News & Politics

Injury-Free Eviction of Occupy Oakland Proves Cops' Previous Efforts Were Displays of Excessive Force

Unlike previous nights, city officials managed to clear out Occupy Oakland's encampment without any brutality--and the protesters are already headed back.

Early Monday morning, hundreds of police officers clad in heavy riot gear descended on the Occupy Oakland encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza and proved definitively that the hyper-militarized crowd-control tactics that have brought so much national attention to the city in recent weeks represented unnecessary uses of excessive force.

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On Monday, police chose a different method by which to achieve the exact same goal as on October 25 -- this time with notably less violence. There were no reports of injuries, and police commanders chose to follow the book. California's Crowd Management and Civil Disobedience guidelines (PDF) state, “Only that force which is objectively reasonable may be used to arrest violators and restore order.” Unlike on previous nights when mayhem prevailed in the streets of Oakland, they did just that in the early morning of November 14.

It was the same group of protesters, who were just as ready to “defend their space” as they had been during previous police actions. The only obvious difference was the approach taken by the police, and the outcome speaks for itself. Belying official claims that recent past violence was justified by the protesters' own provocations, the difference was wholly political. In this progressive city, videos of police using dramatic force against the occupation did not play well politically. Mayor Jean Quan has faced harsh criticism for the severe police tactics of recent weeks, and many local residents and members of the business community have lambasted her for allowing the protesters to move back into the plaza and re-establish their camp. The city clearly wanted to clear the plaza without any injuries or images of chaos, and they adopted tactics allowing that to happen.

Several local police agencies contributed as many as 1,000 officers for Monday's eviction, according to media reports. They shut down a wide perimeter around the plaza and then moved up gradually, block by block, in heavy lines, until the mass of protesters was pushed into the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway. Then, a large phalanx of riot police moved into the plaza itself, where they gave the smaller number of occupiers lingering among the tents the opportunity to leave or face arrest. Oakland police officials said they arrested 32 people who had chosen to remain in an act of civil disobedience.

At one point, police moved in and arrested about 20 people huddled in a circle in a moment of silent prayer at the interfaith tent. By around 7am, most of the crowd had dissipated and police were tearing down tents and clearing the plaza.

The operation was a striking departure from the tactics that Bay Area law enforcement agencies, working in cooperation with the Oakland Police Department, employed on October 25 and during the night of November 2. While police crowd-control techniques are rarely pretty, protesters facing off with riot police as part of various occupations around the country probably don't have a good sense of the kind of force used during the two-and-a-half weeks since the camp's first eviction.

It was the explosions and gunshots that made those actions so remarkable. The use of flash-bang grenades, tear gas and “less lethal” rounds deployed by police in heavy black body armor felt more like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan than footage of, say, protests against the Vietnam War being broken up by helmeted police swinging batons.

While the weapons deployed by police are designed not to kill or maim (if used properly), the visceral sensation of walking through streets dodging explosions and chemical agents while rounds crackle in the air simulates an effect similar to that of actual combat, and causes feelings of terror, disorientation and a sense of unease that linger for days. It wouldn't be surprising if some of the citizens caught up in these running battles develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the weeks and months to come.

Those weapons do result in wounds – the tally for October 25 and November 2 was three broken hands, two head injuries (one of which, to Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, was quite severe), a ruptured spleen and minor injuries too numerous to catalogue. A legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild told AlterNet that they had received “numerous reports of excessive force” during the October 25 eviction.

A week later, a protester videotaped what appeared to be a flagrant and unnecessary use of force. Scott Campbell, 30, a resident of Oakland, was standing away from the bulk of the action on Broadway, taping a line of riot police on the north end of Frank Ogawa Plaza. An officer asked him to move back and he complied. On the tape, he can be heard asking police repeatedly, “Is this OK?” He gets no answer, and then suddenly an officer raises a weapon and shoots him with a “less lethal” projectile of some kind. The tape ends with him crying out in pain.

Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who's an expert in police procedures and the use of force, told the Oakland Tribune that the video left him "astonished, amazed and embarrassed."

"Unless there's something we don't know, that's one of the most outrageous uses of a firearm that I've ever seen," he said. "That just looks like absolute punishment, which is the worst type of excessive force."

These militarized actions have also been dangerous to cover. I was gassed twice on the evening of October 25, and had a flash-bang grenade go off a few feet away, leaving me trembling for hours. Journalist Susie Cagle was teargassed, along with two other reporters, on October 25th and arrested on November 2. Mother Jones' Gavin Aronsen was also teargassed on November 2.

In another departure from past practices, on Monday police let the protesters protest. Whereas they had issued a series of orders to disperse from the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway on the evening of October 25th – and then unleashed a barrage of non-lethal weapons when protesters did not comply – this time they simply let the crowd blow off steam. The police erected and manned barricades to keep protesters in the intersection, where they chanted for an hour or two before losing steam and eventually dispersing, without violence and of their own accord.

What Monday morning's eviction had in common with the one two weeks before is that the end-game is just as unclear. Protesters again promise to reclaim the plaza as soon as police leave. The Oakland City Council has reportedly entertained a proposal to hire private security guards to keep the plaza clear, but this is a cash-strapped city and one has to believe that the occupiers' resolve will outlast the city's private security budget. Monday morning's action reportedly cost the city as much as $500,000 just to cover other agencies' assistance – a figure that excludes its own officers' overtime, staff time, etc. City officials signaled on Monday that they would allow the occupiers to return to the plaza and remain after the 10pm curfew as long as they didn't erect tents.

Meanwhile, the occupiers “reconvened” Monday afternoon at 4pm at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, and were back in the plaza holding a General Assembly by 6pm. It remains to be seen if the city's smarter, less violent crowd-control strategies will continue to prevail. A police officer told CBS political reporter Doug Sovern that they'd have "all hands on deck" for a while due to worries about protesters becoming violent. Those worries are no doubt mutual, and it remains to be seen if the physical restraint displayed by police on Monday morning continues in the days and nights to follow.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.