I went to my first protest naively and unaware of my privilege. Without having ever seen or faced police brutality, I assumed that the law enforcement response to a bunch of college students camping/occupying the base of my campus in 2005 would be uninjured. Maybe they might be tickets or face some kind of campus sanction for breaking the rules but I never expected what would come when the chancellor sent in the raid.
You won’t see me in that video: the sight of the riot vans lining the streets near the university kept me far enough away but I was there on the scene. I remember what happened. Some of the people in that video were my friends and classmates. I had been teaching classes on HIV and BDSM in the camp during the day and I helped their cooking time organize their logistics for making meals.
The story of our chancellor is a sad one. Any given moment of social explosion has generally been in the works. Denice Denton was new to being a chancellor and all of the politics therein. She was also working within a system with more corruption than she may have realized. The regents of the University of California have been making bad decisions and taking home big bonuses for their efforts as school resources diminish and cost of education goes up. On top of that, there were the protests. Some I agreed with and many I did not. I was horrified to open my student newspaper to find a full page sketch of her face and horrible commentary about her as a “bull dyke.” I was pissed that her body type and sexuality were attacked by peers. It also made me wonder how safe it was to be queer in my parts.
It was a situation that was going to blow up and it did more than anyone could imagine. I couldn’t even anticipate the full extent of force used by the police and I was shocked when the chancellor killed herself in San Francisco about a year later. The whole thing can only be described as a “wretched affair” and yet I cannot ignore the greed and the profit off in the wings and the shadows of the situation that utterly fueled it all.
Denice Denton was new to the job in a contentious time. She didn’t have the resources or the support to do what needed to be done. I wonder if she was offered guidance in protest management or if she ignored it. She made a fatal mistake that I saw in Oakland last night. She decided to recruit law enforcement support from many other major surrounding cities. They were more than enough cops and riot squads for the small number of protesters doing nothing more than sitting on a patch of grass. It would have fizzled out with monitoring but in went the big guns and the destruction ensued.
Jean Quan is still new to mayorship and it was a very, very, very bad idea for her to have coordinated the eviction of the Occupy Protesters as she did and to rely on perhaps up to 10 different police agencies to fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag bullets into the crowd. Regardless of your stance, it was a very bad strategy so far as containment and public safety is concerned. Throwing more police at the situation seems to be the easiest way to handle the situation but it rarely is. Another downside of non-local law enforcement is that they don’t know the norms or the city as well. They don’t know the side streets, the danger zones, and the character of protests in the city.
At least with city police, you have individuals responding who know the city and care about what happens to it. They have to go police the streets the day after. Police from other cities are all going to go home somewhere else. They aren’t invested in the long term picture of the situation.
Last night in Oakland there was no looting and no vandalism. Given the scope of the tension, the multiple rounds of tear gas, the massive number and lines of police, the heavy equipment like sonic canons in public view, the flash bombs, shutting off the street lights before firing tear gas, and the total inability to negotiate it easily could have become a riot without activist organizers defusing the tension well. Think for one moment how much of a commitment to non-violence someone has to have in order to stand their ground in the face of these obstacles. Without a doubt there were some water bottles and paint thrown because anger has to go somewhere.
Joshua Holland of AlterNet penned a great write up of the night with articulate criticisms about the response. One of the points he drives home is the cost of such enforcement. Just as Oakland was sending in hundreds of officers from many different cities to handle non-violent and non-armed protesters (it is key to remember that Tea Party protests have often involved participants arriving fully armed and loaded with many different guns and have not been treated in this way). The cost of this enforcement is an important thing to think about because someone has to pay that bill and the Oakland coffers are empty.
Oakland is broke. 14 out of 18 of our libraries were slated for full closure and the remaining 4 were offered a 12 hour a week schedule for being open. Schools are being shuttered one by one. There is visible poverty and urban decay in the city and property management corporations own entire blocks of residential streets after the foreclosures hit the city hard. Having this many cops come out to use that many resources in one night for something that did not post an active danger to the city is reckless and it will cost the residents far too much. We did not have the money to use that much force nor was it necessary.
