Police Tactics

Researcher explores police and protester violence in the Occupy movement


As the nation’s eyes watch police officers in Ferguson firing rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds of protesters, one UC Berkeley sociologist is exploring how and why such violent conflicts erupt in the first place.

Nicholas Adams and his team call themselves Deciding Force. Its goal? To prevent violence between police and protesters at peaceful demonstrations through deep data analysis of the Occupy movement.

“There’s a misconception that police have a single style or repertoire to approaching protests,” Adams told the Guardian. “They have a range, and they should know better how to use these tools.”

Adams hopes to facilitate free speech by demonstrating best practices in nationwide police tactics, to allow peaceful protesters to trumpet their message without the threat of violence. The study, he said, is made possible by the variety of geographic locations the Occupy movement took place in. The different municipalities and varying levels of police use of force provided a buffet of data for Adams and his fellow researchers to compile and parse.

A video about the project.

They started with news reports of various Occupy movements nationwide, which were then compared to other local and national news articles for accuracy and to help identify bias. Even that process revealed interesting data, he said.

“Media bias is most often a bias of omission,” he told us. “You go to protest events and what happens most often is a news outlet won’t report on it. Fox News outlets across the country reported on the Occupy movement at drastically low rates. If an ABC affiliate reported on an Occupy (encampment) 100 times, Fox News affiliates reported it three times.”

The researchers then handpick relevant data from those news articles and broadcasts. The next step is even trickier (and wonderfully geeky).

Adams and the researchers trained computer programs to pick similar data from the over 8,000 news reports, automating the process. Articles from Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and more than 200 cities with Occupy movements are parsed for patterns. Did the police wear riot gear? What formations did they use? Were horses present? Assault vehicles? Was the crowd mostly Latino, black, white, Asian, or a mix? Were the Occupiers sitting or standing? These are the few of the hundreds of variables crunched by Adams’ team. 

After the variable compiling, the computer’s usefulness ends and the human element picks up again, as Adams and his sociologists then sift through the patterns to see what elevates conflict between police and protesters. In the end, he hopes to be able to show police departments what specific actions can de-escalate violent situations.

The team has been at it for two years, and already the data is yielding some results. Police skirmish lines, for instance, are a heavy indicator that violence will occur.

“You’re facing off against protesters,” he said. “It’s called a skirmish line for a reason. You’re setting up skirmishes.”

But Adams’ research isn’t just about aiding police forces, it’s about holding them legally accountable for escating violence, he said.

“You can start to, from a legal standpoint, establish liability with research like ours,” he told us. “If we reach out to police departments later on attorneys can hold them accountable for their actions.”

And with that information in hand, maybe future incidents like the clashes in Ferguson may be prevented. At the very least, there may be a stronger legal mechanism with which to hold police accountable for clashes with citizens.

You can read more about Deciding Force’s research here, and support them through their IndieGoGo campaign

Reports of grenade-type devices used in West Oakland raid

A high profile police raid occurred last night in multiple East Bay locations, with most activity centered at the Acorn public housing complex in West Oakland. According to recent news reports, some 150 FBI agents and support staff carried out the raid, along with 120 Oakland police officers and other law enforcement officers from San Leandro, Hayward and Antioch.

OPD Chief Howard Jordan told reporters at a press conference that the raid targeted the Acorn gang of West Oakland, and that officers made five arrests, served 16 narcotics and weapons warrants, and seized firearms, heroin, cocaine and marijuana.  

An official statement attributed to OPD spokesperson Johnna Watson in a Chronicle report suggested that police did not use force during the operation. This suggests OPD does not consider deploying grenade-type devices (considered to be “less lethal weapons”) to be “use of force,” because residents living nearby the Acorn housing complex at Eighth and Adeline streets told the Guardian that they heard loud bangs, probably from flash grenades, go off when the operation was underway around 7:30 Wednesday night.

A neighbor who lives nearby the apartment complex, who asked not to be identified, had a partial view of the police activity from their West Oakland residence. The person described the operation as “like a military presence” due to the sheer number of officers, many outfitted in SWAT gear, and “very precise,” targeting a specific address and lasting roughly an hour and 15 minutes. The streets surrounding the apartment complex were closed off for the duration of the raid.

The neighbor estimated that the flash grenades (or similar devices) were used five times, but since the explosions produce echoes, there could have been fewer deployments. The observer wasn’t able to see how they were used because there wasn’t a clear view of the unit, but heard the bangs in sequence. An OPD officer could be heard addressing occupants inside one of the units on a loudspeaker, reading out the address, telling them they were surrounded, and then saying something like, “you in the suit, get down, get down on the ground.”

The neighbor said they observed three people being removed from the unit and taken into custody – a man who was wearing a suit, a person in a motorized wheelchair, and a tall, younger-looking man. The arrestees were cooperative. 

The West Oakland resident also reported seeing an armored vehicle parked at the scene. A host of official OPD vehicles were parked along the street, along with unmarked cars including SUVs and white vans. 

More details about the massive police operation, the targeted gang, and the criminal activity the cops zeroed in on are sure to come out. A lot of outstanding questions remain, of course, including why officers decided to use the grenade-type devices. So far, OPD hasn’t responded to our email or voice message, but we’ll post the department’s response if we receive one.

Feds’ use of spy tools under scrutiny due to privacy concerns

If the FBI is trying to pinpoint the location of a suspect in your neighborhood, investigators could sweep up information from your mobile device just because you happen to be in proximity to their target. Civil liberties advocates are concerned that the practice is a major invasion of privacy.

The results of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the San Francisco Bay Guardian last year sheds new light on the federal government’s use of Stingrays, a surveillance technology that mimics a cellphone tower by automatically connecting with mobile devices in the area where a search is being conducted.

Stingray is a brand name, but the devices are sometimes called Triggerfish, digital analyzers, or cell site emulators. They’re known to technologists as IMSI catchers, meaning they can intercept a user’s International Mobile Subscriber Identity.

As the ACLU of Northern California noted recently in a blog post, Department of Justice emails obtained in response to the FOIA request, filed with the US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California, revealed that federal agents who sought authorization to conduct searches using this technology were “less than forthcoming” about what the devices actually do.

The issue stems from federal investigators’ request for a search warrant several years ago targeting Daniel Rigmaiden, a hacker accused of committing fraud. The search was authorized, but it seems agents never explained just how wide a net they intended to cast.

