech. "He did something that we all know was the most challenging thing to do at the time. He took a risk that cost him. He did what a lot of us would opt not to do because of the fears and he didn't let that stop him. People across the globe saw [what he did] and were overwhelmed."

While it would be difficult to find someone today who objects to what Carlos and Smith did 43 years ago, they faced an awful backlash at the time.

Commentators all over the globe condemned the two athletes for damaging the Olympic "brand" and shunned them from the world of sports so they were unable to find steady employment for years afterward. They even received multiple death threats. Imagine the sort of psychological trauma that results from struggling with that.

But Dr. Carlos does not second-guess himself. He told the audience, "Don't be one of those individuals who looks back with regret. You think Martin Luther King Jr. didn't know he was going to die? Rosa Parks and John Brown, those folks were 1,000 percent committed."

Dr. Angela Davis, a veteran of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, and Clarence Thomas, a former officer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, both Black Power heroes in their own right, spoke alongside Carlos.

The three veteran rabble-rousers had plenty to say about the lessons of 1968, but they connected those lessons to a discussion about the promise of today's movement to Occupy Everything.

CARLOS HAS been making it a point to visit every Occupy encampment he can in his tour around the country.

He was able to speak to a crowd of thousands at Occupy Wall Street in early November, and he told everyone assembled there, "I am here for you. Why? Because I am you. We're here 43 years later because there's a fight still to be won. This day is not for us but for our children to come."

Thomas, a third-generation longshoreman, was a leader of the San Francisco State University Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front in 1968. He helped to organize the longest student strike in American history, a strike that won the first College of Ethnic Studies in the world.

"This was a strike to challenge the idea that Black people and people of color cannot learn, and that we are not capable of engaging in a prolonged struggle," said Thomas. "I learned we could challenge the system and win. Those on the left need to learn to produce winners, and that is what is happening in the Occupy struggle."

Waterfront workers, organized by Thomas and the ILWU, have played a critical role in supporting Occupy Oakland.

On November 2, when tens of thousands of people marched on the port to protest a violent police attack on Occupy Oakland, rank-and-file ILWU members refused to cross the community's picket line. Thomas explained:

The thing that makes Occupy Oakland different than other parts of the country is that we had an action with labor at the point of production when we shut down the port. That port is one of the best examples of the power of Wall Street and American capitalism, but when action was taken [on November 2] you can bet Wal-Mart was surprised. The whole Pacific Rim was affected.

The labor leader reported that the rank-and-file activists of the ILWU are not through defending the Occupy movement, which has faced escalating police repression in recent weeks. They have invited Occupy supporters from Vancouver to San Diego to march on the ports December 12 in an effort to shut the entire West Coast shipping system down.

"If we really want to challenge the 1 percent, the only thing they really understand is when you hit them in the pocketbook," said Thomas. "Working people have been told we have no power, but can you imagine if longshoreman, supported by their communities on the West and East Coasts and the Gulf, if Teamsters and airport workers all shut it down?"

He invited everyone to learn more about the upcoming action at westcoastportshutdown.org.

"I am so proud of Oakland!" exclaimed Angela Davis. "I spoke at Occupy Philly, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Berlin, and everyone is talking about Oakland!"

"I look at the young people who are involved in the Occupy movement, and it allows me to understand that the work we did [in the 1960s] was so important," Davis said. "Imagine what the world would be like without these obscene capitalists, the 1 percent. Revolution is still on the agenda."

The event was co-sponsored by the Laney College Black Student Union, the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame, the International Socialist Organization and Haymarket Books, which published Carlos' memoir.

First published by the CCSF Guardsman.

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