Here’s my experience as a legal observer at Occupy Oakland on October 25, 2011. I just got back home (safely) after observing for about 4 hours. For those of you who don’t know, National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers basically are trained to attend political protests/demonstrations and monitor police activity to report misconduct or abuse.
Observers can be students or lawyers or anyone who undergoes training. The basic point is just to have neutral parties there to be eyes and ears on the police and make sure they are held accountable. We also record who gets arrested, how those arrests happen, and try to get badge numbers of the arresting officers.
I’m going to just tell you all a little bit about my experience tonight observing the police raid/standoff at 14th street and Broadway in Oakland. I’m a bit in shock and shaken, so I hope I can be coherent right now. This whole experience of militarized policing is incredibly traumatic. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in Gaza or Kabul or something…
I arrived via Bart around 10:15pm. I had to get off Bart at 19th street because Bart wasn’t stopping at 12th street/civic center due to “civil disobedience” near the station. I arrived close to the plaza and the police presence was incredibly heavy. I am sure you will see picture on the news, but basically they had bussed in riot police in full gas masks, riot gear, the works, from all over the bay– SF, Palo Alto, Oakland, etc. The police had basically arranged themselves in lines three officers deep behind a metal barricade, and maybe 100 or 200 protesters were peacefully gathered in front of them, some dancing, some holding up peace signs.
This was not a rowdy crowd. You could see an assortment of different weapons in police’s hands. About 10 minutes or so after I arrived, there were these loud bursts of sound–almost like fire crackers– and people started yelling “GAS” and running away from the intersection. I ran with the crowd and it was slightly terrifying and chaotic with people pushing to get away from the line of cops. Tear gas had been shot into the crowd and I could smell it and feel it burning my eyes, nose, and mouth. The entire crowd dispersed for a little while until the gas cleared, and then I noticed a sort of commotion close to the plaza. A man had been hit in the head with a tear gas canister and was bleeding and calling for a medic. He was also yelling “This is what democracy looks like!!!”
I have to be honest, it was really, really scary seeing the police response and being so close to chemical weapons. I was shaking uncontrollably and felt on the verge of tears–almost in hysteria. I just couldn’t understand what would justify a police response of these proportions, and I’ve never experienced anything like this before. This was a peaceful gathering. Regardless of your views of the movement itself, I think we can all agree that using this kind of force against people asserting their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble is unfathomable. The police had given an order to disperse earlier saying that protesters were violating penal code (some number I don’t remember), that this was an unlawful assembly, and that if people didn’t leave the intersection, they would be subject to physical force and chemical agents. All of which is based on really shaky legality.
This issue of legality and legitimacy of police force is a tough subject and I know a lot of people have been hearing accounts that protesters were assembling illegally, and that vandalism and public safety was an issue both at the encampment, which police raided and violently disassembled Monday night, and at the Tuesday night protest. I want to say a few words about this.
First of all, the police have the power of the state and force behind them–in some ways, they can do whatever they want. If the legal system and the state power backs them up, they can use whatever city ordinances they want to claim that protesters are being disruptive or disorderly to justify their violent response. True, there may be technical violations of penal code or city ordinance, but there may also be questions about whether these laws are themselves literally constitutional, or constitutional in the way the police and the state interpret/enforce them. The constitution explicitly states that people have the right to peacefully assemble and assert their right to free speech. Is it right to curb that right by saying you need a permit to protest? To require people who want to engage in civil disobedience or nonviolent protest to get permission from the very institutions and power they are protesting? Courts have also often found that ordinances like these are unconstitutional in many cases.
I think it’s helpful to consider this in a historical perspective. In the 1960’s in the country, or even the 1930s and 40s in India, massive civil rights and independence protests were launched. These were all technically “illegal.” Even more recently in many Arab countries, protests emerged that were very explicitly illegal. But who decides what constitutes illegality? Many of these movements we now look at and realize to be quite legitimate struggles that heroically fought for the rights of seriously marginalized groups. Those movements were met with incredible state and law enforcement brutality. Fire hoses, dogs, bullets, rubber and real, horse charges, vicious beatings. The U.S. has historically always called on governments to respect the right of its citizenry to assemble in nonviolent protest. That is the fundamental underpinning of a democracy. Is this not a great hypocrisy to deny the citizens of Oakland or SF or NYC this same right? This video highlights this point nicely:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yIEgZxU1kc.
I had visited the encampment, I had participated in the discussions there. What the police described as “vandalism” involved people posting signs that described when various working groups (the food working group, the people of color working group, the security working group) were meeting. They also created a beautiful altar with photos of people and their loved ones who they wanted to honor and respect. So sure, police may technically describe these things as “vandalism,” but that word conjures up pictures of people spraying vulgar graffiti, which is not at all representative of what went down. The encampment was a lot of students, a lot of older folks with families, people of all colors talking about how to find solutions to the economic system that had left out so many of the folks from this community.