Because FBI agents used an IMSI catcher rather than, say, triangulation techniques that can utilize subscriber data to find their target, they were able to pinpoint Rigmaiden’s precise location – not only revealing that he was inside a Santa Clara apartment building, but sniffing down to the level of his exact unit. 

But when a search of this kind is conducted, a Stingray automatically connects with every other mobile device in the immediate vicinity that uses the same provider (in this case, Verizon). It works by masquerading as a cell phone tower, tricking mobile devices into automatically communicating with the spy device. So any other Verizon subscribers who happened to be nearby also had their information caught up in the FBI’s net.

There are various kinds of IMSI catchers, and some are capable of sweeping in the contents of communication, such as text messages. In the Rigmaiden case, investigators said were only able to access subscriber information. Investigators also reported that they “purged” unneeded data after the fact, according to ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye. But purging the data also makes it impossible to prove that the information of particular individuals was wrongfully swept up in a search. 

The FOIA request was filed in April of last year. Last July, after the government failed to provide the information, a lawsuit was filed to get the documents.  

The string of emails that was finally provided suggests that federal agents have been using this sort of technology in the field for some time, without clearly representing to judges that Stingrays can vacuum up third party communications data. Instead of being explicit on this point, agents from the Department of Justice merely stated that they wanted to use a mobile tracking device.

“It has recently come to my attention that many agents are still using [IMSI catchers] in the field although the pen register application does not make that explicit,” notes an internal Department of Justice email obtained through the FOIA request, referring to a different kind of search technique that is more narrowly targeted. 

Lye drilled down on this point in her blog post:

“The federal government was routinely using stingray technology in the field, but failing to ‘make that explicit’ in its applications to the court to engage in electronic surveillance. When the magistrate judges in the Northern District of California finally found out what was happening, they expressed ‘collective concerns,’ according to the emails. Notably, this email chain is dated May 2011, some three years after the Stingray’s use in Rigmaiden’s case – meaning the government was not ‘forthright’ in its applications to federal magistrate judges for at least three years.”

After battling for months in court in a separate proceeding, the ACLU of Northern California also succeeded in unsealing the Northern District DOJ orders that authorized use of the surveillance devices. Now, the civil liberties advocates are partnering with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups to file an amicus brief concerning the constitutional implications of using a Stingray to collect evidence in the Rigmaiden case. “Their use implicates the privacy interests of the suspect, as well as untold numbers of third parties as to whom there is no probable cause,” the lawyers argue.

“When we read the orders, we were very, very surprised and troubled,” Lye noted in a recent conversation with the Guardian. “Because the government was arguing in the criminal proceeding in Rigmaiden, yes, we acknowledge that we’ve used this cell site emulator, and we’re even … acknowledging that the device is intrusive enough in the way it operates to constitute a search – which is a significant concession.”

For more on Stingrays, pick up next week’s issue of the SFBG.

Will it fly? Drones in Alameda County and (almost) San Francisco

During what one official called the “show-and-tell” portion of a public hearing held yesterday by a committee of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, a representative from the Sheriff’s Office held up a drone so the crowd of 100 or so attendees could have a look. The small, lightweight device consisted of a plastic box to house technical equipment, a camera, and four spidery legs affixed with tiny black propellers.

“It’s cuute!” someone exclaimed. But that was likely a sarcastic wisecrack – concerned citizens had packed the board chambers in hopes of convincing the two-person Public Protection Committee that the civil liberties implications of surveillance drones were too great to justify flying them over Oakland and other cities. 

Last summer, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern submitted a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant request for an “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS), police-speak for drone. The agency intends to purchase one or two, depending on the manufacturer, for uses ranging from thermal imagery to crime detection.

The Sheriff now seeks supervisors’ approval, and is working to secure a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration, required for aircraft flown at 400 feet. But the Sheriff’s plan has been met with strong resistance from civil liberties advocates worried that drones would open the gates to aerial surveillance and runaway data collection.

Concerns revolve around surveillance

Representatives from the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the grassroots Alameda County Against Drones voiced myriad concerns about what they viewed as flimsy privacy protections put forward by the department. “The potential concerns with drones are too great to justify any use of drones at all in Alameda County,” said Nadia Kayyali of Alameda County Against Drones.

In turn, Sheriff representatives sought to defend its plan to use the devices, at one point practically asking critics to think of the children.

“We get several hundred calls a year for search and rescue, and deployment of our teams, to find lost children, lost hikers, or elderly persons,” Capt. Tom Madigan explained, and his co-presenter even referenced the case of famed kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard as a possible scenario where a drone could have been deployed. Commander Tom Wright assured supervisors that the drones would not be equipped with weapons, and stated that UAS devices would “not be used for indiscriminate mass surveillance.”

Yet the use of drones for surveillance and intelligence gathering lies at the heart of the controversy. “Data collected in the name of search and rescue could be retained for intelligence gathering and analysis,” ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye warned in comments delivered to the Public Protection Committee. “In conjunction with other existing policies, this would lead to the submission of UAS-collected data to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, also known as a ‘fusion center,’ where data – in some instances, about constitutionally protected activity –are stockpiled and analyzed in the name of so-called terrorism prevention.”

According to documents obtained by EFF and MuckRock News, the Sheriff’s Office indicated in its grant request that the unmanned aircraft could be used for “surveillance (investigative and tactical),” “intelligence gathering,” “suspicious persons” or “large crowd control disturbances,” the latter bringing to mind street clashes that flared up in downtown Oakland in 2011 when riot police sought to crush protests organized under the banner of Occupy Oakland. 

If the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department obtains drones, the unmanned aircraft could be deployed anywhere from Monterey to the Oregon border, Madigan noted, if regional law enforcement agencies determined that emergency circumstances warranted jurisdictional waivers.

Technology advancing

Unlike helicopters, drones can gather high-resolution footage and other kinds of data without detection, transmitting live video feed to a command post for real-time viewing. While the Sheriff’s Department is eyeing drones that travel a quarter of a mile from base with a 25-minute flight time capacity, the technology is advancing quickly. It’s technically possible for drones to be equipped with facial recognition technology, radar, or license-plate readers.

Those growing capabilities are part of the reason civil liberties advocates are so focused on hammering out strong privacy safeguards. “We’re wading into uncharted waters here,” Lye cautioned, noting that any privacy safeguards established for these drones would apply to more advanced models down the line. “We have to bake in the privacy safeguards into this template.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors held off on approving a drone purchase by the Sheriff Department late last year when faced with controversy. It was originally included as an agenda item before any public meeting had been scheduled, but was later removed after civil liberties advocates intervened. At a December meeting, Undersheriff Richard Lucia told supervisors that including drone approval on the agenda had been “an oversight.”

