UPDATE: We've corrected a few factual mistakes. We originally reported that protesters forced open the door of the YMCA; in fact, they asked to be let in and they were. We regret the error.
An Occupy Oakland march that turned violent Jan. 28 led to the arrest of 400 people, including me.
The march, which peaked at about 2,000 protesters, was organized with the intention of entering a vacant building -- the Kaiser Convention Center -- and turning it into a new “Social Center” that participants in Occupy Oakland hoped to use to gather, teach, and organize.
The move was more than symbolic. Occupy activists have engaged in constant debate about tactics and goals, particularly when it comes to violence and property destruction, and it’s hard to argue at this point that Occupy Oakland is a nonviolent movement.
But many thought that the goal of occupying a vacant building made sense. When Occupy Oakland had a camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza, also known as Oscar Grant Plaza, commonly described as OGP, it created a strong community. It’s a community that bridged divides between the homeless and the housed, between students and labor organizers, and between Oakland residents of different races, genders and levels of ability in an unprecedented fashion.
Besides that, the camp had a kitchen that fed hundreds of people everyday. The camp had a network of shared tents and blankets that welcomed in hundreds who would have slept freezing on the streets, often feeling isolated from other residents of their city and made to feel inferior. Now, they had a place to stay that was warmer, more safe and secure, and was embedded in a community bound together by ties of solidarity.
That community was able to thrive in it’s centralized camp location.
That was the practical reason for wanting to occupy a vacant building: to have a social center for Occupy Oakland.
Of course, there are other reasons. There’s the question that many squatters and homeless advocacy groups have been making for decades: why let buildings lie vacant while people freeze on the street?
The march set off from OGP at 1 p.m. Jan. 28. There was no ambiguity about group’s goal: Many pushed carts stacked with furniture, hoping to furnish the new center; others held a large banner reading “Vacant? Take it!”
Many other Occupy groups around the world, including protesters in Washington DC, London, England, and Belfast, Ireland, have taken over vacant buildings in an attempt to create social centers, house homeless community members and protest injustice symbolized by buildings lying vacant while people live on the street.
In Oakland, the attempts were staved off when riot police lined up in front of the march and declared unlawful assemblies.
In front of the Convention Center, police threw smoke bombs into the crowd and warned that those who refused to disperse would be arrested. The march continued around the corner to 12th St and Oak, where protesters and police were involved in another confrontation. Police shot smoke bombs and “pepper bombs,” canisters of pepper spray that explode on impact, into the crowd. Some in the march responded by throwing canisters, along with plastic bottles, back at police. Masked protesters in the front of the group brandished makeshift shields. Protesters say the shields were there to protect them from rubber bullets and bean bag rounds.
The cops had a different perspective. “It became clear that the objective of this crowd was not to peacefully assemble and march, but to seek opportunity to further criminal acts, confront police, and repeatedly attempt to illegally occupy buildings,” said Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan in a press release.
In a tense moment, hundreds knelt to hide behind the frontline shields while police fired rubber bullets into the crowd.
When police began to advance at both the front and back end of the group, protesters retreated, marching on 12th St back to Ogawa/Grant Plaza.
As they marched on 12th street, Occupy Oakland-affiliated street medics treated injuries from tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. Police followed in the rear of the march, continuing to project exploding flash-bang grenades at the crowd.
At about 5:30, another march left from the plaza, again with the stated attention of occupying a building. Police marched behind protesters. When the march cut through Fox Square in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, police filled in all surrounding sides of the march. Protesters have used the term “kettling” to describe a situation in which police line up on all sides of a group, blocking anyone in the group from leaving.
After “kettling” hundreds of protesters at this location, police began to deploy tear gas. Some protesters with makeshift plastic and metal shields, many marked with the “circle-A” anarchy symbol, advanced towards police. Several police beat the shield back with batons and struck some protesters.
One 19-year-old woman who was struck with a baton to the kidneys was brought to the hospital and treated for internal bleeding.
At Fox Square, police announced that the gathering was an unlawful assembly. Minutes later, some protesters knocked over a line of chain-link fencing, allowing the march to exit the “kettle.” The march continued on Telegraph.
When the march arrived at Broadway between 22nd and 23rd streets, protesters asked to be let into the YMCA and someone who was in there opened the doors. Police later closed in on both sides until they had formed a line preventing the approximately 400 protesters from exiting.
On Broadway, there was no dispersal order issued. This is in violation of the Oakland Police Department's crowd control policy, which 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.”
About 6:30 p.m., police announced that all of the blocked-in group was under arrest.
It was more than six hours before the sidewalk was cleared of all detainees. Most are charged with failure to disperse. Some, such as those who entered the YMCA, have been charged with burglary.
Dozens of protesters who had avoided arrest marched back to City Hall. There, they illegally entered the building and committed several acts of vandalism. According to a press release, these included “breaking an interior window to a Hearing Room, tipping over and seriously damaging the historic model of City Hall, destroying a case containing a model of Frank Ogawa Plaza, and breaking into the fire sprinkler and elevator automation closet.” Protesters also report setting off fireworks in the counsel chambers.
Some protesters took an American flag from City Hall and burned it in front of the government building.
Oakland officials have complained about the cost of the protests. The city had reportedly spent $2.4 million policing Occupy Oakland protesters as of November 15, just weeks after announcing the decision to close down five elementary schools to save $2 million.
Occupy activists say the huge -- expensive -- police presence is an overreaction.
“The amount of property damage by protesters has been minimal next to Mayor Quan's destruction of the humanitarian Occupy Oakland community and excessive force against peaceful people, said Wendy Kenin, an Occupy Oakland spokesperson. “The City of Oakland's commitment to militarism far outweighs its investment in schools.
Kenin said she was back at Occupy Oakland outside City Hall, with her four children, the day after the incidents.
There were no arrests made in the City Hall incident, partly because so many police resources were deployed at the YMCA.
Cities and counties that provided police reenforcements to handle the mass arrests include Alameda County, San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, San Francisco County and Marin County and the cities of Fremont, Hayward, Berkeley, Pleasanton, San Francisco and Union City/Newark; and the University of California-Berkeley, according to an Oakland Police Department press release.
Dozens of those detained were brought to Glenn Dyer jail, which quickly filled up; the rest were brought to Santa Rita jail in Dublin.
Several members of the press, as well as passers-by who were on their way to work in the area, were swept up in the arrests.
In jail, those detained debated tactics involved in the day’s demonstrations and discussed the future of Occupy Oakland.
The number of injured protesters is unknown, but in the 19-person sampling of arrestees with whom I spent 20 hours, two had bruises from baton strikes, one suffered from an injured foot after a pepper-bomb exploded upon impact with her ankle, and most had irritation in their eyes, ears, and throat from exposure to tear gas and pepper spray.
Oakland police report that three officers were injured.
As of the morning of Jan. 30, about 100 remained in Santa Rita.