Police State in Oakland? One Reporter's Arrest Contradicts Official Story
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"Everybody on the ground, you're under arrest! Everybody on the ground, you're under arrest!" the officer yelled through his gas mask, gesturing with his baton.
As I slipped my camera in my pocket and dropped to the ground, I couldn't help but think: This wasn't part of the plan.
At least not my plan.
A series of escalations at Occupy Oakland following Wednesday, November 2nd's General Strike culminated in 101 arrests between 1 and 2 am on Thursday morning -- including my own.
Interim Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan called the arrestees "generally anarchists and provocateurs" in a statement later Thursday. Despite Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's claims that the city would not be calling for mutual aid--a call for supporting forces from surrounding police agencies to reinforce OPD--in future engagements with Occupy Oakland demonstrators, Jordan called in the order around 4 p.m., following the vandalizing of several large banks, a Whole Foods and a few smaller businesses in the downtown area.
While police from around the Bay Area geared up for a confrontation, Occupy Oakland was shifting strategies. Shortly after 10 p.m., occupiers descended upon the foreclosed Traveler's Aid Society building at 520 16th Street. It was a calculated escalation, at least in theory: forcing the police to defend the rights of the property owners or the people, effectively choosing loyalty to the 1 or the 99 percent. The scene was joyous but chaotic, a dance party punctuated by calls to "reinforce the perimeters." Just before 11 p.m., as local agencies led by the Oakland Police Department drove south toward the plaza, a banner was unfurled from the top of the building, declaring it a community center and free school.
At the same time, barricades were built up at either end of 16th street. Garbage cans, tires, wooden palettes and furniture were piled in a vain but aggressive attempt to protect the occupied building. A police helicopter circled lower and lower overhead, drowning out the arguments between peaceful protestors and those looking for confrontation. At 11:33 p.m., I tweeted, "nearly run over by black bloc pushing dumpster into growing barricade."
At some point over the 15 minutes it took me to make my way north to document the police mobilization, those barricades were lit on fire. As I stood at 17th and Telegraph looking south from behind the police line -- first held by Oakland police, then less hardcore troops from San Leandro -- a column of black smoke snaked up between the office buildings. 12:01 a.m.: "three minutes to leave, police: 'mask up!!'"
As police blocked streets leading to the plaza and began firing tear gas down Telegraph, I was not the only one tweeting with urgency. Mayor Quan was also on the soapbox, urging protestors to get in touch in the midst of the melee.
12:06 a.m. Reports that tires are burning and barricades set up on 16th. Protestors need to call my office now.
12:09 a.m. OPD has not taken action. Smoke is from burning barricade. I'll say it again, protestors need to call now.
She hasn't updated since.
At 12:25 a.m., as the flames continued to grow, a dispersal order was made from an LRAD (long range acoustic device) at 17th and Telegraph calling for demonstrators to "disperse down Broadway and Telegraph" directly to the south.
The skirmish line one block to the west at 16th and San Pablo seemed comparatively peaceful. At 12:45 a.m., reporters were clustered behind two lines of police at the intersection, just north of the entrance to Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza.
On the other side of the line, occupier Scott Campbell was filming the police just a few minutes later when one of them shot him in the thigh with a "less lethal" projectile. "The dispersal order I heard said, go south down Broadway," Campbell told me later.
The next LRAD dispersal order at 16th and San Pablo called for demonstrators to move into the plaza -- where the front line had set up in the middle of a parking area technically inside the plaza limits. That's when things got really confusing.
Over the course of two hours sitting handcuffed on a curb before being transferred to jail, I asked arresting OPD officers what their dispersal orders had been in the minutes before and after 1 a.m. They smiled and laughed. "We told you guys a million times, go back into the tents," they said.
"Not the plaza?" I asked.
"The tents, the tents," they emphasized.
No one I spoke with since Wednesday night heard this order, or understood it when discussed.