If Alameda County obtains a drone, it will be the first California law enforcement agency to do so. Several other cities are proceeding cautiously: Last week, for example, Mayor Mike McGinn of Seattle canceled a drone program amid heated controversy.

San Francisco also sought a drone 

Meanwhile, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department is not the only Bay Area law enforcement agency eyeing unmanned aircraft devices. According to a document unearthed by an EFF and MuckRock News, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) submitted a $100,000 funding request to the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative for a “remote pilot video camera,” basically a drone, that could be outfitted to “transmit real-time, geo-coded data to command centers.” The SFPD initially hoped to clear the FAA approval process by June of 2013, according to the document. However, its funding request was rejected. (It is unclear why San Francisco’s funding request for a drone was more than three times the funding request submitted by Alameda County.)

The grant request form notes that Lieutenant Thomas Feledy of the SFPD’s Homeland Security Unit sought funding for “the deployment of mobile compact video cameras in the visual and infrared spectrum … to provide live overhead views of critical infrastructure” in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

“It was rejected,” Officer Albie Esparza told the Guardian when we called SFPD media relations to ask about it. “And we have no plans of getting a drone.”

Police gear up for round two on Tasers

On February 4, the San Francisco Police Commission will hold the second of three planned community meetings to gauge support for a pilot program to arm 100 SFPD officers with Tasers. The controversial proposal pits police Chief Greg Suhr, a proponent, against civil liberties organizations and homeless advocates who are mobilizing public opposition to the Taser initiative. 

Shortly after being appointed police chief in 2011, Suhr said arming the SFPD with Tasers would not be a top priority. But following the police shooting of a mentally ill man last July, Suhr has pushed the Police Commission to allow members of the cities Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)—who receive special training to deal with the mentally ill—to carry Tasers.

Since the shooting, Suhr has repeatedly argued that Tasers would help save lives and reduce instances of gun use. “You do have to have as many tools in the tool box before you go to guns,” he said at the first community forum.

The ACLU and local homeless advocates disagree.

“Every time there is an officer-involved shooting, the department uses it as an excuse to outfit officers with Tasers,” ACLU attorney Micaela Davis told the Guardian. “We continue to believe that Tasers are not a good alternative to firearms and we fear that officers run the risk of going to Tasers too early in a confrontation instead of using de-escalation techniques.”

Equipping CIT officers with Tasers would inject the controversial stun guns into already tense confrontations between the mentally ill and the SFPD.

Lisa Marie Alatorre, an organizer with the San Francisco Homelessness Coalition, argues Tasers could have a devastating effect on the city’s homeless population. “The CIT typically deals with people in crisis, people who are mentally ill, and people who are currently destitute and have nowhere to live,” she told the Guardian. “The use of Tasers in the midst of a crisis will cause severe trauma and could inflict significant psychological damage.”

Both the Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU charge that the SFPD has dragged its feet in implementing the nonviolent components of the CIT program. Less than 75 officers have been trained in nonviolent confrontational strategies since the program’s adoption last summer, and Alatorre charges SFPD has yet to implement protocols that would bring the program to fruition.

Police Commissioner Angela Chan, a longtime proponent of the CIT program, echoed these concerns. “We need to improve our de-escalation tactics with regards to crisis intervention. Many of the steps to train and implement CIT have not yet been implemented and that’s where we need to focus our energies,” she told the Guardian.

Despite strong local opposition to Tasers, they are becoming standard equipment for police departments across the nation. SFPD officers are hopeful that public opposition does not kill this pilot program, like similar attempts before it.

Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a spokesperson with the SFPD, argued that equipping CIT officers with Tasers would give police more flexibility to use force without engaging their firearms.

“On the street, not every situation can be managed in a nonviolent fashion,” he told the Guardian. “CIT is a great program, and the implementation of Tasers would give those officers an additional tool to use before they have to escalate to deadly force.”

Police commissioners will make a final decision about Tasers after the third community meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 11 at the Bayview Opera House.

The next community forum on the SFPD Taser pilot program will be held on Feb. 4 from 6-8pm at the Scottish Rite Center, 2850 19th Ave, in SF.  

Bratton controversy divides Oakland community as council approves contract 7-1

Following a highly attended and closely watched meeting on Tuesday, Oakland City Council voted 7-1 to approve a $250,000 contract to hire a team of police consultants which includes controversial stop-and-frisk advocate Bill Bratton. During an eight-hour meeting that went until 2 a.m., hundreds of residents crammed into the council chambers to weigh in, some voicing concerns about what Bratton would mean for Oakland and others offering support for bringing him on to advise the Oakland Police Department (OPD) on combating crime.

While several council members voiced reservations about Bratton’s association with the controversial stop-and-frisk policy, only District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks voted against the contract. Brooks stressed that any effort to fight crime in Oakland would require more than aggressive policing, and must address the root causes of criminal activity.

“A vote against this contract tonight is not about not being serious about crime,” she said. “It’s about [how] we need to do the real work. The real work to address crime in this community.”

Speaking to the SF Bay Guardian after the meeting, District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney echoed many of Brook’s concerns. “Of course we have deal with poverty and access to education,” she said. “But that isn’t going to stop the bleeding now.” But in the end, McElhaney deferred to Jordan. “It’s about supporting the police chief who says he needs new resources to get the job done,” she said.

African American clergymen Bishop Bob Jackson, Bishop Frank Pincard and Reverend Gregory Payton voiced support for the contract. Jackson, who leads the 7,500-member Acts Full of Gospel Church in East Oakland, lamented a wave of violent crime that claimed more than 130 lives in 2012. “It’s gotten way out of control,” he said. “If Bratton can help stop the bloodshed, then I am for Bratton.”

Yet opponents of the contract expressed concern that Bratton’s support for stop-and-frisk policing would further exacerbate tensions between OPD and the community. “Stop-and-frisk will blow up in our face,” said Adam Blueford, whose teenage son Alan Blueford was fatally shot by Oakland police last May.

This clip was originally posted to Vimeo by Daniel Arauz.

George Holland, president of the Oakland branch of the NAACP, echoed these concerns, saying the NAACP opposes stop-and-frisk because “it invariably leads to racial profiling.”

