Photograph via FLICKR by ClaySU.
How the Oakland Police’s long history of violence finally forced Occupy Oakland’s hand.
By **Dara Kerr**
About 100 occupiers gathered for a rally in front of Oakland City Hall a couple of weeks ago. Bowls of rice and beans were doled out, TV news vans lined the street and a helicopter buzzed overhead. A few people toted cardboard signs with slogans like “End Police Violence” and “#OO.” This rally’s goal was to support those arrested in Occupy Oakland police sweeps.
“A lot of us have been arrested. A lot of us have been brutalized,” Laleh Behbehanian, rally organizer and part of Occupy Oakland’s Anti-Repression Committee, belted over the microphone. “We are going to continue this movement.”
Fifteen minutes into the protest, a dozen police clad in riot gear marched into the middle of the rally, tussled with a couple occupiers and seized the protesters’ sound equipment. Demonstrators screamed, “Our plaza,” “Pigs go home” and “Fucking fascists.” Behbehanian grabbed a bullhorn and yelled, “The largest gang in Oakland just robbed us in broad daylight. Let’s keep the rally going, we ain’t afraid of the OPD.”
This kind of skirmish is now common in Oakland. One month ago, on Jan. 28, Oakland police and the occupiers reached a significant turning point. That day, during the protesters’ attempt to take over a vacant building, police fired tear gas, smoke grenades and beanbag projectiles at crowds of occupiers toting makeshift trash can shields spray painted with peace signs. Following those hostilities, protesters re-grouped and resumed with a march that ended when police corralled and arrested 408 people in front of a neighborhood YMCA.
The Oakland Police Department says that while attempting to occupy the vacant building, protesters charged police skirmish lines, lobbing bottles, metal pipes, spray cans, improvised explosive devices and burning flares. The police department also documented protesters “breaking into and vandalizing” city hall.
Before Jan. 28 the only other mass arrests happened on the nights of the first police raid on the Occupy Oakland camp on October 25th and the first Port of Oakland shutdown on Nov. 2—in each instance, roughly 80 people were arrested. Also, in both cases, thousands of people were protesting. On Jan. 28 police estimate the group in front of the YMCA was about 500 people, so police arrested over 80 percent of this crowd.
“I understand the core is invested in issues central to Oakland, but I struggle with the balance of the confrontations with police of Oakland and the actions that resonate with Occupy Wall Street.”
On that day, both the Oakland police and Oakland occupiers shifted strategies. While the police became more brutal, more aggressive and less tolerant, the occupiers’ actions became more radicalized.
Many nonviolence advocates, some of them veteran Bay Area protesters, express dismay about the turn taken within Occupy Oakland. However, leaders in the group say the tactical shift toward radical was unavoidable, as police brutality forced their hand.
Kristof Lopaur, one of Occupy Oakland’s chief organizers, says the occupiers’ central battle plan on Jan. 28 was to march prepared to defend themselves. “By and large the only violence in the streets is by the police, disproportionately,” he says. #8220;I don’t consider throwing a tear gas canister back at the police violent.”
“We’ve been shot at so many times by the police,” Lopaur says. “Occupy Oakland has responded with a measure of self-defense. You have to differentiate by people’s instinctive actions and by a planned action.”
Lopaur says that while some people may have acted aggressively on their own accord, the organized tactics employed on Jan. 28 were mostly not-violent. “We are defensive militants,” he says. “Shields are in no way offensive. It’s the police who say the shields are violent.”
What is happening within Occupy Oakland is not only a tactical shift but also a shift in the focus of its objectives. Rather than Occupy Wall Street’s founding cause and end goal of tackling corporate greed, Occupy Oakland is also fighting against police brutality—an Oakland phenomenon that existed long before Occupy.
In 2000, four police officers known as the “Riders” were arrested on charges of kidnapping, planting evidence, and beating suspects. The charges were so egregious that the Oakland Police Department became part of a civil rights lawsuit in Federal District Court and is now required to comply with a series of reforms by 2014 or be placed under federal control, which would be a first in modern U.S. history.
