Powerful, mostly peaceful Oakland action ends badly

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After a long day of mostly peaceful demonstrations by thousands of protesters who joined OccupyOakland's General Strike and Day of Action yesterday, it's still unclear why the Oakland Police – which had stood down the entire day, leaving the movement to self-police – massed in riot gear around midnight and used tear gas and other projectiles to clear the streets and make a reported 80 arrests.

Spokespersons for the Oakland Police Department and Mayor Jean Quan haven't returned Guardian phone calls, and reports in the Oakland Tribune and other media outlets don't indicate exactly what prompted police to change tactics and aggressively confront the demonstration. Protesters had taken over a vacant building and erected barricades in the streets shortly before riot police showed up, and it appears from a Tribune video that a dumpster was set on fire after the police showed up.

Before the standoff between city officials and demonstrators in Oakland again took a violent turn, the day was notable for its lack of police presence around the occupied Oscar Grant Plaza and nearby 14th and Broadway epicenter. And despite a small number of masked agitators who broke bank windows and sprayed graffiti – much to the chagrin of most protesters who actively opposed such tactics – the movement was remarkably nonviolent and self-policing, particularly given a crowd of what seemed to be around 10,000 people at its peak. Protesters even handled traffic control, using a megaphone to help motorists through intersections congested with passing demonstrators.

“This is an extraordinarily peaceful collection of diverse people,” Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) told the Guardian just after 5 pm as a massive march left the encampment to shut down the Port of Oakland. “I feel like they're doing what no elected person can do: they're putting economic equity issues in front of the American people.”

“This is beautiful and powerful. This I love,” agreed Oakland City Council member Libby Schaaf, beaming as the peaceful march took off, although she told us that she was disappointed to see Oakland businesses vandalized, including her beloved Noah's Bagels. “Fight greed, not bagels.”

Most of the crowd condemned the violence, and many openly worried that it would undercut the positive demonstration of people power and the airing of frustration with economic injustices in the country. But even Hancock said a few bad apples shouldn't spoil people's understanding of what an important day it was.

“I'm very grateful to them for calling attention to economic inequality. It is in the interests of cities that this issue take center stage,” Hancock told us. “There are so many things that have been talked about that are now on the stage and it's a very important conversation to have.”

But many in the movement were disappointed nonetheless, despite the myriad successes in shutting down business nonviolently. Around 3 pm, a crowd of thousands marched past a Chase Bank at 20th and Berkeley streets where the front window had been shattered, as was the case with at least six other businesses. Taped to the windows were signs reading “We are better than this” and “This is not the 99%. Sorry, the 99%”.

As the huge crowd repeatedly chanted “peaceful protest,” Ryan, a 31-year-old Oakland resident, expressed his frustration over vandalism he blamed on out-of-town instigators. “People from Oakland would not damage their city like that,” he told me. “Last week was beautiful, we were dancing and singing in the streets,” he said, referring to the largely nonviolent response to police violence, “but this is bullshit.”

Large protests almost always have members who want to escalate the conflict and who see breaking windows as a legitimate tactic, and yesterday there were sometimes tense conflicts between protesters who disagreed on the issue. Another complex issue is how to now view Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, whose support for last week's violent police crackdown prompted calls for her recall or resignation, although her subsequent apology, the re-encampment of Frank Ogawa Plaza, and yesterday's police stand down caused some to rethink whether to actively oppose her.

“My goal for today is to spur the international movement forward and to show what we're capable of,” said 23-year-old Iris Brilliant, who got more actively involved in OccupyOakland after the crackdown and said she was happy to see the police kept at bay. “It's important to push this forward.”

But Tania Kappner, a 41-year-old teacher from Oakland, still hadn't forgiven Quan or the police for the violent excesses in last week's raid. She was camped out in Oscar Grant Plaza in a tent with the sign “Mayor Quan Must Go!”

“It's good she's not sending them in on us today, but she never should have done it in the first place,” Kappner told us. “We're calling for her to go and the police who did it to be jailed.”

With the decision to again unleash the riot police and tear gas and arrest big numbers of people – which was the very thing that prompted such huge numbers of people to turn out yesterday, giving OccupyOakland the numbers and power to easily shut down the port and dozens of businesses – Oakland and the larger Occupy movement might again find itself back at square one.

The National Lawyer's Guild, which had observers on hand to witness the late-night police crackdown, issued a statement today condemning the city's actions and saying they violate a crowd control police the NLG helped the city write to settle lawsuits stemming from the OPD's use of rubber bullets to clear anti-war protesters from the Port of Oakland back in 2003.

“Like we saw last Tuesday, the OPD actions in the late night hours violated numerous provisions of the Crowd Control Policy and the Constitutional rights of activists,” explained NLG’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter president Michael Flynn. “Our legal observers did not disobey any police orders and neither did many of the other arrestees.”
“The Crowd Control Policy clearly prohibits shooting munitions into a crowd,” added NLG attorney Rachel Lederman. “While the police are allowed to use tear gas, they are supposed to use a minimum amount and only where other crowd control tactics have failed.  It is not at all clear that less violent and less provocative measures would not have sufficed to achieve any legitimate law enforcement objectives last night.”

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee has reportedly assured OccupySF that he won't follow through on threats to raid the camp if tents aren't removed, at least not anytime soon (many observers speculate that he'll at least wait until after next week's mayoral election). But Lee has been unwilling to make a clear public statement that raids are now off the table.

When we sought to clarify Lee's position and get his reaction to a Board of Supervisors resolution calling for the city to allow a 24/7 encampment, his Press Secretary Christine Falvey wrote: “The mayor has not focused on the resolution, but has been focusing on meeting with clergy, labor, occupysf demonstrators and his department heads to make sure that the site is kept clean, safe and accessible for everyone. He remains concerned about overnight camping and the public health and safety issues that brings. That said, he has seen some good progress over the last few days because of his open communication with the group. DPW cleaned up the site over the weekend and the demonstrators helped facilitate the cleanup. Tents were moved off the Bocce Ball Court as well. The group is working with Fire and Public Health officials to make some improvements. The dialogue is ongoing.”

Photos by Steven T. Jones