In a presentation outlining the details of the $250,000 contract, Jordan stated that despite Bratton’s support for stop-and-frisk, there were no plans to implement the controversial tactic in Oakland.  “I do not support stop-and-frisk, I will not condone it, and we will practice constitutional policing,” the police chief assured the crowd.

But the practice, which was deemed unconstitutional earlier this month by a federal court ruling on its use in the Bronx in New York, is central to Bratton’s philosophy on policing. In a recent interview, Bratton told CBS San Francisco, “For any city to say they don’t do ‘stop-and-frisk’…I’m sorry, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about … Any police department in America that tries to function without some form of ‘stop-and-frisk,’ or whatever terminology they use, is doomed to failure. It’s that simple.”

Oakland to decide on controversial stop-and-frisk advocate Bill Bratton

On Tuesday, Oakland City Council will consider approving a $250,000 contract for an outside security consulting team, which could include controversial roving police chief and private security contractor William Bratton. With Oakland’s understaffed police department facing a 23 percent rise in violent crime over the past year, the Council’s Public Safety Committee unanimously recommended last week that the full Council approve a new round of funding for Boston-based police consultant Strategic Policy Partnership LLC. The firm intends to bring on Bratton as part of a new team of private policing experts to advise OPD.

At the five-hour Public Safety Committee meeting on Jan. 15, Oakland activists crowded into the chamber to voice concerns that Bratton—a nationally known proponent of “zero tolerance” policing and New York City’s extremely controversial stop-and-frisk policy—would be tapped as a member of the consulting team. Pressure from the community prompted committee members to tack on a provision suggesting that an alternative to Bratton be considered in the final contract.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Police Chief Howard Jordan both voiced enthusiastic support for Bratton’s appointment.  In a letter sent last Wednesday urging the Council to approve the contract, Quan wrote: “Bratton is uniquely suited to helping us perfect how that system works here.” She went on to promise that racial profiling would not be tolerated in Oakland.

Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, a former legal advisor to Quan, expressed dismay over Bratton’s possible consultancy to a lively group of protesters outside last Tuesday’s meeting. “Stop-and-frisk does not work,” he said. “Bratton is exactly what we do not need in the city of Oakland.”

Although Bratton did not attend last Tuesday’s meeting, he has publicly expressed interest in working in Oakland, despite the vocal opposition.  “I’m still very desirous of working in Oakland … I think the assistance that I can provide will be of value to the city,” Bratton told the Oakland Tribune following Wednesday’s protests.

From Boston, to Los Angeles, to New York, Bratton has implemented and championed a controversial mix of anti-crime measures, making him one of the nation’s most divisive and visible law enforcement officials. 

Lauded by supporters as America’s “Top Cop,” he has twice served as president of the influential Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which was responsible for coordinating a police response to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He also serves as vice chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Serving as police chief in New York from 1994 to 1996 and Los Angeles from 2002 to 2009, Bratton built a national reputation as an outspoken proponent of stop-and-frisk, a tactic often linked with racial profiling. According to data compiled by the New York ACLU, the procedure disproportionally targets black and Latino residents. Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court Judge in New York deemed stop-and-frisk to be unconstitutional and issued an injunction limiting the policy in the Bronx. In July, when San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee suggested exploring stop-and-frisk in San Francisco, local civil liberties advocates balked.

Bratton is also an unabashed supporter of zero-tolerance policing, a method that stems from the “broken-windows theory” and encourages police to make arrests for minor infractions such as graffiti, litter, panhandling, prostitution or other petty offenses which are presumed to create an environment that breeds serious crime.

Bratton’s controversial tactics have been credited with reducing crime rates during his tenure in New York and Los Angeles. His work to diversify the LAPD and build closer ties between police and the community also drew praise from the Los Angeles chapter of the ACLU.

But in Oakland, local police reform advocates question the long-term efficacy of Bratton’s methods.

Rachel Herzing, co-director of Oakland-based Critical Resistance, an advocacy group that is part of a coalition of local organizations mobilizing against Bratton, charges that he deals in “quick fixes.” In the long run, she argues, his methods do not reduce crime but rather relocate it.

Bratton’s “all cops, no services approach does not work anywhere, and will not work in Oakland,” Herzing told the Guardian. “The aggressive sweeps Bratton is known for in New York ultimately just displace people, and drive them away from essential services. [These tactics] aren’t appropriate policing responses.”

The public outcry at last Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting drew responses from new Council members Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Dan Kalb. McElhaney, whose District 3 includes some of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods plagued with high crime rates, told colleagues that Bratton may come with “too much baggage.” Ultimately, McElhaney said, his presence in Oakland might prove to be counterproductive.

Speaking to the Guardian on Jan. 21, McElhaney said she was not yet sure if she would vote to approve the contract. “We are wrestling with some very big issues here,” she said.  “I am clearly concerned about some of Bratton’s tactics but I am also interested in his results in some of the cities he has worked in. I do know he has lowered homicide rates.”

She added that the overarching goal of addressing crime in Oakland should not be lost in the debate surrounding Bratton. “There’s the totality of the contract I’m considering… in the end, I’m more interested in the outcome as opposed to the individuals.”

In an effort to diffuse controversy at the Jan. 15 meeting, McElhaney and Kalb successfully amended the committee recommendation to urge Strategic Policy Partnership to consider potential alternatives to Bratton.

But given Bratton’s national profile and controversial approach to policing, his inclusion in the consulting contract will likely take center stage at the full Council Meeting on Tuesday. Both Bratton’s opponents and supporters plan to arrive in force at Tuesday’s Council meeting, and as of yet it’s uncertain which side will prevail.

Bullets fly


When cops shoot their guns, sometimes they kill or injure bad guys. Sometimes it turns out that the person who was shot didn’t do anything wrong. And sometimes the majority of the carnage involves utterly innocent bystanters.

That’s a side of police shootings that doesn’t get talked about as much. But it’s real — and it’s a matter of concern when cops are firing off rounds in a crowded urban area, in particular when they’re near a school. Which is what happened in Noe Valley Aug. 27. According to my friends at the Ex:

A female officer caught up to the suspect as he tried to climb over a fence on Valley Street. He reportedly moved quickly toward the officer with his hands in the middle of his torso, prompting the officer to fire a single shot, which did not strike the suspect, police Chief Greg Suhr said.

So if the bullet didn’t hit the suspect, where did it go?

It went flying around Noe Valley. In the middle of the day. Near an elementary school. Lucky it didn’t hit anybody. Because officers are trained to fire at someone who they perceive as a lethal threat — but that training doesn’t include looking around behind the perp to see where the rounds will go if they miss.