It’s important to note that while the state is putting A LOT of money into overtime and weaponry and training for the police department, Oakland Union School District is closing down 5 more public schools next week due to budgetary constraints. This illustrates a serious problem of prioritizing. There may have been public safety concerns with the encampment, but this is if you look at strict codes. And I guarantee you that every time you have a big party at your house and feed over 25 people, there is some code or another you might be breaking. It’s a matter of enforcement.
The way I look at is: this group of people organized and fed 1,000 people every day. In the same way the panthers did, the movement provided social services and food and shelter to members of the Oakland community that have been completely neglected by the city. There was a bike powered generator, an arts and crafts station, a day care for children, various teach-ins about interesting topics. In some ways, this could be compared to the various communes or ashrams that Gandhi started to create community and sustained resistance.
You may not think the cause of Occupy Wall Street is of the same urgency or righteousness, but I wonder if our view will be different in 20 years when we have a more unbiased image of how so many people currently struggle and barely survive in our society today. At the end of the day, I can tell you that there are currently numerous lawsuits that are being prepared to be brought against police and state officials who sanctioned this response, and the expected result is that these lawsuits are going to be very successful because precedent has condemned over and over again the use of military grade weapons and tactics on peaceful, nonviolent, unarmed protesters.
Back to the events of the night. I found my friend, Lucas, right after this first gassing. He had been hit by a bean bag projectile that cops had fired into the crowd and his leg was bleeding. I found one of these bean bag bullets on the ground and picked it up, so I can send a picture of what this looks like, if you’d like to see it. I was still with Lucas when about 30 minutes later, when I was a bit closer to the police barricade, another shout of “GAS!” went up. People can tell when the cops are about to launch tear gas because the police pull down their masks and some get down on one knee to shoot up the tear gas. We all just started sprinting away and this time they also launched a flash grenade, I think it’s called, into the crowd, which was basically like a big firework. It is essentially meant to scatter people, which it did. It also turned out that the one of the tear gas canisters had hit an Iraq war veteran in the skull, fracturing it, and when 10 or so people tried to drag the vet out of the street and toward the medics, the police lobbed a flash grenade literally into that group of people, which exploded right by the vet’s head. He is currently in critical condition in the hospital.
This time it seemed like there was way more tear gas launched. We ran like 2 blocks away, but two or three canisters landed really close to me and some folks who had run in the same direction. We turned and sprinted down a street perpendicular to the one we were on to escape the gas, but it was painful. It feels like mustard is rubbed into your eyes or chilies or something and it gets everywhere– on your clothes, your skin, so when you rub your eyes or touch your face, it burns. I had to take off everything I had been wearing and shower as soon as I got home.
So after putting some distance between us and the canisters, I began talking to these two young men who had been there for a while. One had been hit by a rubber bullet and was showing me his bruises. He had been there all day and experienced several rounds of tear gassing, so he knew what was up. I was clearly unprepared to deal with the tear gas—I was weeping and coughing because I didn’t have a bandana or other protective gear. He was like “ohh sweetheart, take this” and he put his vinegar-soaked bandana on my face, and dabbed my eyes, which neutralizes the gas. It definitely helped. It was really inspiring to see folks taking care of each other and looking out for people in this terrifying moment. He also noticed I couldn’t stop shaking, which I hadn’t realized, and gave me a swig of brandy (“I’m Irish,” he said, “I always have a drink on me) to take the edge off my shock and nerves. An hour later, his friend found me before he left and gave me a water bottle full of something for my eyes and a vinegar soaked-bandana in case they gassed up again. It was a bright moment in a pretty horrifying night. I really was uplifted by the number of folks who thanked me for my “service in observing.”
That was the last round of gassing I witnessed. For the next 2.5 hours, there was basically a standoff while the crowd thinned out and the police just continued to amass (more and more riot police kept showing up) and they sort of stood in formation in shifts, tapping out squadrons every 35-40 minutes or so to replace them with rested “troops.” We kept waiting and being alert for the mass arrests to start, but when I left around 2am, it was still a standoff. It seemed like the cops were waiting everyone out. I spent a while noting down everyone’s names who were likely to be arrested and made sure they had the NLG hotline number. I was shaking and terrified of another gassing or getting hit with some sort of projectile as I walked by the line of demonstrators who were lined up right in front of the cop barricade, getting names and giving out the number, but the other NLG dude who was there said it was really important that all the cops there saw that observers were present and noticed the green observer hat. Thankfully, things seemed to remain tense, but relatively calm throughout this time and up through when I left.
