After the tear gas clears

Pub date January 31, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff

After a chaotic day of marches and confrontations between police and protesters Jan 28, I was arrested along with about 400 others who were trapped by police in front of the downtown Oakland YMCA. Seven of us were journalists.

The goal of the march was to take over an abandoned building — an the vacant Kaiser Convention Center, a city-owned building that’s been closed since 2005, was a prime target.

I have not yet been able to retrieve my property, including my recorder and notebook, which is being held by the Oakland Police Department. What follows is a pieced-together account and a perspective on what the events of Jan. 28.

I spend 20 hours behind bars, and missed the later parts of the action. But I was able to observe what happened in jail and make some sense of what happened.

Occupy people are constantly debating tactics and goals, and for many, the idea of occupying a vacant building made sense. When Occupy Oakland had a camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza, also known as Oscar Grant Plaza, and commonly shortened to OGP, it created a strong community. That community 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.

The camp had a kitchen that fed hundreds of people everyday and a network of shared tents and blankets which welcomed in hundreds who otherwise would have slept on the streets, often feeling isolated from other residents of their city and made to feel inferior.

The camp was repeatedly raided, Occupiers were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets, and when OGP was cleared out, the community no longer had a home. And the police started that violence.

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?

Remember: The building that Occupy wanted to occupy is public property, and right now nobody is using if for anything.

In one exchange in jail, a guard asked a protester why the activists thought they had the right to take over a vacant building. “I mean, it’s not yours,” he insisted. The protester replied that many vacant buildings are government-owned and therefore public.

“So it’s the government’s,” the cop said.

“But I pay taxes,” the protester responded.

“Me too!” replied the cop. “It’s mine!”

“It’s both of ours,” smiled the protester. “It’s all of ours.”

That’s what made the convention center action such a clear and easy political decision.

A lot of people in Occupy would go further, saying that at a time of a severe housing crisis, it’s perfectly legitimate to take over privately owned buildings that are sitting there vacant. It’s part of the central argument of Occupy — that corporations and the rich unfairly own and continue to acquire much more wealth than the majority of people. For many people, owning a vacant building and doing nothing with it, while hundreds freeze on the streets, is a crime itself.



Then there’s the question of the police — and violence.

The word “nonviolent” has a specific meaning in the history of political movements. Martin Luther King Jr. defined it in his essay “The Meaning of Non-Violence”: “If you are hit you must not hit back; you must rise to the heights of being able to accept blows without retaliating … But it also means that you are constantly moving to the point where you refuse to hate your enemy. You are constantly moving to the point where you love your enemy.”

It’s a philosophy but also, in political terms, a tactic.

Many of the people who make up Occupy Oakland get their start as activists organizing against police brutality in a city that has longstanding problems with violent and undisciplined officers.

Police Chief Howard Jordan said in a press release that “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.”

It was certainly clear that the intent of the crowd was to illegally occupy a building. And any honest assessment of Occupy Oakland would have to acknowledge that some members are not wedded to King-style nonviolent civil disobedience. (Neither, by the way, were a lot of the protest movements of the 1960s.) Many protesters wore masks and bandanas to disguise their identities and protect them from tear gas and pepper spray, and the march was led by protesters with makeshift shields, which suggests that they expected to be attacked. You could certainly argue that what those people were doing wasn’t confrontation; it was self-defense.

Frankly, it made sense to be prepared: In other Occupy Oakland actions, police have attacked with batons, tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, and smoke bombs. And for quite a few Oakland residents, the police have always been seen as an outside force that can’t be trusted.

In fact, violence did break out. Many, including myself, have eyes still stinging from tear gas. I saw several wounds caused by rubber bullets shot at protesters. I spoke individually to at least a dozen people — one of them a pregnant woman — who were struck with police batons.

And protesters did not remain peaceful while this violence was being used against them.

Some picked up tear gas canisters and threw them back towards police; that much I saw. I also saw protesters throw empty plastic bottles at police.

According to the police, they also threw metal pipes, rocks and bricks. According to the protesters, they threw mainly empty plastic bottles and fruit at police. But as protesters often say of the police, “They’re the ones who showed up with the guns.” If the cops didn’t want violence, why unleash such an arsenal of weapons?

People got hurt, protesters and police alike. Several bystanders who had nothing to do with the situation were swept up in the mass arrest.

The city of Oakland, already in dire financial straits, likely spent hundreds of thousands of dollars reacting to the protests. Police claim that they were unable to sufficiently respond to violent crimes over the weekend, including five murders, because they were overwhelmed with Occupy troublemakers.

Of course, city officials were the ones who decided to arrest 400 people — with all the expense that involves.

There are, at this point, no reports of serious injuries to any police officers. However, at least a dozen protesters had welts on their faces or bodies from being beaten by clubs or shot with rubber bullets. One woman was shot in both arms with rubber bullet; one man was shot in the face with rubber bullets while holding a video camera to document the events. Several protesters were shoved to the ground and received wounds on their faces while being arrested. Police raised their rubber-bullet rifles to the faces of protesters throughout the day, threatening attacks. A rubber bullet to the face can cause brain damage and blindness.




How could this have been prevented?

