Jon Stewart aired an Occupy ‘recap’ on his Daily Show, which compiled clips of demonstrations across U.S. cities. It included scenes from New York to Cincinnati– protests which were all peaceful – however the tranquility was abruptly broken when Oakland was brought up. Clouds of tear gas made downtown Oakland appear to be in a state of war. Stewart’s juxtaposition of these cities provides quite an unsettling image of Oakland, as the demonstration escalated into a full-scale riot last Tuesday night. Viewers around the country were left to assume that this was just the Oaklandish way to Occupy Wall Street.
Are the people of Oakland uncivil anarchists and should not be expected to maintain a peaceful protest? By taking a step back, one can diagnose how this demonstration against big banks unfolded to hostility towards police. One myth needs to be debunked: Oaklanders do not exclusively see protests as an opportunity to stir trouble with law enforcement. The Occupy Oakland movement had officially commenced two weeks ago – and, until this Tuesday, it has remained peaceful. During these weeks, organizers scheduled daily BBQs, street performances, and yoga sessions. There was even a “Nonviolence Training” workshop, where protesters discussed nonviolent tactics for the demonstration. Ironically, this session occurred on the Saturday before Tuesday’s riots.
After two weeks of peace-loving events, it is quite disappointing that everything unraveled in one night. Tuesday night should have been no different than any other night; daily assemblies had always been set for 7:00pm. The one difference was that the time had expired for the protesters’ encampment space. City officials had deemed that the encampment posed a public health hazard, noting unsanitary conditions such as fecal matter. By 5:00am, riot-equipped police from various departments forced protesters out of the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, just outside City Hall. Barricades were set up blocks away, not allowing the media to cover the eviction. That morning marked the first mass arrests and property confiscations.
This is when a transformation occurred, with respect to the intent of demonstration. What began as an Occupy Wall Street movement crumbled into a hostile protest against law enforcement – revisiting an old woe of past police confrontations. Oakland’s social fabric cannot be compared to other U.S. cities due to the public’s exceptional mistrust in law enforcement. In the recent past, this deterioration of public relations was notably evident in the Oscar Grant shooting – which occurred on New Year’s, 2009. Oscar Grant was on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) heading home after celebrating, where he was arrested for being involved in a fight. He was allegedly resisting arrest when an officer restrained Grant, and shot him dead. While the officer claimed that he mistook his taser with his gun, the public was skeptical after watching videos taken at the incident. Tensions surrounded the image of a white cop shooting an unarmed black man. Throughout the following weeks, riots comparable to Occupy Oakland occurred in response to police brutality.
The 2009 Oscar Grant incident has certainly not been forgotten among many in Oakland. Protests again arose this past June upon the prison release of the officer who shot Grant. The following month, a San Francisco police officer shot an armed homeless man on the same BART system. In reaction, demonstrations continued – criticizing the SFPD officer’s impulse decision to shoot the homeless man (made within sixty seconds upon arrival). These recent protests reveal that the sentiment against law enforcement holds momentum to this day.
Last Tuesday’s heightened level of police would only conjure the same sentiments, thus inciting a riot. As protesters were forced away from their encampments, the Occupy movement suddenly became an Oscar Grant movement. Videos taken on-the-ground show protesters chanting “Who are you protecting?” to the police – straying from the Occupy cause while advancing the Grant cause. By the evening, tensions escalated further as demonstrators brought down a barricade fence – prompting the police to act defensive. Tear gas and baton rounds were used in attempt of separating the crowd. Questions remain whether rubber bullets were used; the Oakland Police Department denies it – however other police departments were involved on Tuesday. By the end of the night, more than 100 arrests had been made.
The most unsettling casualty of the riot was that of an Iraq War veteran, Scott Olsen. The veteran was struck by the police and left to the ground. Disturbing footage shows a group of protesters trying to help Olsen, however the group is broken up as a nearby tear gas canister strikes. Olsen was only feet away from the exploding canister – leaving his skull fractured. Olsen is currently is recovering from critical condition at the Highland Hospital.
The issue of police hostility is not limited to Oakland. Recording artist and Occupier, Truth Now describes the police relations in New York City: “We have seen some police brutality in NY as well – one of my friends was hit in the stomach by a police baton and another witnessed mayhem in Times Square as people were literally run over by NYPD horses. However, nine times out of ten interactions with the police are generally amicable. Some have even taken a stand with us.”
Were the riots inevitable? Perhaps yes; the weeks of peaceful protest testify that Oaklanders have the civility to behave. As just mentioned, the peace was broken when the police were forced to address potential health hazards. Part of the blame can be placed on the protesters who insisted on the illegal encampments. By Tuesday afternoon, the police gave demonstrators a formal notice of eviction via megaphone.Tim Baffi CMC ’13 agrees that intervention was necessary for public health and safety: “I believe the OPD used their best discretion in choosing to intervene, because they saw potential threats to public health and safety. In acting to protect the public they certainly did their job.”
Some disagree, suggesting that the benefits of intervention do not outweigh the risks of rioting. While lawlessness should not be encouraged, the Oakland Police Department perhaps failed to exhaust preventive measures. The Zuccotti Park of New York City faced a similar sanitation problem when protesters refused to budge. Eviction notices were given to the overnight campers, however it prompted demonstrators to organize an “Occupy Wall Street’s Sanitation Working Group.” The group was able to clean the park and maintain their peaceful presence. Perhaps the same could have been done in Oakland.
As the Occupy Wall Street spreads its international presence, the broader public constantly reinterprets the movement’s direction. Oakland’s contribution towards the movement is contentious; such display of civil unrest has the power of discrediting Occupy protesters. When not provoked by law enforcement, Occupy Wall Street has the potential to be a nonviolent movement – even if it is conducted by Oaklanders. A national dialogue should address the role law enforcement has on public gatherings – and the bounds it should respect.