#OccupySF "Crushed"? What I Read on Twitter Didn't Quite Match What I Saw

You should keep in mind that messages relayed via social media like Twitter (follow me!) are a bit like that old game of telephone -- each retweet alters the sense of the original. Also: people engaged in emotionally charged situations -- like confronting a line of riot cops while occupying a city street -- can be a bit excitable.

At about 10:30 last night, the word started going around: in the dead of night, the SFPD was preparing to move in and crush #OccupySF -- one of hundreds of occupations around the country. They needed witnesses -- as many warm bodies as they could rouse! 

How could I not respond to such a call? I arrived at around 11 to find a lot of agitated protesters holding a meeting. Around the corner, about 70 police milled about casually, no doubt enjoying some easy overtime. Asking around, I soon found out what was happening: SFPD had handed out an order that the occupiers' tents needed to come down. At around 11:45, the senior cop on the scene added that all items on the ground would be removed at midnight.

Now, some of the protesters had been living on Market Street in front of the Federal Reserve building for weeks, and had built a little community right there in a touristy drag of San Francisco. They had a kitchen, a library, a medical station and lots of tents. And the prospect of losing all of that was clearly unnerving.

I then got a peek at what genuine democracy looks like -- it's a messy and beautiful thing to behold. The protesters, using the now-famous "human mic," were debating whether to resist the police or acquiesce and let them grab all the stuff laying on the ground. (They also organized everyone with access to a vehicle to pick up as much stuff as possible before the deadline.) And there wasn't consensus -- some said that to yield to police coercion would betray the movement, other felt that maintaining the occupation was paramount, with or without a bunch of gear. 

Now, here's an important point: there were a minority among the group that were perfectly willing to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience. We have a rich tradition of that -- it's nothing new. So it was decided that those who wished to risk arrest could, while the far larger group supported them in such a way that they wouldn't be nicked as well.

The midnight deadline came and went, and then, because this isn't New York, word spread that San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos was on his way down to show support for the protesters. When he went across the street to speak with the head cop on the scene (commander? supervisor?), I followed along and listened in on their conversation. The top-cop said that he was in a holding pattern to give the protesters time to clear out as much stuff as they were going to, but that his job was to escort the Department of Public Works guys while they cleaned up the site. The camp is in front of an office building, and there were numerous health and safety violations, he said, including cooking with open fires, camping without permits, etc., etc. He made it clear that he wasn't there to dislodge the protesters out of the street. And he said that the stuff DPW took would be held and could be claimed anytime in the next 30 days (after which I guess it gets trashed).

Avalos -- who may have won a few votes last night -- tried to reason with him. To the best of my memory, he said, 'look, I'll try to convince them that complying is the best way to go, but you know I don't really control anyone here. And what I'm worried about is that your guys will go in, and people will react. Because it's tense. And then you'll use force, and I'm worried things will escalate. And I don't want anyone getting hurt -- I don't want your guys getting hurt either. So, what I'm saying is: is it really worth it?" And the cop was... largely uninterested. Avalos asked, 'are you prepared to use force to clean out some garbage?' and the response was, 'yes.'

Now, at this point, my cellphone is dying, it's approaching 2 am and I go home to walk my dog. So I caught the actual operation, which went down at around 2:30 am, from home via livestream -- because the Revolution Will Be Televised by shaky cell-phone cameras. 

Now, the thing is that the police could have diffused the situation without much trouble -- these occupiers are very serious about the nonviolence. But what they did was go in in riot gear and create a line, where they stood, stone-faced and unresponsive to questions about what's going on. They escalated things needlessly, when they could have talked their way to their goal.

And they did so with a crowd that included people who were willing to be arrested, or at least confront the cops. So, some people tried to block the DPW trucks, or refused orders to stand on the sidewalk, and the police used force. There was one protester reportedly arrested for allegedly assaulting an officer. And then DPW swept up all their stuff and the police retreated.

Now, I was watching my Twitter feed at the same time, and judging from the stream one would think that the City of San Francisco had brought in the Syrian Army to randomly fire on the protesters. The cops were crushing #OccupySf! Arresting everybody! Stealing their stuff! And, you know, it was really a matter of the authorities asserting... well, their authority, and maybe an element of harassment, but it was also about cleaning up the sidewalks safely. Was it handled professionally? Well, in all likelihood it was, and that's part of the problem: the police's standard operating procedures do not include defusing tensions as common sense would dictate. It's about applying controlled force -- if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to defend SFPD, but to caution against believing everything that comes down your Twitter stream from people who may be excited at the time. (Of course, you can't really trust the mainstream media either -- this Chronicle piece says the confrontation happened before 1 am.)

The occupiers are still there, and their numbers have grown each time I've visited. They need various goods, and are also looking for vehicles to help pick up the stuff taken last night by DPW. You can see what they need here. If you're in the Bay Area, I also recommend that you go down there and see for yourself what's happening. If you're not, here's a list of over 200 Occupy events across the country.

By Joshua Holland

Posted at October 6, 2011, 12:27pm

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