Policing the police


Bay Area cities have been at the forefront of local challenges to the police state, making stands on issues including racial profiling, deportations of undocumented immigrants, the use of force against peaceful protests, and police intelligence-gathering and surveillance of law-abiding citizens. But the city of Berkeley is creating comprehensive policies to address all of these issues in a proposed Peace and Justice Ordinance that is now being developed.

The effort comes against the backdrop of clashes between police and Occupy movement protesters, including the violent Oct. 25 police raid on OccupyOakland, with Berkeley Police and other jurisdictions on the scene.

Among other things, Berkeley is redefining when it will join other communities in what’s called “mutual aid” agreements — deals that require nearby agencies to help each other out when one public-safety department is overwhelmed.

It’s not terribly controversial when it applies to firefighting — but some people in San Francisco and Berkeley weren’t happy to see their officers joining the Oakland cops in the crackdown in peaceful protesters.

Berkeley officials also want to limit the ability of local cops to work with the FBI and federal immigration agents.

The effort began quietly last summer with behind-the-scene organizing spearheaded by the Washington D.C.-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which reached out to a wide variety of groups, include the NAACP, the ACLU, Asian Law Caucus, National Lawyers Guild, the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley, and the city’s Peace and Justice Commission.

“It was a series of one-on-one conversations with the leaders of these groups and then getting them into a room together,” said Bill of Rights Defense Committee Executive Director Shahid Buttar.

That effort got a major push forward last month when Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington led an effort to suspend mutual aid agreements the Berkeley Police Department has with the University of California police and two other police agencies — as well as two city policy documents — over concerns about the use of force against peaceful protesters and domestic surveillance activities.

The council approved the proposal unanimously. Ironically, on the day after the vote, the university launched a violent and controversial crackdown on the OccupyCal encampment — without the help of Berkeley Police.

“It sends the message that we’re not going to try to suppress people’s rights to demonstrate and express themselves,” Arreguin told the Guardian.

The timing of the violent police raid on OccupyOakland — which made international headlines — helped elevate the issue. “What happened in Oakland made people very concerned,” Arreguin said.

Peace and Justice Commission member George Lippman agreed: “People were so shocked by what happened in Oakland that they didn’t resist. …To me, it comes down to what are our values.”

Arreguin used public records laws to obtain the mutual aid agreements between the various cities and then, with help from activists, identified provisions that conflict with Berkeley laws and values. Worthington said that work was crucial to winning over other members of the council: “If it was a generic objection to the whole thing, we would not have won the vote.”

The agreements that the council suspended were with the UC police, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (an arm of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a domestic surveillance pact that has ramped up activities since 9/11), the Urban Area Security Initiative (a creation of the Department of Homeland Security), the city’s Criminal Intelligence Policy, and its Jail Policy (which directs local officers to honor federal immigration holds).

“There is a real potential for problems when we give police the blank check to respond to mutual aid agreements,” he said. “We’re trying to ensure they respect this community’s values.”



Arreguin and other members of his coalition have been working on modifying provisions of these documents, and they are expected to return to the council for a vote next month. But that’s just the first step in Berkeley’s efforts to create comprehensive peace and justice policies, covering civil liberties, crowd control policies, use of force, and cooperation with other policing agencies.

“The ordinance we’re discussing would cover a lot of these areas,” Arreguin said. “What we’re trying to achieve here is more accountability.”

For example, the police are the ones who decide what is an “emergency situation” that would trigger a mutual aid response. But should a peaceful protest that blocks traffic or goes on an unpermitted march be considered an emergency? “It may not be appropriate for us to respond to every request, particularly when it comes to political activities,” Arreguin said. “Just because people are breaking laws, that shouldn’t be a pretext to respond to mutual aid.”

In a similar vein, the coalition is developing policies to support Berkeley’s status as a sanctuary city for immigrants of all kinds and looking for ways to resist the federal Secure Communities program, a national database of fingerprints and arrest information that allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to place detention holds on those suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

The boards of supervisors in San Francisco, Santa Clara, and other jurisdictions have tried unsuccessfully to opt out of the program, something that requires state approval. But the activists say Santa Clara has become a model by following up with an ordinance that says the county won’t honor the federal requests until they have a signed written agreement to cover all the county’s costs associated with honoring the holds.

“We don’t do ICE’s job,” Sup. George Shirakawa told supporters after the Oct. 17 vote, according to published reports. Arreguin called the effort “a smart approach and we want to see if we can do it in Berkeley.”

Other Bay Area cities have also begun to examine issues related to a police state that has expanded since the 9/11 attacks, including Richmond and Piedmont. In San Francisco, the latest process of challenging the role of local police officers in domestic surveillance — issues the city has periodically wrestled with for decades — began earlier this year (“Spies in blue,” April 26). It led to an ordinance that would limit that activity, which activists say Sup. Jane Kim will introduce next month.

“If our local police are going to work with the FBI at all, they have to observe our local laws,” says John Crew, the police practices expert with the ACLU-Northern California who has been helping develop San Francisco’s ordinance. “Far to often, the FBI has shown interest in protest activities that have nothing to do with illegal activities.”

For example, documents unearthed by a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Bay Guardian and through other avenues show FBI coordination with local police agencies related to the Occupy protests, those aimed at BART, and in the aftermath of the trail of Johannes Merserle, the former BART officer who shot Oscar Grant. The UC Board of Regents also canceled a meeting last month where a large protest was organized, citing unspecified intelligence about threats to public safety.

Crew noted that a right to privacy is written into California’s constitution, yet San Francisco has two experienced police inspectors assigned full-time to work with FBI and its Joint Terrorism Task Force. “They aren’t focused on laws being broken, but on collecting massive amounts of information,” Crew said.



Veena Dubal of the Asian Law Caucus, which has also been involved with Berkeley coalition, is happy to finally be connecting various issues related to an overreaching police state. “What’s really exciting about the ordinance is it’s pushing back on all these very problematic federal polices that have really gone after communities of color,” she said. “The people being spied on in Berkeley are not the people who live in the hills, it’s the students and people of color.”

She said the Occupy movement, its broad appeal to the 99 percent, and police overreaction to peaceful protests have helped to highlight some of these longstanding policing issues and caused more people to feel affected by this struggle.

“The Occupy movement certainly brings these issues to an audience that wasn’t concerned about it before. Surveillance and police brutality, all the sudden that’s in the spotlight.” she said, noting that people have begun to question their willingness to give police more power after 9/11. “More and more people are understanding that the powers the government took aren’t just being directed at terrorists, but members of their families.”

