Oakland police attack Occupiers

January 31, 2012

Alessandro Tinonga and Adam Balogh report from Oakland on a crackdown by police against an Occupy demonstration to find a new home for the movement.

AT LEAST 300 people were arrested January 28 after an Occupy Oakland demonstration aimed at taking over an abandoned building to establish a new base camp for the movement.

Police used tear gas, stun grenades and other weapons in commercial and residential areas alike and detained hundreds of mostly peaceful demonstrators without warning. It was a replay of the cops' behavior last October, when they cleared an encampment in the renamed Oscar Grant Plaza across from Oakland's City Hall--and then attacked protesters, nearly killing Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen when he was struck in the head with a tear gas canister.

Also like before, Saturday's police assault was sanctioned by Oakland's political leaders, including Mayor Jean Quan, a self-described liberal who claims she supports the demands of the Occupy movement, but orders vicious force against its peaceful demonstrations. City officials demonstrated their warped priorities again, sparing no expense to protect an abandoned building, using all the tools of repression at their disposal.

Oakland riot police move in on Occupy protesters
Oakland riot police move in on Occupy protesters (Glenn Halog)

Now, Quan is denouncing Occupy activists for their "irresponsibility" and "violence"--and claiming she will call on the "national leaders" of the Occupy movement to disown Occupy Oakland--even though video of last weekend's confrontations shows the police were the violent ones.

Meanwhile, the media defended the repression, repeating wild accusations about protesters without questioning the brutality of police.

For over a month, Occupy Oakland activists organized for a mass protest on January 28 to seize an abandoned building, in the hopes of creating a new space to strengthen the collective organizing at the center of the movement. In a statement, activists declared, "Occupy Oakland, like millions of people, needs a home...[T]housands of buildings sit empty...[W]ith our own space, we can create a social center that begins to meet people's needs--our needs--and work to build a word based on humanity and community, not profit."

The mobilization was widely publicized, but only a small group of organizers knew the location of the potential building occupation in order to keep it secret from the police. Activists planned a schedule of workshops, speak-outs, meetings and cultural events, to be followed by a festival of resistance, after the building was occupied.

What you can do

You can contribute to the Occupy Oakland emergency bail fund to help activists who were arrested on the January 28 demonstration.

Initial court dates for some of those detained have been set for February 6. Occupy Oakland has set a day of protest in solidarity with those arrested, starting at 9 a.m. at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse at Washington and 7th, with a rally at Oscar Grant Plaza at Noon. Look for more details at the Occupied Oakland Tribune website.

But police moved in to block any attempt at occupation--and then devoted the rest of the day to harassing and abusing demonstrators, injuring dozens of people and arresting hundreds.

THE DAY began at noon, with nearly 2,000 people gathering at Oscar Grant Plaza. A march through downtown Oakland began an hour later. A contingent of riot police tailed the demonstration, creating a tense and potentially dangerous situation from the start, since the children and parents' contingent and several elderly people were at the end of the march. One woman was arrested when she fell behind police lines, and officers pushed an elderly man to the ground, though he wasn't arrested.

The march got to Laney Community College, where it was bottled up in the narrow causeways that connect the campus. Tensions rose when police blocked off several streets in the area behind campus, but most demonstrators were able to make their way through the campus to 12th Street.

As the crowd marched down 12th Street, it passed the intended target of the occupation, the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. A string of police formed parallel to demonstrators, some armed with shotguns, to protect the center. When demonstrators pushed down the chain-link fence in front of police line, police threw smoke grenades into the crowd.

Unable to take the center from this location, the march headed up 12th Street and turned to make another attempt to take the center. During a standoff in front of the Oakland Museum, a contingent of demonstrators with homemade shields tried to advance. The police threw several CS canisters and flash grenades and fired numerous beanbag pellets into the crowd. The firepower of the police effectively forced the march to retreat down an alley, and demonstrators decided to head back to Oscar Grant Plaza.

When the march returned to the plaza, spirits remained high, despite not being able to occupy the building. Most protesters took a rest, while police kept their distance.

After a few hours, in the early evening, several hundred people--far fewer than had taken part in the earlier protest--began a second march to try to occupy another abandoned building. But protesters never reached the second site. As marchers headed through the streets, police tried to block off the surrounding streets to trap the demonstration. Demonstrators were essentially corralled into Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park.

Police gave the one and only order to disperse here, and later claimed it applied for the whole night--in fact, some activists say they never heard even this one order to disperse. Police then refused to let anyone leave the park and used tear gas on the crowd. But protesters managed to escape back onto Telegraph Avenue by knocking over a chain-link fence.

For the next hour, police continued to pursue demonstrators, hoping to stop the protest and shut it down. At 24th and Broadway, the cops surrounded the demonstration. When protesters went into a YMCA to try to escape the assault, the police rounded up people inside and arrested them en masse, including members of the press who were swept up in the chaos.

People who were working out inside the gym were required to provide membership information to prove they weren't protesters, and sent out the back door. The arrestees were cuffed and sent out the front into police trucks. According to reports, some of those arrested at the YMCA have been charged with burglary.

Some protesters who didn't get rounded up returned to Oscar Grant Plaza. According ot media accounts, a small group forced its way into City Hall and committed acts of vandalism, including burning an American flag in council chambers. Police quickly regained control of the building.

Protesters who were arrested were detained for hours at Santa Rita and North County jails, where they were processed very slowly. Forty-eight hours later, some people had still not been released and couldn't be located by their family and friends.

THE DAY after the demonstrations, the Oakland police, Mayor Quan and the corporate press went on a massive publicity offensive, accusing the Occupy Oakland movement of being violent and out of control. Quan likened the demonstrators to "children" and urged the Occupy movement to "stop using Oakland as its playground." Council member Ignacio De La Fuente slandered the movement by accusing some its participants of engaging in "domestic terrorism."

No mention was made of the police's indiscriminate teargassing in residential neighborhoods, beatings of activists held against walls, dispersals orders that were supposed to apply all day or mass arrests to stop the occupation of a vacant building.

There are debates among activists about some of the tactics used on the demonstrations and the plan for the occupation. In particular, vandalizing City Hall did nothing to take the struggle forward, but predictably gave the media another excuse to slander all demonstrators.

But there is no excuse for the one-sided use of violence against demonstrators by police, who were clearly looking for any excuse to attack. The Oakland Police Department and the city spend $50,000 every time a weekly anti-police brutality march takes place in Oakland, and each major mobilization, like the one Saturday, costs much more in cop overtime and mutual aid from other departments.

The Oakland City Council and Mayor Quan are showing once again where their priorities lie--money for a repressive police force instead of desperately needed social services, or reopening buildings for the community's benefit, like the convention center Occupy Oakland tried to take yesterday.

While activists didn't succeed in regaining space for the Occupy movement, Saturday's protest shows that the Occupy movement still has resonance with the Oakland community. More than 1,000 people mobilized to seize a building and turn it into another center for organizing.

At the same time, one lesson activists can take from the January 28 demonstration is that we need even greater numbers of protesters and broader support in order to be successful in such occupations. For sure, the second march of a few hundred people was far too small to stand a chance of success against police who showed earlier they were intent on cracking heads.

While our strategies and next steps are up for discussion and debate, the need for protest is obvious in a city where public workers are facing pink slips, and schools and libraries are slated for closing--all while the police force is out of control.

In March, students are planning protests and actions against ongoing cuts in education--which can provide another focus for Occupy Oakland to mobilize its support and strengthen its ties with students and workers.

Further Reading

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