Clashes in Oakland: 400 Arrests, Tear Gas, Flash-Bang Grenades
Downtown Oakland turned ugly once again on Saturday, as Occupy activists attempting to squat in a long-abandoned city building were met by lines of heavily-armored riot police. Police officials said that 400 arrests followed – a number that may represent as much as 30 percent of everyone who participated in the day's actions, according to police estimates of the crowd's size.
Occupy Oakland organizers said some protesters were hospitalized, but the exact number of injuries is unknown as if this writing. According to organizers, four journalists were swept up by police, including AlterNet contributor Susie Cagle and Mother Jones correspondent Gavin Aronsen. Cagle was reportedly cited and released; organizers say Aronsen was jailed overnight (update: Aronsen tells us that he was released last night).
It was, once again, a tale of two protests. Accounts in the corporate media relied primarily on police statements to paint protesters as wild animals running amok in the city, while those following the day's events via a small group of “citizen-journalists” broadcasting raw, unedited footage from their cell-phones and flip-cams got a wildly divergent view of exactly how things escalated.
A livestream offered by Occupy Oakland's Mark Mason and Chris Krakauer showed protesters approaching the Henry Kaiser Convention Center in the early afternoon, where they were greeted by skirmish lines of police clad in riot gear. At one point, Mason, narrating as he moved through the crowd, could be heard saying, “uh-oh, some people are throwing things at the cops,” before moving away from the front-lines. Later, an Occupier visiting from Los Angeles told Mason of confronting one of the protesters who had thrown an object at police. “That's just stupid, you know,” said the young woman. “And she threw it from the middle of the crowd, which just puts people in the front in danger.”
Police declared the protest an unlawful assembly, and soon afterward, a series of explosions could be heard on the livestream as police deployed either teargas canisters or “flash-bang” grenades to disperse the crowd. This appears to be a violation of the Oakland Police Department's (OPD) own crowd-control guidelines, which were drawn up as part of a settlement of a 2003 suit filed by the National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU of Northern California after a case in which OPD used an abundance of violence against peaceful protesters demonstrating against the invasion of Iraq.
The guidelines 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.”
“Bean-bag” shotgun rounds and/or rubber-coated steel bullets were also used by police, according to official reports. But OPD may only use less-lethal projectiles against an individual who poses an imminent threat and, even then, the guidelines prohibit their use except when such an “individual can be targeted without endangering other crowd members or bystanders.”
The Associated Press quoted City Administrator Deanna Santana saying that police “responded” to object being thrown “by deploying smoke, tear gas and bean bag rounds.” “These demonstrators stated their intention was to provoke officers and engage in illegal activity and that's exactly what has occurred today."
But OPD's large-scale use of force against the mostly peaceful crowd visibly escalated the tension. “There are fucking kids here!” one activist could be heard shouting on Mark Mason's livestream. “What's wrong with you fucking people?” It was soon after the explosions that protesters began chanting “fuck the pigs!”
Soon after this initial confrontation, the Occupiers retreated back to Frank Ogawa Plaza, which served as the location for their encampment – a tent city that Oakland officials cleared twice last fall. One organizer complimented the majority of activists for remaining peaceful throughout the clash. “Today was the most disciplined I've ever seen Occupy Oakland,” he said.
The Occupiers, after regrouping, then set off for a second march. Their intended destination was unclear, as police immediately began “herding” protesters – in Mason's words – towards a small plaza at the intersection of 19th and Rashida Muhammad Street, where they attempted to “kettle” several hundred protesters. It's unclear why the attempt failed, but protesters evaded the trap and continued on until they reached Broadway and 23rd street, where OPD succeeded in boxing them in. Several protesters ran through the Downtown YMCA building seeking to escape arrest, according to live-streamer Spencer Mills. It was here that the majority of arrests took place.
Mills said that no dispersal order was given at the location; police told him that several had been issued along the route. But the OPD manual states that, “If after a crowd disperses pursuant to a declaration of unlawful assembly and subsequently participants assemble at a different geographic location where the participants are engaged in non-violent and lawful First Amendment activity, such an assembly cannot be dispersed unless it has been determined that it is an unlawful assembly and the required official declaration has been adequately given.”
Protesters, including peaceful protesters, weren't given an opportunity to disperse. OPD's crowd control manual states that an order to disperse, “shall also specify adequate egress or escape routes. Whenever possible, a minimum of two escape/egress routes shall be identified and announced.”
While the main body of protesters were being “herded” by OPD and eventually kettled at 23rd street, a smaller group broke into City Hall, where “they burned flags, broke an electrical box and damaged several art structures,” according to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan speaking at a press conference. Quan, blaming a small "very radical, violent" splinter group for the mayhem, called on the Occupy movement to "stop using Oakland as its playground."
"People in the community and people in the Occupy movement have to stop making excuses for this behavior," she said.
But Michael Davis, a visitor from Occupy Cincinnati, told the Associated Press that a day of action which began peacefully escalated when police began using "flash bangs, tear gas, smoke grenades and bean bags," in apparent violation of OPD policy.
The chronology is important to get right. By definition, protesters feel angry and aggrieved, and when force is applied indiscriminately on a crowd – and not directed at a handful of people seeking confrontation – it ratchets up the tension to a point where more confrontations become almost inevitable.
We've seen that sequence of events unfold repeatedly in Oakland. In November, AlterNet spoke with Linda Lye, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, about a suit the group had filed attempting to compel OPD to follow its own crowd control policies. “Crowds of protesters are heterogenous,” she said. “They simply cannot deploy these weapons against a whole group of people because a few of them throw some objects.”
“The crowd control policy represents OPD's view of best practices,” Lye continued. “Generally, the issue with excessive force cases is whether the force applied was reasonable under the circumstances, 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 guidelines already represent what OPD thinks is reasonable in these circumstances.”
The lawsuit filed by ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild is pending. In the meantime, relations between the community, police and city officials, and the Occupiers continue to be strained by the police violence and protester vandalism that have plagued so many actions over the past six months in Oakland.