An unofficial count of 400 Occupy Oakland demonstrators were arrested Saturday, January 28, after being fired upon, beaten, kettled, and trapped by Oakland riot police. The Occupy Oakland social movement is rooted in the lower-income, ethnically diverse Bay area city and has been a previous site of violent police repression. Oakland has been a nexus of social unrest long before the Occupation catalyzed it as an outlet for frustration. Oakland boasts closing public schools, an annual median family income at $56,000 in 2008, and in 2010, it was listed as the fifth most dangerous in the US with a history of police brutality. With all of these simmering tensions, Occupy Oakland’s actions should not come as a surprise to anyone, least of all elected officials like Mayor Quan and Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan.
The Occupy movement is a global social demonstration aimed at overturning the interconnectivity of money/economic/political entitlement. In 2011, acting under orders from Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland cops destroyed two Occupy encampments on public land. The immediate aftermath of their and other cities police forces’ wanton destruction of the camps created dialogue about the definition of public space, the role of elected officials and the need for the Occupy movement.
Occupy Oakland furthered the debate by their attempt to re-purpose the 6-year abandoned and shuttered Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. The convention center has no current plans for use and Occupiers intended to repurpose it as a community center, intending to offer housing, medical and convergence facilities. The simple fact that Occupy Oakland decided to enact this bold move is an indication that the public’s needs are not being met by their elected officials.
According to an eyewitness account from an arrested Mother Jones reporter, during an all-day festival, thousands of Occupy Oakland supporters demonstrated against the broken system, but did not take the abandoned convention center. Still, hundreds of police officers dressed in riot gear arrived to face down over a thousand Oakland men, women, and children as they walked the streets and sidewalks carrying signs, chanting and singing. According to the Huffington Post, there was a volley of tear gas and bottles between the police and protesters on the streets. According to various YouTube citizen video footage, the cops shot tear gas and flash bang grenades into lines of protesters, including a group of shield-carrying people protecting a medic as the masked individual provided medical assistance to a fallen man. Protesters retaliated by throwing bottles, furniture and rocks. Last year, brave men and women waded into the tear gas to rescue Scott Olsen after he was shot in the head by a tear gas canister. They were dispersed when an officer shot a canister of tear gas directly into their group.
While no one should ever attack police officers, the violence enacted against police was a reaction to violence demonstrated to them. Not even in a directly proportional sense, the police launched high velocity flash bangs, smoke bombs, and bean bag projectiles while a few demonstrators tossed hand-sized objects while fleeing the public street.
In Oakland, a city so rife with economic and repressive tensions, Mayor Quan and Police Chief Howard seem intent on ignoring the needs of the public and grinding them under the department-approved 5.11 ATAC boot heel. In the mainstream media, Occupy Oakland participants have been typified as the aggressive instigators when, according to citizen journalists, they were only reacting to the upswing in violent action.
Furthermore, later that Saturday, Oakland police further increased the violence when after ordering the hundreds of women and men to disperse, kept them kettled in a small area and arrested them for a range of violations, including failure to disperse. Among the arrested included journalists. The elected officials of Oakland are choosing to burn taxpayer dollars restricting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Instead of throwing blame like tear gas canisters or rocks, city officials should consider the upside of allowing a community organization to repurpose an abandoned structure for the betterment of their city.
Locally, in Oakland, the police and state escalated the power struggle by attending a peaceful public demonstration dressed in riot gear. Nationally, the federal government has shown up with its finest billy clubs as First Amendment-curtailing laws like NDAA are signed in to existence, regardless of public outcry.
Escalation is occurring. The state and status quo are utilizing their momentum to further increase the acceptable allowances of violence. When Occupations move to take back their rights, we are beaten, gassed, pepper sprayed, concussed, kettled, and arrested. As one of the many signs I’ve held at my Occupy Chicago rallies reads, “They only call it class warfare when we fight back,” that statement is truth. We need to keep fighting the escalation of violence. Every local occupation needs more ideas, more voices, more bodies dedicated to building a better world where public needs are met and police are not ordered to fire on their brothers and sisters.