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.
Oakland has effectively banned overnight protests within the city. As I wrote last week, this is unconstitutional in the context of a movement whose defining act of political expression is occupying public space over an extended period of time.
October 25: Hot Night in Oakland
By and large, the media has reported what happened on the evening of the 25th with its typically lazy, "he-said she-said" reporting. In the age of camera phones and YouTube, fingerpointing inevitably follows clashes between police and protesters. Who instigated what? Who provoked whom? Which came first -- that protester throwing a water bottle at cops, or the cops deploying tear gas at protesters?
There are two problems with that. First, only one side of this “battle” is supposed to be trained professionals doing a difficult job according to established legal guidelines. Only one side is heavily armed, and can use weapons without fear of legal repercussions (within reason).
Second, these debates not only miss the central point, they obscure it entirely. Good, intelligent crowd control tactics aim to defuse tension, while overly aggressive, seemingly arbitrary tactics fuel protesters' frustration and ratchet up the tension. We know that any gathering of protesters is going to be angry. It is the police that determine where, when and how to confront them; they decide how much "tolerance" to bring to bear on the crowd.
Long before any act of violence occurs on the streets, a series of command decisions are made, and it is those decisions that ultimately determine whether a protest will be largely peaceful or descend into chaos. Smart crowd control requires letting protesters protest – giving them an outlet. In Oakland on Tuesday evening, long before anything bad happened, police decided to deny Occupy Oakland that outlet. A peaceful, if rowdy march was headed from the main library toward Frank Ogawa Plaza – the location from which they'd been forcefully evicted the night before. They were headed off by a hastily assembled line of police clad in riot gear. The protesters decided to change course and head toward the jail where, according to a National Lawyers' Guild observer on the scene, 105 protesters were being detained.
Again, the police blocked their route. They made another turn (I don't know what the objective was at that point) and were again blocked. The police did not have the manpower to actually block the many cross-streets we crossed, but somewhere a commander decided to put five or six cops on every side street. This was a stupid move, as five officers cannot keep 500 protesters, now angrier than they had been at the onset, at bay.
It was only then that I witnessed the first violence. Protesters swarmed around these five officers, they started swinging battons, made two arrests and then found themselves completely surrounded. I am certain it was a scary moment for those officers. There was another, thicker line of riot police a block away. At some point they realized their comrades were in a jam, and maybe two dozen came running and responded with extreme force. (It was at this point that a flash-bang grenade came flying toward me, going off about three feet away and leaving me shaking for about an hour.) One officer, at the front, was firing less-than-lethal projectiles at the crowd – which, at that point, was in full retreat -- until he was physically restrained by another (maybe a superviser). There were injuries and arrests. I think none of it would have happened had they decided to let the protesters chant, "let them go!" for a while in front of the jail instead of forcing them – seemingly arbitrarily-- to walk around in circles facing off against line after line of police blocking their way.
After the police assault, similar scenes played out through much of the rest of the night. A group of around 400-500 protesters would approach Frank Ogawa Plaza, and the police would order them to disperse. Here's what they said each time:
This is Sgt X with the Oakland Police Department. I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly. You must leave the area of X immediately. You can disperse via X street, heading in X direction. If you do not disperse immediately, you will be subject to arrest, regardless of your purpose. If you do not disperse immediately, chemical agents will be used. If you do not disperse immediately, you will be subject to forcible removal, which may result in serious injury.
The problem is that we're taught from an early age that we have a right to peaceably assemble and protest. This right is guaranteed by the Constitution and can't be over-ridden by the city of Oakland. It's not an accurate view of the law, which is more nuanced, but it is pervasive. So protesters did not acknowledge that they were assembling unlawfully, they remained, and then the tear gas came flying. This happened again and again for much of the night.
As I mentioned several times on Twitter during the rounds of approaches and retreats, the police response last night wasn't the most brutal I've seen (that honor goes to the dozen Florida police agencies that descended on Miami to crush protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2002), but it was the most inept. By aggressively boxing in protesters again and again, law enforcement simply ratcheted up the pressure for no apparent purpose.
A Move Oakland Will Come to Regret
“You see all these people here?” a protester asked, as we rinsed the residue of tear gas out of our eyes a few blocks from Frank Ogawa Plaza. “They're all going home more radicalized than when they arrived.”
He was probably right – this kind of crowd control doesn't deter protesters, it steels them. On Tuesday, I only heard more resolve as the evening progressed.
These occupiers aren't going away. And that raises a question for which I've seen no answer: what is the supposed end-game here? It took 100 police from a number of different agencies in the Bay Area clad in riot gear who are earning overtime to stand guard over a quarter-acre of public space in downtown Oakland. I have no idea how much it cost in overtime, but it must be a fortune. And then there's the opportunity cost – police standing a line against protesters aren't out catching bad guys, writing speeding tickets, etc.
Meanwhile, a number of protesters said they were steadfast in their goal of reclaiming the space and rebuild when they can. If the city thought they would simply go away after the eviction, they made a grave, and costly, miscalculation. (And this city is cash-strapped – just a day after this series of clashes, the city council was scheduled to vote on a proposal to close a number of Oakland schools.)
Tensions remain high in Oakland. On Monday, a group of Oakland residents filed a recall petition against Jean Quan – the first step in removing the mayor from office. Evicting Occupy Oakland has already proven to be one of the most costly efforts to enforce “health and safety” regulations in history. It may carry a steep political price as well.