I’m now about to head to bed, but people anticipate the raid/stand off to continue for the next few days. I’m going to try to observe as much as I can. I’m definitely trying to stay safe and I’m not putting myself in a position to be arrested, but, holy hell, this shit was horrifying!
UPDATE 1: Today was so much better. Really exciting to observe, actually. I’m exhausted and going to bed now, but briefly: there was hardly a police presence tonight. Around 3,000 protesters reconvened in the plaza tonight, took down the fences and held a general assembly in a joyous, festive way. Then we marched for, like, 2 hours through downtown Oakland. People in cars were honking in support. Folks came out of their houses to show solidarity, holding signs on their balconies, standing outside their businesses. Last night’s events certainly generated more support for the movement. It was great to be a part of and see that solidarity. Really uplifting after the trauma of last night. The police seem to have been called back and there was nothing even remotely like what we saw last night.
Amid this, though there were serious fears that the Occupy SF camp was going to get raided tonight. Apparently there were riot police amassing there, but I can’t give any first hand info about that.
UPDATE 2: I just wanted to give a little follow up.
I didn’t take many photos or videos, but I’m attaching pictures of 1.) the bean bag projectile I collected on Tuesday night. It looks innocuous, but imagine this being shot close-range from a rifle at people. Not pretty. 2.) A picture of one of the signs I had photographed at Occupy Oakland that was labeled “vandalism.”
Several people have asked about the Iraq Vet for Peace who was critically wounded during Tuesday’s violence. Here is a video of how this happened. I was not in the area and did not witness this myself.http://front.moveon.org/war-veteran-wounded-by-police-at-occupy-oakland-stun-grenade-thrown-at-folks-helping-him/?id=32341-19976212-_JMLUVx
After being in critical condition, I understand Scott Olsen’s condition has been upgraded today to “fair.” He is still sedated, I believe and will need to undergo further (brain) surgery. It is unclear what kind of brain damage he has sustained. Last night many of the protest signs included Scott’s name and there was a moment of silence to sent thoughts and prayers his way.
I wanted to add a few things about last night. There was a while during the march where the police had closed down the 12th street bart station in Oakland and the Embarcadero Bart station in San Francisco. This fueled people’s fears that a raid was imminent in SF. So for a while during the march, there seemed to be an intention to “take the bridge” –in other words, march over the Bay Bridge to SF to stand in solidarity with Occupy SF. While protesters were deliberating this (many were scared because on March 4th during a different march, there was a mass arrest on the bridge and according to one protester, “there was no escape.”) the police announced that bart had reopened and people were free to travel. So the march ended back in the plaza and many people went over to SF. A friend of mine who went over reported that there were around 2000 people peacefully assembled in SF around 1:00am. I know that it was really nerve wracking for folks who had experienced Oakland the previous night to be in SF under fear of a similar response, but thankfully, there was no raid and the encampment remains. I did not go over to SF and can’t tell you much about how things were over there.
Finally, I wanted to pass on an email that the Oakland Mayor, Jean Quan, sent out around midnight last night after the jubilant march through the streets. Mind you, this email came just 24 hours after the police had brutalized these protesters…
Jean Quan’s About-Face: Oakland Mayor Now Supports the Occupy Movement, Orders “Minimal Police Presence”
Quan’s statement, via the San Francisco Chronicle: “We support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement: we have high levels of unemployment and we have high levels of foreclosure that makes Oakland part of the 99% too. We are a progressive city and tolerant of many opinions. We may not always agree, but we all have a right to be heard.I want to thank everyone for the peaceful demonstration at Frank Ogawa Park tonight, and thank the city employees who worked hard to clean up the plaza so that all activities can continue including Occupy Wall Street. We have decided to have a minimal police presence at the plaza for the short term and build a community effort to improve communications and dialogue with the demonstrators.99% of our officers stayed professional during difficult and dangerous circumstances as did some of the demonstrators who dissuaded other protestors from vandalizing downtown and for helping to keep the demonstrations peaceful. For the most part, demonstrations over the past two weeks have been peaceful. We hope they continue to be so.I want to express our deepest concern for all of those who were injured last night, and we are committed to ensuring this does not happen again. Investigations of certain incidents are underway and I will personally monitor them.We understand and recognize the impact this event has had on the community and acknowledge what has happened. We cannot change the past, but we are committed to doing better.Most of us are part of the 99%, and understand the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We are committed to honoring their free speech right.Finally, we understand the demonstrators want to meet with me and Chief Jordan. We welcome open dialogue with representatives of Occupy Wall Street members, and we are willing to meet with them as soon as possible.”
Its very unclear who made the call to crackdown like this on protesters because Quan was apparently out of town (in Washington DC) during the whole thing. But apparently the police have been called back and at least for now, the violence is being curbed. We’ll see if that continues…
Picture of protesters fleeing tear gas courtesy twitpic.