Willie Phillips of Berkeley’s NAACP chapter, a lifelong Berkeley resident who has experienced discrimination and racial profiling by police his whole life, said it’s good to finally build a coalition that broadens support for addressing policing issues.

“It gets people discussing issues that overlap and creating that kind of dialogue is important,” he told us. “Separation only creates a division in addressing the issue that we’re facing…..We have to start looking at our commonalities and our hopes, instead of fear, because fear is what divides us.”

Phillips said the Occupy movement, with its engaged young people who have stood strong against aggressive police tactics, has helped place the spotlight back on policing issues after progress on combating racial profiling in the ’90s was derailed by 9/11.

“It’s shows that everyone can be marginalized,” Phillips said of the Occupy movement. “Ninety-nine percent of people have been marginalized and that context helps us understand each other.”

Arreguin hopes that Berkeley’s work in this realm sparks discussions with other Bay Area jurisdictions. “We want to work on a regional level to deal with these issues,” he said, later adding, “I’ve been alarmed as the police state has developed over the years.”

Asked whether he’s gotten any pushback from police to his efforts, Arreguin said Police Chief Michael Meehan and his department have been very cooperative and that “our police are just waiting for a dialogue about what kind of changes we want to see.”

A Berkeley Police spokesperson says the department won’t comment on political matters. Berkeley Police Association President Tim Kaplan said mutual aid agreements are important to public safety, but that “we do feel like we’re part of the Berkeley community and we want to work with the city and its citizens….We’re going to do what the law says.”

And the coalition is intent on writing some of the country’s most progressive laws for policing the police.

“The victory we had on mutual aid agreements is very exciting and we have an opportunity to make some real changes,” Arreguin said.

Buttar said his organization has helped to facilitate similar coalitions in about 30 cities, from Los Angeles to Hartford, Conn. But he said Berkeley’s is the biggest and has the most ambitious agenda. “I tend to think that just getting the coalition together is a win,” Buttar said. “So, to that extent, Berkeley is already a model.”

Should Occupy pull back and reinvent itself?


Maybe it’s time for the Occupy movement to simply take a bow, step off the national stage for now, and start planning its next big production. Because at this point, Occupy has been a smashing success – winning over its audiences and key critics, influencing the national debate – but it’s in danger of losing that luster if its lingers too long in its current form.

Consider the events of this week. When OccupySF’s long-standing encampment was finally removed by police and city workers, the general public barely noticed or reacted. Unlike during previous police raids, hundreds of supporters didn’t pour in to defend the camp and social media sites didn’t light up with messages of indignation and solidarity.

Why? Well it’s not because people don’t support the movement. Polls have consistently shown most people back Occupy, and even higher percentages support its basic message that the 99 percent are being screwed over by the 1 percent. Top political leaders at every level – Mayor Ed Lee, Gov. Jerry Brown, and President Barack Obama – made statements and speeches this week that echo the themes and ideas that Occupy has injected into the national dialogue.

But the tactic of occupation was only going to get us so far. It was a great way to start a conversation and demonstrate a broad discontent with this country’s inequities and plutocratic excess. Finally, the people have started to challenge those who are exploiting them, and it’s been particularly exciting to see young people fighting to reclaim their stolen futures.

That energy hasn’t dissipated, and it’s interesting to see it morphing into other campaigns, such as the recent takeovers of vacant foreclosed homes, the human rights march planned for tomorrow, and West Coast port shutdown scheduled for Monday. But I predict the crowds blockading the Port of Oakland will be a fraction of the size of the tens of thousands who took to the streets during the Oakland General Strike on Nov. 2.

Then, people were reacting to police violently crushing Occupy Oakland’s peaceful political assembly on Oct. 25, a galvanizing event, much like the raid on Occupy Wall Street and the abusive police tactics against occupiers on the UC Berkeley and UC Davis campuses. Each example showcased the police state’s willingness to use a heavy hand against peaceful protesters, demonstrating for a global audience what an important struggle this is and what we’re up against.

Yet it was hard to summon up much indignation over this week’s raid on OccupySF, even as protesters complained about being given just five minutes to get out and having their belonging seized and destroyed. Mayor Lee had been threatening the raid for weeks and had offered the group a free new home in the Mission – an offer they probably should have taken, one that would have allowed the group to declare victory and have a base of operations throughout the winter.

But unlike my cranky, “you kids get off my lawn” colleagues in the mainstream press, who have consistently derided the movement and valued anti-camping laws over the core constitutional right to peaceably assemble to petition for a redress of grievances, I think Occupy has been extremely important and effective. My desire is to see it evolve and continue.

Mayor Lee and other city officials have praised the goals and worldview of Occupy at every turn, even as they oppose the tactic of camping. As Police Chief Greg Suhr raided OccupySF, he told reporters that “part of the 99 percent removed part of the 99 percent to give the other part of 99 percent some relief,” tipping his hat to Occupy’s basic paradigm. Gov. Brown echoed Occupy’s economic inequity language in his call for higher taxes on the rich this week.

“I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them,” Obama said in his big speech this week, embracing the Occupy paradigm even as he tried to transcend it. But go back and read the whole speech and you’ll see that it would have fit right in during any Occupy General Assembly, with its regular calls to tax the rich, something this movement has given him the political cover to more forcefully advocate.

So the conversation has now begun, thanks largely to this movement. But, as most supporters of Occupy already know, our elected officials won’t simply enact the reforms we need on their own. They will need to be pushed and prodded relentlessly by a restive public, so the supporters of Occupy still have a lot of work to do.

How will they do that and what will it look like? I don’t know, but after watching these smart, creative, courageous, and committed young people and their supporters change the political dynamics of this country over the last three months, I’m anxious to see what they come up with and I stand read to chronicle and support the next phase, whatever it’s called and whenever it begins.

SFPD raids OccupySF again, using more force this time (PHOTOS AND VIDEO)


2:10 pm UPDATE: OccupySF plans to march on City Hall today (Mon/17) starting at 5 pm at Justin Herman Plaza.

Police raided the OccupySF encampment for the second time last night. The events were similar to the Oct. 5 incident, where police stood in riot gear while the protesters’ materials were loaded into Department of Public Works trucks, then protesters sat, lay, and stood on the street around the trucks in an attempt to prevent them from leaving. In both cases, a kitchen and medical tent that had been set up by protesters were dismantled.

