Resisting the Oakland assault

October 27, 2011

Alessandro Tinonga and Scott Sliauzis report from Oakland on the aftermath to a brutal police attack--and the determined stand by Occupy protesters.

AS MANY as 2,000 people reclaimed Oscar Grant Plaza in front of Oakland's City Hall on Wednesday night, 24 hours after the city's police and a dozen other law enforcement agencies unleashed a savage assault on the Occupy Oakland encampment in which one demonstrator was critically injured and more than 100 were arrested.

The October 25 attack on the Occupy movement--carried out by one of the most liberal Democrats holding office anywhere in the country, and in a city with a long history of radical political activism--outraged people in Oakland and far beyond. City officials are facing calls to resign, and the police had to retreat when Occupy activists returned on Wednesday night.

The initial raid on the encampment in downtown Frank Ogawa Plaza--renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by protesters in honor of an unarmed Black man killed by a transit police officer on New Year's Day in 2009--took place in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday when police from around the region suddenly surrounded the camp and stormed in, overturning protesters' tents and ripping up stalls that housed medical and food facilities.

Occupy participants hold a General Assembly in the reclaimed Oscar Grant Plaza
Occupy participants hold a General Assembly in the reclaimed Oscar Grant Plaza (EKA Photography)

Protesters regrouped in the afternoon and marched back to the plaza to demand their right to free speech. By mid-evening, the crowd had swelled to several thousand, and police clad in riot armor once again moved in, firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. The scene was like something out of a Hollywood war movie.

One demonstrator, Veterans for Peace member Scott Olsen, was struck in the head, apparently by a tear gas canister. When protesters tried to come to his aid, the cops lobbed another stun grenade into their midst, delaying Olsen from receiving medical attention. Eventually, activists were able to carry Olsen to a hospital, where he was admitted to intensive care with a fractured skull and brain swelling.

"I'm just absolutely devastated that someone who did two tours of Iraq and came home safely is now lying in a U.S. hospital because of the domestic police force," said a friend, Adele Carpenter.

Shock waves from the bloody police assault reverberated the next day. Mayor Jean Quan appeared before the media alongside the city's police chief and unelected administrator to answer questions about why they gave the order to use brute force on peaceful demonstrators.

The city also spent the day trashing the remains of the Occupy camp and making Oscar Grant Plaza as uninhabitable as possible. But Quan was forced to announce that the square would be reopened that day to demonstrators. When it was, hundreds of people immediately streamed into the area, and that night, several thousand convened for a General Assembly. A fence surrounding the grassy section of the plaza was torn down--and still police stayed away.

The backlash against the police attack in Oakland was felt across the bay in San Francisco, where Occupy demonstrators were facing increasingly pressing threats against their encampment in Justin Herman Plaza along the waterfront.

Hundreds of people gathered to defend the Occupy San Francisco camp from an expected repeat of the Oakland attack. But after gathering a force of cops in riot gear in the early morning hours, the police disappeared. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that police gave the demonstrators "a written notice saying they were calling off the raid."

These events in the Bay Area are showing us a new stage in the Occupy struggle. City officials who may have tolerated protests and encampments for the last month are taking a tougher line now--led by Democrats who claim to sympathize with the demonstrators.

But with their determined mobilizations in Oakland and San Francisco, activists proved that our movement can shame political leaders for their attacks on free speech--and force them to call off their plans for repression. The next step for us is to keep up the pressure--which is why the Oakland General Assembly last night voted almost unanimously to call for a general strike in protest of the assault on Occupy.

AFTER HEARING mounting criticism from city officials, participants in Occupy Oakland knew that an attack from the city was coming this week. But the overwhelming force used early on Tuesday, October 25, was still a shock. "They only gave us a short warning before they moved in," said Mike of Occupy Oakland. "They shot tear gas at us and fired a flash grenade that blew up at the tent in the center of the camp."

As Fatima Mojadiddy told Keith Olbermann on his Current TV network show: "The police fired right at the eye level. We have been feeding hundreds of poor and hungry Americans with very little resources. With the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent last night, they could have used a fraction of that money to bring our kitchen up to code."

Calls went out for a 4 p.m. rally at the public library a few blocks away from Oscar Grant Plaza, and a march to follow. Even on short notice, around 1,000 people came out and heard many voices speaking--by megaphone and the people's mic--including Boots Riley of the Oakland-based hip-hop group The Coup.