Police say that “while peaceful forms of expression and free speech rights will be facilitated, acts of violence, trespassing, property destruction and overnight lodging will not be tolerated.” But 40 people were arrested during an ongoing Occupy Oakland vigil in the first weeks of January for having “illegal property” at OGP in what many saw as clearly a peaceful expression of First Amendment rights.

On KGO radio Jan. 29, Chief Jordan said that he has allowed Occupy Oakland to protest without a permit and would continue to do so, but those early January raids were ostensibly due to permit violations — violations of the terms of a permit that Occupy Oakland did in fact have.

There’s no question: The police response to Occupy Oakland over the past few months has caused some people in the movement to get more radical.

Many Occupy Oakland-affiliated medics condemned those who threw objects at police, saying that they provoked a backlash that caused more injuries. Many Oakland residents who might be in line with the socio-economic critique presented by the Occupy movement feel endangered and confused by marches that result in the massive use of police weapons in broad daylight. A lot of people would rather protest in a lot of ways that less resemble urban warfare.

On the other hand, there are also ways that Oakland officials could have prevented the consequences of weapons deployed and 400 arrested Jan. 28. They could, for example, have allowed protesters to occupy the vacant building.

When protesters seized a building Jan. 20 in San Francisco, police first attempted to prevent them. They lined up in front of the targeted building. They deployed pepper spray and struck several protesters with batons. When they were unsuccessful, and protesters entered the building from the back, they opted to block the surrounding streets and wait until the time seemed right to enter the situation and make arrests. Police spokesperson Carlos Manfredi told me that the cops were not going to rush into the situation and were trying to prevent injury and violence.

The Kaiser Convention Center has been vacant for years. The city of Oakland recently made plans to sell it to its Redevelopment Agency, but that plan fell into legal limbo when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB26, a bill that dissolved all California redevelopment agencies.

At this point, nobody at Oakland City Hall has any plans whatsoever for the big, empty structure.

Why not allow Occupy to use the convention center? It’s not downtown, where Mayor Quan says businesses have been adversely affected by Occupy Oakland’s presence. It would give the movement a chance to stop focusing on trying to occupy spaces and start focusing on benefiting the community with food, shelter, and community programs that they provided when they had a camp. It would give the building tenants who could be held responsible for maintaining it. It might even help get Occupy Oakland and the Oakland Police Department out of the cycle of violence that they have been spiraling into for months.

Each time arrests occur, each time violence occurs, both sides blame the other. Both sides are correct that they were provoked. Both sides are correct that something that they think is worth defending was violated — for the cops, it’s the law. For the protesters, it’s the right of the people to assemble.

In fact, many Oakland residents have experienced violence at the hands of the Oakland Police Department for years before Occupy began. There was already a mass movement formed around the murder of Oscar Grant, and thousands of people fed up with police murders of unarmed, often black, suspects.

In recent decades, other radical groups, notably the Black Panthers, insisted that their community lacked basic needs because the city of Oakland refused to prioritize them. The Black Panther free breakfast program served food in a strikingly similar way to Occupy Oakland. Black Panthers were also notorious for carrying guns to defend themselves against police violence.

Occupy Oakland protesters (unlike Tea Party members) certainly don’t carry guns. But, more and more, they cry “fuck the pigs” as much as any Panther.

For much of the Occupy movement’s 99 percent, unjust actions by banks, corporations, and the government officials that they have often bought and paid for are the worst problems facing the United States today. For others, particularly the poor and people of color, these problems are magnified and exacerbated by the fact that they feel the threat of police harassment every day. For years, they’ve understood that police disproportionately do not investigate or solve crimes that happen to them and their families.




The Oakland General Assembly Jan. 29 was the biggest it’s been in weeks. While there were still over 300 people in jail, 300 more came out to get involved with the meeting. That happened at the same time that many who felt that inexcusable violence and property destruction occurred Jan. 28 and concluded they could no longer have anything to do with Occupy Oakland.

It’s a challenge for the movement nationally, too: How do you accept and encourage the people whose legitimate anger at economic injustice and police abuse turns them toward more radical responses — and at the same time make room for a people who want nothing to do with the black bloc Fs, vandalism, and confrontation with the police?

There are tactical issues with the way the building occupation was planned. Many who were completely in line with the concept felt unsafe and uncomfortable with the secretive nature of the organizers who planned it. The location of the building targeted for occupation was kept secret for practical reasons; police could easily prevent a successful takeover. Supporters must often be led to the locations of planned takeovers without knowing where the action is and how they’ll get there. But how do you reconcile this with the transparency required when organizers are leading more than 1,000 people who want to use tactics they feel comfortable with and make their own choices?

Occupy Oakland is asking the people to imagine a world where property rights wouldn’t prevent them from doing all the good that they could do with a building like the Kaiser Convention Center. They must also ask themselves to imagine a world in which goals like a building occupation can be achieved in a way that everyone involved is able to consent to their involvement.

These debates continue to occur at Occupy Oakland. Some will leave the movement, some will join. Some will take the ideas and try to manifest them in new and different ways. Participants in Occupy Oakland desperately want basic needs of food and shelter met for their community members, and for the system that governs the city to do so in a way that allows people to thrive when it comes to health, education, and opportunities for creativity and growth. They think that they have the beginnings of a community and a process that can achieve those visions, better than the city government ever has, and they care more about achieving it than respecting the property rights of the owners of abandoned buildings.