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Stung by Bad PR, City Officials Adopting New Tactics to Suppress Occupy Oakland

"The government can always articulate rationales for why they're prosecuting one person and not another."

Photo Credit: Clay@SU


Oakland officials have shifted tactics since conducting a series of violent assaults on Occupy Oakland in October and November in the glare of the national media.

Oakland officials have taken a new tack in their suppression of the Occupy movement, one that seems addressed to the city's public relations problems. Gone are the mass arrests, “less-lethal” weaponry and tear gas, replaced with a kind of "lawfare" on the few protesters who remain in the plaza at the foot of Oakland City Hall where the occupation's tent city once stood.

Authorities are no longer routinely claiming that Oakland's occupiers are rioters, arguing instead that they are blocking public access to walkways and possessing unpermitted property -- conduct that may or may not, in fact, be protected under the First Amendment as "expressive" political activities.

Over the last month, the arrests have come in fives and tens, repeatedly targeting some of the same few and most visible activists. 

"One of the things the Oakland Police Department is looking at is changing our strategies on how we deal with these protests," says public information officer Johnna Watson. "We want to do something that's more effective. And one of the things we're looking at is when we have repeat offenders, we don't want to just keep arresting them -- we want to implement other tools that the law allows us."

"Without a declared central leadership, everyone who's really willing to put their bodies on the line to literally stand up for what they believe in is being targeted first," says occupier and Ustreamer Jessica Hollie. "And they happen to be members of the tactical action committee, they happen to be medics, they happen to be 'citizen journalists'."

These new tactics began in mid-December, when Oakland city administrator Deanna Santana told the occupiers at Frank Ogawa plaza outside city hall that they were "creating a threat to public welfare." On December 17, police began issuing citations at the plaza for offenses such as, in one case, leaning a bike against a wall while reading poetry aloud. Tickets handed out to the jovial Interfaith coalition group said only "umbrella." Two people were arrested for refusing to give up blankets, sleeping bags and other property that police alleged was connected with unpermitted lodging.

When occupiers led by the Interfaith group confronted Santana outside of her office on December 19 and demanded answers for what they said was the city's targeting of the poor and people of color, Santana said only that Oakland officials were "clearing the plaza" -- despite the fact that the sustained vigil there had been permitted by the city.

Over the ensuing weeks, the tactics used to clear the plaza have grown harsher. On December 30, Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan visited the plaza and told occupiers they needed to remove property, including food, that afternoon. Shortly thereafter, a melee ensued when officers arrested Tiffany Tran for, as one officer said at the time, "inciting others to have property on the plaza." A dozen occupiers were arrested for a variety of offenses, most felonies, and held over the weekend in jail. Police said occupiers assaulted officers, but no charges were pressed.

Three days later, on January 2, the vigil's permit was revoked. According to the city, Oakland Police Department chief Howard Jordan informed the permit holder, occupier and attorney Becca Von Behren, that the vigil's permitted "teepee and table attract nuisances and illegal activity."

Occupiers braced for a raid. The chaos that ensued late January 4 was unlike any prior crackdown. Hollie and another occupier, a student identified only as Nneka, were escorted by police to the corner, where they were told they could stay if they didn't want to be arrested. A few minutes later, Hollie walked away to film the raid from another location, while Nneka was arrested for obstruction. "I didn't listen," says Hollie. "But they didn't grab me, the popular Ustreamer -- they grabbed the quiet college student."

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