Police were by many accounts more aggressive than in the previous raid, which was the first direct police attack on an Occupy encampment in a major U.S. city. Last night, protesters were dragged, kicked, and struck by police officers, prompting the dispatch of an ambulance to take an injured protester to the hospital. There were at least five arrests.

Journalist Josh Wolf shot some excellent footage of the raid:

San Francisco Police Department spokespersons didn’t answer calls from the Guardian. Police Chief Greg Suhr told us after the last raid (which was also approved by Mayor Ed Lee) that they were only removing public safety hazards and “we will surgically and as best as possible and with as much restraint as possible try to deal with the hazards while protecting people’s First Amendment rights.” Yet last night’s raid shows the city is actually dealing more harshly with the Occupy movement than most cities. 

Around 10:15 pm, the group received a warning that police planned to enforce 10 pm curfew in Justin Herman Plaza. The camp had moved there on Saturday to accommodate growing numbers. Police informed protesters that they could not sleep in the park and that they would need to take down a few tarps that had been propped up, providing a roof for the kitchen and communications area in camp. They claimed that there would be no trouble if the camp moved back to their previous location at nearby 101 Market Street, on the sidewalk in front of the Federal Reserve Building.

Protester Katt Hobin served as a liaison with police throughout the night. She was skeptical of police claims that 101 Market Street was an “agreed upon spot.” Hobin told us, “We were encouraged to relocate. We were never told we could be at 101, or that we could be here.”

There were about 100 protesters gathered. In response to warnings of arrest for those who stayed at Justin Herman Plaza, about 30 moved to 101 Market Street. Protesters began texting, calling and tweeting supporters to come join, and by 11:30 pm there were about 200 protesters at camp.

At first, when asked, police could not provide any written statement detailing reasons for disturbing the camp or arresting participants. An officer whose nametag read G. Tom said they were there based on grievances from the Recreation and Parks Department, but that he could not name a specific individual who had complained. After some deliberation, police produced a copy of San Francisco Park Code Section 3.13, which prohibits sleeping in public parks during certain hours.

Sup. John Avalos, the mayoral candidate who has been most actively engaged with the OccupySF movement, negotiated with officers and protester representatives on speakerphone. Avalos suggested that the police come back during the day; Officer Tom replied, “It works better for us to do this in the middle of the night.”

After some negotiations, officers warned that if the tarps that had been erected were not taken down, they would have to proceed with the raid.

Around 11:30 pm, protesters met briefly and agreed not to comply with that order. Said one protester, “We took down the tents last time, and they still took our stuff and arrested people. We can’t trust them. We need to stand our ground.”

At 11:47, about 70 police in riot gear marched on to the scene. They surrounded the camp and began dismantling structures. At 11:53, Department of Public Works trucks pulled in and police began loading them with items from the camp. This included food, tarps, signs, and personal and communal items.

One protester had duct taped himself to a poll within the camp structure. Police ripped him off the poll, threw him to the ground and struck him in the head and ribs. When he left by ambulance a few hours later, he appeared to be convulsing or seizing.

As they had on Oct. 5, protesters poured into the street in an attempt to block trucks from leaving with their possessions. But the street next to Justin Herman Plaza, the southbound side of Embarcadero, separated from the northbound side by a large concrete platform, is quite narrow compared to Market Street where a similar confrontation happened last Wednesday.

Protesters were much more successful last night in blocking the trucks from leaving, and it took about an hour before the four DPW trucks were able to exit. Protesters sat, lay, and stood in the way of trucks, chanting “the people united shall never be divided” and “we shall not be moved.”

Between about midnight and 1:30 am, police tactics escalated. At first, they attempted to back the trucks out, but protesters ran to block all paths. Then one truck lurched forward onto the sidewalk dividing area, where protesters ran to block it as well as talk with the driver about why he was participating in confiscating their belongings.

Soon, police began dragging and pulling protesters who were in their way and the way of the trucks, throwing them from the street to the sidewalk. They also arrested four of those sitting in on the street.

Protester Ryan Hadar, 19, told us: “They bent back my thumbs, trying to pry me away from the people I was locking arms with. When I asked if they were trying to break my thumbs [one officer] replied, ‘only if I have to.’ Then they dragged me to the sidewalk by my index finger. I asked if they were trying to break my finger, and this time they replied, ‘Yes.’”

This level of activity continued about an hour. Protesters sprinted and zoomed back and forth on skateboards, blocking trucks from leaving in all directions. Police pushed protesters out of their path as they marched back and forth, trying to maintain hold of the situation.

At 1 am, the last truck successfully left. Police who had been behind the truck, pushing protesters away from it, were suddenly alone in a sea of OccupySF particpants. They quickly formed into a block, batons poised, as protesters encircled them. A tense moment passed before protesters broke out in cries of “the whole world is watching!”

There were reportedly 2,100 people viewing the live video stream of the events.

The altercation ended in a bizarre fashion, as police marched across Justin Herman Plaza, stopped in the tracks, then seemingly changed their minds and marched back towards the Embarcadero. A smaller contingent then reappeared at the corner of Mission and Steuart streets. Protesters formed a line confronting them and demanding that they release those arrested; a man who had been arrested at the previous week’s altercation had been held 10 days before he was released on bail funds raised by OccupySF.

One officer said that police would continue standing there until protesters left; many protesters were determined to stand until the police left. Eventually, around 1:40 am, police did decide to exit first. A chorus burst out, singing “Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” as they left.

Ten minutes after the incident ended, about four tarps had been restrung and the camp had begun to rebuild its food and water supply. Protesters surveyed the aftermath, including loads of fresh vegetables and other food strewn on the ground near the former kitchen. Many picked up brooms and began cleaning, while others got to work compiling media information.

Those arrested were released around 3 am and arrived back at camp at 3:30. Xander, a protester who had been sleeping at the camp since its first night on Sept. 17, was one of those arrested. He recounted, “They hit me a couple of times on my shoulders and put me in the truck. We weren’t able to leave because our brothers and sisters had surrounded the truck. We were singing and banging on the walls.”

Those arrested were charged with resisting arrest and impeding traffic.



Force is the weapon of the weak: decrying the right’s violent rhetoric


American political discourse is being poisoned by some truly scary rhetoric from the right-wing, which is increasingly resorting to threats and condoning of violence, a trend that has played out in recent weeks right here on the Guardian’s Politics blog. Now is the time to recognize and stop it, just as a new coalition is calling for

San Francisco resident Greg Lee Giusti was arraigned in federal court this morning for making threatening phone calls to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one day after the arrest of Charles Alan Wilson for threatening to kill Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). In both cases, the subject was the recent health care reform bill, the anger of the suspects stoked by misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric from top conservative politicians and media figures, as well as the Tea Party movement.