However, despite the lawsuit, police repression has continued. In 2003, during an anti-war protest at the Port of Oakland, police fired wooden projectiles and shot-filled beanbags at peaceful protesters and broke crowds by riding in on motorcycles. On New Years Day in 2009, Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed on an Oakland subway platform by an officer working for regional transit police. And as Occupy Oakland got under way in October, dozens of reports of police misconduct flowed in—most notably when police reportedly fired a projectile at Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen’s head fracturing his skull and putting him into a coma.
Nonviolence vs. Not-Violent
During the rally in front of city hall, after police seized the protesters’ sound equipment, Elaine Brown—a former leader of the Black Panther Party—grabbed the bullhorn. “What we’re doing is changing the dynamic,” she shouted. “Don’t you feel like you have anything to apologize for because the media has decided that the occupy movement has turned quote-un-quote violent.”
“What can be more violent than not having a place to live?” she continued, as the crowd cheered. “What can be more violent than the entire occupation of our communities by the police? We need to be reclaiming the communities and start talking about their violence against us.”
Lopaur says that in the face of tear gas and projectiles, using purely nonviolent tactics just isn’t an option in Oakland.
“No one in Oakland wants to use nonviolence tactics and subject themselves to police violence,” Lopaur says. “There’s not a lot of purchase of that kind of action. You’re not going to sit down in front of the police.”
Early on in Occupy Oakland, dozens of people would sit in large groups in front of police lines, but now that is rarely seen. Looking at what happened to Scott Olsen—who was shot at close range while stoically standing in front of rows of police and then was fired at again as he lay bleeding on the ground circled by people who came to his rescue—occupiers say it’s clear that police will shoot even when unprovoked.
Lopaur explains that “nonviolence and not-violent are two different things,” and a way for the occupiers to move forward with their cause is to act “not-violently,” which involves provoking law enforcement to expose police brutality. “I think that this movement is a not-violent movement with types of action that are very disciplined,” he says. “We use not-violent tactics to provoke the police, like camping is not-violent.”
Some in Occupy Oakland still believe in using nonviolence protest tactics. Mike Rufo has been with the movement since the beginning, attending General Assembly meetings and participating in protests, including two local port shutdowns. He didn’t rally on Jan. 28, however, because he didn’t agree with the premise of “taking” a building.
“I understand that Occupy Oakland has a lot of Oakland-centered issues,” Rufo says. “I understand the core is invested in issues central to Oakland, but I struggle with the balance of the confrontations with police of Oakland and the actions that resonate with Occupy Wall Street.”
“Sometimes when we think about tactics, it comes before the movement. It’s like the cart is coming before the horse,” he says. “We run the risk of petering out and being a movement that didn’t change the system. I think this group can stay unified and should be unified—we’ve got to hold it together even if we don’t agree on a tactical level.”
Strength doesn’t take numbers
As helicopters continued circling overhead and the rally to support arrested occupiers ended, the group started marching to the Oakland courthouse where several of the people jailed on Jan. 28 were being arraigned. Of the 408 arrests, so far, 12 people have been charged with criminal offenses, eight with misdemeanors and four with felony offenses.
One of the marchers was a new arrival to Oakland, Cody Peterson. Originally part of Occupy Los Angeles, Peterson moved up the California coast trying to find an occupy movement that was still going strong, he says. In his travels, he ran into dozens of people doing the same. “They were all coming here, they all flood here from different states. It’s really the last one that’s doing anything,” he says. “This will be the Benghazi of America.”
Lopaur agrees with Peterson’s assessment that Occupy Oakland is strengthening, despite dwindling numbers at the General Assemblies and fewer people coming to protests. He believes part of Occupy Oakland’s power is the dedication of its activists. Lopaur doesn’t necessarily see the 408 arrests as a bad thing. “Four hundred people were arrested. Was that a success for the police?” he asks. “Four hundred people were radicalized by their experiences with the state.”
Lopaur says the goal isn’t to “conquer the police,” which he says will never happen, but rather to prove that the state will inevitably fail at repressing the movement.
“As long as we don’t go away, we win. We just have to survive. Our job is to persist,#8221; he says. “The only way we lose is if we stop doing things, and we don’t have any intention of stopping.”
Dara Kerr is a journalist based in Oakland. Prior to news writing, she worked in international affairs, focusing on Latin America. A graduate of New York University, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal.com, CBS News, and other publications. She received the 2010 Goldman Prize for Excellence in International Reporting for her work in Guernica.