Kate Sassoon crossed the barricade at the north end of the plaza around 1 a.m. because she couldn't hear the garbled order. "I didn't hear where to disperse to or the time limit," she told me. "We were all in the plaza, so I felt like, everyone is safe here, what is going on? Why are you threatening us? This was supposed to be okay here."
The distinction between the north section of the plaza and the "tents" of the south area of the plaza was unprecedented in city policy toward the occupation. That trust in the city's previous statements about "the plaza" inclusive was what made Sassoon, myself and many others in the north plaza feel secure in their safety even when faced down by lines of police in riot gear.
The Oakland Police Department arrestee lists my arrest as occurring at 1:00 a.m. which is impossible, as I tweeted at 1:11 a.m.: sounds like they are declaring unlawful assembly at north end of plaza.
As I hit send, a teargas canister was thrown down a side street just north of city hall, followed by a line of police running, yelling and firing on individuals in the very spot where just a few hours earlier people had been barbecuing hot dogs.
I ran for cover in a nearby doorway with medics, legal observers and many scared occupiers as two police lines marched on the plaza, firing tear gas, flash bangs and "less lethal" projectiles in rapid succession. When they approached the entrance to our doorway, people screamed, "Peace, we want peace!" and "Don't shoot!" with hands up.
"We don't want to hurt you guys, we hope you don't want to hurt us!"
A minute later we were all face down on the ground.
When I told my arresting officer that I was press, I was first told, "We'll take care of that in a minute." That next minute turned into 15 hours in two different jails.
First, we were split up by gender for transport a few blocks south to be booked. This took three hours. Upon arrival at North County jail, we were searched by Alameda County sheriffs ("Do you have any weapons of mass destruction?" they asked while grabbing at our breasts) and urine tested for pregnancy. That night bled into day, when all 25 women were transferred to another jail 40 minutes outside Oakland, because no jail in the city is technically equipped to handle female inmates.
Upon transfer to Santa Rita jail, demonstrator Andrea Barrera was denied her prescription antibiotics and threatened with recourse. "Maybe I'll accidentally lose your paperwork and you'll be here all week," Sheriff Fox told her, only one of many times such a threat was made against us "prisoners." Barrera did not receive her medication until her release.
After transfer, we were subjected to another round of searches, this time more invasive than the last. While standing single file in a hallway with male inmates leering and licking the windows in their cell doors, we were told to hold out our bras and shake our breasts. "Come on, ladies, shimmy," said one sheriff. "Get into it. Shimmy."
Journalists have no special protections in Occupy demonstrations, especially journalists representing national media organizations. Local police rules give privilege to local media with locally dispensed "official" press passes, resulting in a local media who are more or less embedded with the government. This system actively discourages prying outside eyes.
But my experience counterintuitively revealed the opposite. At a time of such intense public scrutiny, the Oakland Police Department made the mistake of arresting a journalist, and sending her into the heart of an ugly process with which not only demonstrators but many other Oakland residents have long been familiar. They gave me an unmatched, visceral opportunity to understand what makes Oakland residents so angry with the police.
And then they threatened me upon release not to return to the plaza, because if I am arrested on the same misdemeanor charge before my December 5 arraignment date, I will be charged with a felony.
Chief Jordan said that police Wednesday night and Thursday morning were attacked with rocks, bottles and spit by many demonstrators. But of 101 protestors, 93 were charged with a PC 409 misdemeanor, "failure to leave scene of riot, etc." These are Jordan's "generally anarchists and provocateurs," the ones used to justify the force he called in -- reporters, National Lawyer's Guild observers, medics, dozens of peaceful demonstrators, and even bystanders on their way home from BART and downtown bars.
Before Wednesday night's actions and arrests, the city of Oakland had spent upwards of $1 million so far on Occupy operations. It will be several days until official figures are released on this latest show of force. Unfortunately not just for the occupation but for the entire city of Oakland, more than 90% of that force was deployed against innocent people.