The other reason I feel confident speaking to the overall incompetence of the situation was the fact that it occurred within a vacuum of leadership that is largely due to mayor and chief of police relations. It was a fundamental error to send in the police a week after the chief of police has resigned and to have done so while she was on the other side of the country. Good programs start with good leadership and when you look at what happened on the night of October 25, 2011 in context of this information the leadership failure is more than evident. The people of the city will get upset and it’s vital to be there in these situations to calm them. During the Oscar Grant protests in Oakland, Dellums (for all of his faults) held down a situation that was more heated and violent than the Occupy Oakland protest. At least he was there telling the people he understood and heard their anger.
I felt insulted by the response issued by Jean Quan for the morning raid that preceded the violence later on that night. Rats in Oscar Grant plaza? Those rats have always been there. If you want to go urban nature wildlife spotting visit ANY of Oakland’s parks and you will see some of the largest rats you’ve ever seen in your life. The rats in Oakland are like the potholes in the street, the broken signals, and buses that just never show up to your stop. Were there people urinating and defecating around the park? Yes, just the way you’ll spot the same on the rise throughout the city because homelessness, mental health, and addiction are problems that Oakland cannot afford to solve. These problems had less to do with the camp and more to do with the fact that Occupy Oakland was doing something about it.
They were feeding the homeless, providing basic care, and offering support by not alienating the humans impacted by these problems. Occupy Oakland was demonstrating that people can be fed, people can access health care, and that not human being should be a pariah because they are suffering from things so scary we don’t normally look them in the eye when confronted with them. They were showing how it could be done. Times are desperate in Oakland and outside of city hall they were shaming the politicians inside who haven’t ever considered the notion that there is more to life than the fucking system.
At the very least, you can’t expect Oaklanders to be afraid. Some people are more afraid that the situation is going to get worse than it is here than they could ever rationally be of tear gas and arrest.
Whether you agree with the Occupy Movement or not, the response to the protest in Oakland last night on October 25, 2011 was incompetent at best and malicious at worst. In fiscal terms, it was not worth the expense to the city to call in that many guns and to fire tear gas in so many rounds and with such frequency. In terms of leadership, it demonstrated that those in charge have exceptionally limited skill in sizing up a situation and making the scene safe for democracy and all sides. The law enforcement escalated the crowds and demonstrated a lack of care for the city and a thirst for a kind of control that has always been an illusion.
Tear gas is a chemical agent. It’s not good for anyone. Why fire it repeatedly into an entire downtown area where there are many non-protesters living, working, and engaging in recreation? Balance the situation: is it better for the residents of the city if some “stupid hippies” sit in a plaza or is it better for multiple city blocks to be inundated in a chemical agent? What are the odds that the “stupid hippies” are going to continue returning if fired up in the response to a heavy hand from the government? What is the end game here? What is the cost? In the context of the budget, is it worth the closure of city schools and libraries just to make certain that the hippies don’t sleep outside of city hall?
When something as large scale as the Oakland streets last night occurs, it is imperative to remember that is a confluence of factors. The chief of police is just over a week into his job and was likely in possession of a drive to “show who’s boss” and perhaps to demonstrate the strength of his force in a city of violence by being the first to shutter the movement in Oakland. The mayor of the city appears to be more than a little naive about how and why protests occur and what her role is when they are in action. Tear gas was not fired because a protester threw paint or a bottle, tear gas was fired because 500 police officers with tear gas showed up on the scene and forcibly removed a group of non-violent people from a location and into the streets at once.
Giving 500 police officers tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag bullets are inevitably going to be used because they are there. Giving a police officer these tools and a set of instructions to shutter the movement establishes this fact. You can’t give a group of people a bunch of nifty toys to play with and then suggest that the only reason they played with them was because they were provoked by others. However, it takes some time to organize and mobilize this many people. This was planned. It did not occur in the spur of the moment. It was the hot front of greed colliding with the cold front of incompetence. It was a series of factors and a chain of events that could have been entirely avoided with better management. No one had to get hurt last night and people did.