Police Being Sued for Violent Crackdown on Occupy Oakland
The National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed suit on Monday against the Oakland Police Department, and any local agencies assisting them, for its widespread use of excessive force against Occupy Oakland protesters on October 25 and during the night of November 2.
That OPD has shown contempt for the rule of law in its violent crackdowns on dissent, and departed dramatically from what the department itself views as best practices for balancing public safety and free speech, is evident from the nature of the lawsuit: the civil rights attorneys are trying to compel OPD to follow its own crowd-control policy.
“Generally, the issue with excessive force cases is whether the force applied was reasonable under the circumstances,” Linda Lye, an ACLU staff attorney on the case told AlterNet. “And law enforcement will often argue, 'well, we needed to apply the force in a given circumstance because it was necessary to achieve our legitimate law enforcement goals.' Here, when OPD is systematically violating specific provisions in its own crowd control policy, there can be no argument that they need to do this, because the guildelines already represent what OPD thinks is reasonable in these circumstances.” She added: “It's outrageous.”
The guidelines were drawn as part of a settlement of a 2003 suit – also filed by the Lawyers Guild and ACLU NorCal – stemming from a case in which OPD used an abundance of violence against peaceful protesters demonstrating against the invasion of Iraq. “The crowd control policy represents even OPD's view of best practices,” said Lye. She explained that they detail exactly ”when you can declare an assembly unlawful, when you can require a group of people assembled together to disperse, and how you go about doing that.”
Just about everything I witnessed on October 25 and November 2 violated those guidelines. Police repeatedly fired teargas, “less-lethal” projectiles and flash-bang grenades into a sea of protesters, actions they later claimed were justified because their officers were being hit by objects thrown by a few individuals in the crowd.
But the guidelines clearly state that less-lethal munitions “may never be used indiscriminately against a crowd or group of persons, even if some members of the crowd or group are violent or disruptive.”
“Crowds of protesters are heterogenous,” said Lye. “They simply cannot deploy these weapons against a whole group of people because a few of them throw some objects.”
The guidelines forbid deploying teargas or flash-bang grenades directly at a crowd of protesters, regardless of what's happening on the street; these weapons are supposed to be detonated a safe distance away from people's bodies. The suit charges that “officers threw them directly at the crowd, and without any audible warnings of their imminent use,” and notes that “one such volley of projectiles fractured the skull of United States Marine Corps veteran Scott Olsen, causing him to fall to the ground and putting him in the hospital for three weeks.”
OPD may only use less-lethal projectiles against an individual who poses an imminent threat. Even then, the guidelines prohibit their use except when such an “individual can be targeted without endangering other crowd members or bystanders.”
“It's a high threshhold,” said Lye. She added that a plastic water bottle thrown at a heavily armored police officer doesn't meet the standard.
Scott Campbell, one of the plaintiffs in the case, was anything but an "imminent threat" when a police officer decided to shoot him with a beanbag round – a fabric bag full of lead shot fired from a shotgun. He captured the assault in a video that has since gone viral (you can view the brief clip below).
“I was out there that night, but I wasn't interested in a confrontation with the police,” he told AlterNet. “I didn't want to be arrested, I didn't want to engage in violence or property destruction – I was simply out there as a supporter of Occupy Oakland and as a 'citizen-journalist.' I was tweeting and taking photos and providing news from the ground."
Campbell was removed from the heart of the action when the incident happened. “At the location where I was shot, there were no confrontations or provocations or violence going on whatsoever,” he said. “There was really nothing to cause concern on the part of the police officers.”
“There were at least two dozen police officers,” explained Campbell. “I approached the line, and an officer told me to step back.” On the video, you can hear him ask twice, “is this OK?” He got no response, assumed he was at an acceptable distance from the police, and then suddenly found himself writhing in pain. “It was an incredible shock – I didn't actually see the officer lift his weapon as I looked through the viewfinder of my camera. I just saw the flash and then instantly felt a severe pain in my leg.” Campbell said the projectile went through his pants, created an open gash an inch and a half long on his upper thigh, sustained bruising and a “large welt” that impaired his movement for several days.
The shooting was an act of punishment – basically the definition of an illegal use of excessive force. Another protester, shot at random, tried to escape by moving past the police line. According to the suit, “when he asked police why they were shooting at him, he was shot again. He was hit at least 8 times with beanbags, rubber bullets or pepperballs, causing pain, swelling, bruising and bleeding.”
The lawsuit asks for an emergency injunction against the OPD restricting its use of force against protesters and mandating compliance with its own crowd control manual. According to Linda Lye, because the crowd control manual was the result of a civil settlement, it represents “an explicit contract between law enforcement and the citizens of Oakland." She said a breach of contract claim was part of the suit.
The case is currently before United States District Court Judge Richard Seeborg, who ordered the city to respond by 5pm Tuesday. If the injunction is granted, and OPD were to continue to use the same tactics in upcoming actions, the department could be held in contempt of court.
Meanwhile, Scott Campbell is still recovering from his injury and intends to continue documenting the actions of Occupy Oakland. But the violence he experienced has had an effect. “I wish it weren't the case,” he told me, “but it's definitely made me more fearful of going out there, especially when I see riot police. It does concern me about going out there in the future – I'm more anxious, more hesitant, and when the situation gets tense, then I'm more inclined to leave than I typically would be.”
Video: Scott Campbell is shot with a less-lethal projectile.