But these cases – along with the recent domestic terrorism plot by Christian fundamentalists and other incidents of overt and implied threats of violence – aren’t isolated examples; they are closer to the norm of rhetoric emanating from the right-wing these days, a trend not seen in this country since the months that led up to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by right-wing radical Timothy McVeigh, the biggest act of domestic terrorism before 9/11.

Consider Giusti, who also wrote a scary letter to me and the Guardian in the midst of his threats against Pelosi, taking issue with our recent cover story that was critical of police crackdowns on SF nightlife. In additional to praising police violence and encouraging cops to “crack a few skulls open,” just like his NYPD cop uncle, who “knows how to inflect [sic] excruciating Paine [sic] on someone without leaving any signs of what happened.”

But Giusti was far from alone in promoting violence over the issues we’ve raised. SFPD Southern Station Capt. Daniel McDonough praised the sometimes-violent tactics of the two undercover cops who bust parties and nightclubs, strongly implying those tactics were justified to counter the unspecified threats of violence that nightclubs represent. “Because of their diligence and professionalism the amount of violence and disorder has been reduced,” McDonough wrote, echoing a troubling strain of right-wing political thought that condones violence to prevent even speculative threats of violence, a perspective that led us to invade Iraq.

And when I wrote about McDonough’s response yesterday, a commenter wrote that aggressive police tactics are justified because, “The unprecedented ascendancy of nightclubs and violation of the Constitutional rights of residents to peaceful use of their property calls for drastic measures.”

In a similar vein, our blog post this week on a newly released video of American soldiers in a helicopter opening fire on a crowd in Baghdad that included journalists and children while making disturbing comments that seemed to relish the opportunity to kill people also provoked some equally disturbing comments.

“So a couple of journalists embedded with terrorists killing Americans got wiped out…congrats to the shooters! A couple of terrorists in training got shot up in a terrorist rescue attempt…congrats to the shooters! Everyone on scene who died got what was coming to them,” one wrote, while another warned, “Raise a weapon against America or Americans and prepare to experience the worst day in the rest of your life. Hoowa!”

Even though the helicopter was miles away and the video showed no credible threats toward it or anyone else, supporters of the war seemed to think that quickly resorting to violence is acceptable. “This is the price we pay for are [sic] freedom. put yourself in that chopper and then put yourself on the ground they all no [sic] what can and will happen. It will happen at home again 911 just give it time. We will do are [sic] best to defend are [sic] country. GOD BLESS USA.”

And I will do my best to defend this country from right-wing extremists. That effort starts with challenging Sarah Palin’s winking exhortation for her followers to “lock and load,” and with letting commentators like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, on a nightly basis, cast liberals as enemies of the state to their well-armed listeners.

This is simply not OK, a point that’s being made by the prosecutors of Giusti and Wilson, as well as the new Stop Domestic Terrorism campaign by a coalition of organization concerns about the increasing violent rhetoric of the rights. 

“Law abiding Americans do not advocate violence against fellow Americans,” campaign spokesperson Brad Friedman said in a public statement. “As Americans, we all need to engage in a vigorous debate of the issues based on facts and reason rather than fear and prejudice.”

But even in San Francisco, it’s common for conservatives and so-called “moderates” to condone violence against the homeless, drug users, petty criminals, ravers, Critical Mass bicyclists, “illegal immigrants,” or others that they dismiss as “getting what’s coming to them” for daring to violate laws or social mores. I’ve personally had violence wished on me more times than I can count, in letters, phone messages, and to my face. 

As a full-time newspaper journalist for almost 20 years, I’ve dealt with right-wing crazies for a long time, but there are times when you can sense their indignation getting ratcheted up to dangerous levels. In 1994, I wrote stories for the Auburn Journal and Sacramento News & Review about right-wing “patriots” and “constitutionalists” that were part of the militia movement in Placer County.

They warned me that then-President Bill Clinton was an agent of the “New World Order” who was plotting a socialist takeover of the “real Americans,” and that violent resistance was necessary. They spun elaborate fantasies about the impending civil war, which they said the federal government had already started with their raids in Ruby Ridge and Waco. 

“You won’t be able to write an article like this anymore because the government will come and kick in your door and murder you and your children,” one militia member told me after my first article came out.

On April 19 of the next year, while I was working for the Santa Maria Times, I remember vividly when the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, killing 168 people. For the first 24 hours, most media outlets speculated that it was an attack by terrorists from the Middle East, but as soon as I heard it was the anniversary of the Waco incident, I knew exactly who was really responsible: the dangerous right wing extremism that pushed militia member Timothy McVeigh to attack his own country.

And now, it’s happening again. Overheated rhetoric on the right is casting Pelosi and fellow Democrats not just as political opponents, but as dangerous enemies of the “real Americans” that Palin claims to champion. They have, like Wilson said of Murray, “ a target on her back.”

When Sen. Leland Yee tried to find out how much Palin was being paid to speak at California State University-Stanislaus, he was aggressively attacked by her acolytes for trying to “take away her constitutional right to free speech,” according to an anonymous message left on his answering message yesterday, which his office shared with the Guardian. “Maybe we ought to have a homosexual with a long enough dick so he can stick it up his ass and fuck himself while he’s on stage giving a speech.”

Such crass, semi-literate, weirdly homophobic comments might be funny if they weren’t part of a larger, more dangerous trend in this country. Once again, a Democratic president is being actively accused of treasonous hostility to “real Americans” by major conservative figures with huge audiences, and once again, the lunatic fringe is being worked up into a frenzy.

The recently uncovered plot by Michigan militia members to murder police officers in the hopes of starting a holy war with the enemies of Christianity is just one indication for what this kind of rhetoric is leading to in isolated pockets around the country. Now is the time to put a stop to condoning violence in any of its forms, whether it’s cops cracking the skulls of clubbers or street denizens, soldiers firing on crowds of people, or citizens threatening our elected representatives.

“Force is the weapon of the weak,” said the radical pacifist-anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a quote that was often repeated by folk singer and progressive writer Utah Phillips, who I had the honor of covering at the same time I was covering the militia movement. It’s true, and at this difficult moment in our country’s history, let’s all try to stay strong.