Obstructions of justice

Controversial arrests of OccupyOakland participants raise civil liberties concerns

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Carly (left) is arrested Dec. 30 for having a yoga mat, as were two tree sitters (right)
PHOTOS BY ADAM KATZ

The uneasy relationship between OccupyOakland and the Oakland Police Department has resulted in a troubling spate of controversial arrests recently.

At a press conference last month, Police Chief Howard Jordan stated, "The plaza area outside of City Hall is a public area. We do not have any legal right to remove you if you're standing there, at any time during the day, if you're exercising you're First Amendment rights. If you're not breaking the laws, we're not concerned about your presence."

But now, Oakland police have arrested dozens of people who were doing little more than "standing there, exercising their First Amendment rights" — and one man even faces life in prison for it.

There have been 40 arrests in the last couple weeks, including two incidents at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. In each episode, police say they were just doing their job, enforcing laws surrounding permit violations. But many supporters and lawyers associated with OccupyOakland say that police have created a targeted and discriminatory campaign to wipe out the movement.

 

VIGIL TURNS VIOLENT

About 100 protesters were present at a permitted vigil on Dec. 30. An OccupyOakland participant had been issued a permit for a teepee and one table, but police showed up at noon to explain that they were in violation of that permit, claiming people were sleeping, eating, bringing in trash cans, and storing belongings in the teepee

Protesters say they were cleaning up the plaza when police started making arrests; police say they refused to comply. But both parties say that the scene turned violent.

"Who instigates the violence? I don't know," Matt Perry, a movement supporter, told us. "A cop tells you to back up and you don't back up, he's gonna use his baton on you."

But many of the arrests and citations had nothing to do with assault. Carly says she was arrested for "having a yoga mat under her arm." She was later charged with obstruction of justice. In an even more puzzling case, 23-year-old Tiffany Tran was arrested and charged with "lynching."

"The taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer is a lynching," reads California Penal Code 405a, a felony charge punishable by two to four years in prison.

The law attempts to prevent white mobs from forcibly taking African Americans from police custody to kill them, but police have a history of using it against protesters, stating that anyone trying to stop an arrest is guilty of lynching.

Tran says she was held in a pitch-dark police van for seven hours before she was booked at Santa Rita Jail, where she was held in 22-hour daily lockdown due to overcrowding. She was held for four days without being told why.

On the fourth day, she was finally arraigned, but prosecutors opted not to file charges and she was released. But Tran said the tactic left her uneasy because prosecutors said charges could still be filed until the statute of limitations expires in a year. As she told us, "Now I feel I can't go out and express myself as I should be able to."

 

ON THE GROUND

When I arrived at 10pm on Jan. 4 to investigate the situation at the vigil, the scene was calm. About 40 people sat and talked, a few worked on computers.

"Some of the people here were arrested mainly for contempt of cop, or being against the government. And then charges of lynching or obstruction of justice were brought after the fact to substantiate an unlawful arrest, to allow the wheels of so-called justice to turn a few more times," Svend La Rose, an ordained minister and member of OccupyOakland's tactical action committee, said of the Dec. 30 arrests.

Suddenly, the cry of "riot police!" rang out.

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