A non-permitted march proceeded to the main thoroughfare of Broadway Avenue in an attempt to go to the jail where many protesters arrested earlier were being held. On the way, a line of riot police attempted to steer the march, but protesters broke through the police lines.

When the march turned off Broadway toward the jail, several protesters began yelling at the riot police. One woman who was close to an officer was hit, possibly with a baton, dragged behind the police line, thrown to the ground and arrested.

About a block away, the scene became more confrontational when two more arrests were made for unclear reasons. Demonstrators chanted, "Let them go," and the officers were doused with what appeared to be blue paint. Reinforcements soon arrived, and cops threw stun grenades and tear gas canisters into the crowd, which was a mix of protesters and bystanders watching on the sidewalk.

At this point, the march started heading towards Oscar Grant Plaza. The energized demonstration had swelled to around 2,000 and was a diverse crowd of people of all ages and races. There was a marching band, and many people were chanting slogans such as "They got bailed out, we got sold out," "We are the 99 percent," and "Which side are you on? Not the one with Jean Quan."

When marchers got to the plaza, they found both the square and the City Hall across from it locked down by lines of police and metal barricades. The sea of people converged on the barricades, with many protesters locking arms and continuing to chant. Police gave a dispersal order.

At around 9 p.m., the police attacked, throwing tear gas and stun grenades into the crowd, firing rubber bullets and bean bags. The scene turned to chaos when the cops moved in.

Police claim that demonstrators threw M-80s and other objects at them, and that's why they attacked. But the accounts of those who were there--backed up by video that has circulated on the Internet--make it clear the police were at fault for using overwhelming violence against a peaceful crowd.

One of the victims was Scott Olsen, the Veterans for Peace member and former Marine who was deployed twice to Iraq. After he was apparently struck in the head by a tear gas canister, Claire Chadwick was one of the people who tried to help him. "We went back to get him, yelling, 'We need a medic,'" she said. "He was bleeding out of his mouth and his head."

Then, incredibly, the police fired a stun grenade into the midst of the small group of people trying to help Olsen.

"It's my first protest being attacked by the police," said Danny Cook, who was also at Olsen's side. "Tear gas, beanbags, percussion grenades. My view of the cops has gone from people who protect and serve to the idea that they are against us."

ACTIVISTS MADE plans to return to the square the next day to hold a General Assembly. At that point, no one knew if the protest would be savagely attacked again. But Quan and city officials ordered that the park be reopened--though with fencing surrounding the area where Occupy activists had their encampment.

By 7 p.m., some 2,000 demonstrators had convened in front of City Hall, and a group of them took down the metal fences erected to prevent a new encampment. Police--apparently under orders from city officials frightened by the anger provoked by their attack the night before--kept a low profile.

Authorities once again managed to anger people who were merely exercising their right to protest--by closing down the subway station at the plaza, which prevented anyone from leaving the area easily. Across the bay in San Francisco, the BART stop at the Embarcadero, near the Occupy encampment, was also closed down in an apparent attempt to disrupt the effort to defend it from eviction.

But the vicious attack on the Occupy movement has only sparked people to stand up in defense of our movement. Without the thousands of people--young and old, Black and white, unionists and community activists--who came out on Wednesday, it wouldn't have been possible to retake the square.

"I saw on the news that a woman in a wheelchair got tear-gassed," said Wesley Barton. "And I realized that I knew her. Plus, me and 300 other people got laid off from my company today. People are just getting screwed, and I knew I had to be down here."

Jessica Codispoti echoed the same sentiments. "After hearing about last night, I was outraged, and I wanted to join my fellow 99 percent," she said. "The city should use money to create jobs. They should stop closing schools while they spend money on cops to shut down protests."

Thousands participated in the General Assembly to decide the next step for the movement. In a fantastic demonstration of our movement's power, more than 1,000 participants spent hours discussing future actions and decided to call for a general strike on Wednesday, November 2.

What shape this general strike will take depends on what activists do now, but we know we can build a massive demonstration of solidarity for the Occupy struggle. Right now, there is tremendous energy and support for the movement--and anger at the police and city officials. We can build further action based on demands that Quan and the Oakland police chief resign; all charges be dropped against Occupy activists; all restrictions on the encampment be lifted; and to cut spending on police brutalizers in order to fund schools and libraries.

Occupy Oakland has won for now against the national effort to crack down on the movement. We have not been silenced. In fact, the efforts of police and city officials to stifle the right to protest has made people more determined to speak out.

Adam Balogh, Todd Chretien, Francois Hughes and Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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