Oakland Police Violence Raises the Stakes for the OWS Movement
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Editor's note: after this article was published, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan released a statement in which she promised "a minimal police presence at the plaza for the short term," and "a community effort to improve communications and dialogue with the demonstrators." Quan also said the city would investigate certain acts of police violence on October 25. You can read the full statement here.
Occupy Oakland has been the target of a notably vicious smear campaign mounted by the conservative media. They didn't just offer the usual pabulum about how the occupiers hated America or were closet socialists. They painted them as sub-human: mired in filth and gripped by violent anarchy. One right-wing blogger wrote a post amplifying an un-named police officer's comparison of the camp to "The Lord of the Flies." Hundreds of others then ran with the meme. The campaign's racist and classist undertones were none too subtle.
When I first visited the camp on October 22, I found a very different scene. About 150 tents made up a small, self-sufficient community in Frank Ogawa Plaza, located steps away from City Hall. The kernel of truth behind the smears was that it was located in downtown Oakland, a city with some serious problems and a long history of distrust between the community and a police department tasked with serving and protecting it.
“We don't exclude the people at the margins,” one occupier told me. “We invite them in and feed them.” That may be doing God's work, but it's also provided rich fodder for the Lord of the Flies narrative. In one incident, a homeless man who reportedly had a history of mental illness assaulted several of the protesters. They ejected him from the camp, but didn't involve local police. In other instances, people at the camp insulted, and in one instance reportedly threatened reporters. All of these incidents were the focus of intense media coverage.
The other kernel of truth is the simple fact that camping outdoors for three weeks is always a somewhat messy business.
Mayor Quan Joins the Club
These narratives formed the basis for Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's decision to evict the protesters. In the early morning hours of October 25, a large contingent of police clad in riot gear descended on the camp, throwing tear gas and flash-bang grenades at the protesters within. (Oakland police deny using flash-bang grenades.) Eighty-five were reportedly arrested. A National Lawyers' Guild legal observer told AlterNet they had collected reports of, “rampant excessive force.” According to the observer, one protester suffered a head injury in the melee, and two more ended up with broken hands.
In a statement made after the “eviction,” Mayor Quan said, “Over the last week it was apparent that neither the demonstrators nor the city could maintain safe or sanitary conditions, or control the ongoing vandalism.”
We know that this was simply a flimsy premise for one reason: Snow Park. Snow Park, on a grassy slope on the side of Lake Merritt, had a small satellite occupation. Whereas the main camp was densely packed with humanity, had a kitchen and was no doubt messy, Snow Park was just a few scattered tents on a hill. They hadn't been there long, and when I visited on Saturday, it was clean and neat, and there had been no reports of violence. But Oakland police nevertheless evicted Snow Park as well, putting the lie to the claim that this was a response to health and safety violations or scattered reports of violence.
The courts have long held that the right to assemble isn't without limits. Communities can determine the time, place and manner of protests. But – and this is crucial – any limits must be narrowly tailored to achieve a legitimate government purpose. If an act of violence occurred in the camp, they should have dealt with it like an act of violence at a private club – you don't destroy the club, you arrest the perpetrator. If they wanted to clean up the park, they could have done it in shifts, or worked with the occupiers to address sanitation issues or taken any number of less restrictive approaches.