Why Is the Oakland Police Department Hiding the Truth About Its Violent Crackdown on the Occupy Protests?
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If All You Have Is a Hammer, All the World Looks Like a Nail
During that same city council meeting, addressing the violence on the night of November 2, both interim Chief Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan said that police “had to” use significant force against protesters who had “occupied” an abandoned building that once served as a shelter for the Traveler's Aid Society. The officials said that protesters had erected a barricade on 16th Street, which they set ablaze, and only then did OPD deploy multiple rounds of teargas and open fire with “less lethal” rounds.
That analysis is marred by a common problem: examining events in the moments before violence breaks out while ignoring the fact that command decisions taken beforehand had an enormous influence on the nature of the protests.
It's true that when police arrived, they found a chaotic and provocative crowd. When I arrived at the scene a half-hour before police, it was already clear that things would not end peacefully that night. And, sure enough, injuries and over 100 arrests followed (including that of AlterNet contributor Susie Cagle, whose account can be read here).
But the sequence of events leading up to that point is crucially important. The “occupiers” plan, at first, was to “reclaim” the building and use it as a refuge for protesters to get indoors, have access to electricity, etc. At first, about 50 people did just that.
A decision was made by officials to send a large contingent of riot police to evict those 50 original occupiers in the middle of the night on a non-residential street. It was only when word spread through the camp that hundreds of police were staging for a raid did another 150 or so protesters join them, including a number who were not dedicated to the nonviolent nature of the Occupy Movement. And that was when the barricade was erected and things started getting rowdy.
A question nobody asked at the press conference that followed or at the city council meeting is whether it was necessary to send a large force of riot police to evict those 50 original occupiers, or if a less aggressive solution could have been worked out in the light of the following day. Again, this is an unexamined question, and it represents a major problem in Oakland: during my time at these protests, I have seen only two modes of enforcement: either police maintain a “minimal presence” – without an officer in sight – or there is a massive, heavily armed and aggressive display of force. There appears to be no middle ground, and judging by officials' statements, such a middle ground never occurred to them.
Those who have developed an image of police actions from New York should understand that riot police in Oakland – and those from the neighboring agencies that joined these actions – are highly militarized, clad in full, black body armor and bristling with automatic weapons, tear gas launchers, flash-bang grenades and tasers. When they move in, it's reminiscent of a battlefield, with a series of jarring explosions and extensive gunfire. Those aggressive tactics create a dangerous cycle, allowing the minority of protesters who do seek confrontation with law enforcement to justify their provocations as acts of “self-defense.”
Legacy of Distrust
In Oakland, tensions between law enforcement and the community predate the Occupy Movement by generations, and it's proving to be a real obstacle for addressing the legitimate concerns that many Oaklanders have about the camp. Both occupiers and the mayor's office have repeatedly called for “dialogue,” but the sense that the citizens of Oakland are under siege – felt especially by people of color – makes cooperation between the city and protesters extremely difficult. There is a serious deficit of trust.