The paramilitary police attacks on unarmed “Occupy Oakland” protesters, leaving an Iraq war veteran critically injured and facing brain surgery, are going to misfire badly on the ruling elite. The scenes were reminiscent of military dictatorships, but the police violence on American citizens will only increase the resolve of the protesters and galvanize a shocked public. Occupy Oakland has called a city-wide general strike for November 2, and in New York thousands marched in solidarity with the Oakland movement.
On Tuesday evening, demonstrators had attempted to return to Frank Ogawa Plaza after their camp had been destroyed in the early hours of that morning. According to the New York Times, “About 100 officers, some appearing to be sheriff’s deputies, stood behind a metal barricade in full riot gear and wearing gas masks, while on the other side people pressed against the barricade, waving peace signs and chanting slogans. A few protesters hurled objects — what looked like water bottles — at the police, while over a loud speaker, officers instructed people to disperse or risk ‘chemical agents.’… Shortly after 9:30 p.m. the announcements stopped. Moments later, the police began firing canisters of tear gas into the crowd.”
Although the Oakland police deny using rubber bullets and stun grenades, video posted on the Guardian and the New York Times clearly shows these projectiles being used. A photographer witnessed Scott Olsen, the injured veteran, get hit in the head by a police projectile. Video footage taken by an onlooker shows Olsen lying prone in front of a line of police; as people gathered around him to provide aid, a police officer threw an “flash-bang” grenade directly at them, scattering the group.
The justification given by city officials for breaking up and destroying the encampment was that the camp was a hazard to public safety and health. This is the same rhetoric being used in other cities to excuse the suppression of people’s constitutional rights of assembly, and remains the biggest danger to occupations in areas where up to now municipalities have been more tolerant. This rhetoric must be answered by sanitation workers’ unions who should assist occupiers by bringing in portable toilets and regularly inspecting the conditions.
The New York Times reported that officials in New York, Boston and Philadelphia “are still grappling with growing concerns about crime, sanitation and homelessness at the encampments. Even in Los Angeles, where the City Council passed a resolution in support of the protesters, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa warned Wednesday that they would not be allowed to remain outside City Hall indefinitely. Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, echoed that sentiment. … mayors across the country say they have found themselves walking a complex and politically delicate line: simultaneously wanting to respect the right to free speech and assembly, but increasingly concerned that the protests cannot stay orderly and safe.”
These liberal justifications for outlawing the Occupy movement on grounds of order and safety need to be examined in detail. There is no reason why municipal rules cannot be changed to allow the public permanent access to spaces where they can exercise their First Amendment rights. But the accusation of violating the law highlights the fact that public space has been increasingly subject to arbitrary regulation and privatization.
In Oakland, reports of a sexual assault and physical violence within the encampment were floated by city officials at the same time that administrators were planning the police raid. Although Oakland mayor Jean Quan subsequently attempted to distance herself from the decision to send in the police, sociologist Darwin Bond-Graham points out that “On Quan’s orders the police attempted to patrol the encampment from its beginning, but had been rebuffed by the occupiers who are serious about establishing their independence from the state and political parties.”
A city hall spokesperson said a mentally-ill homeless man had attacked others in the camp and had been forcefully expelled. Bond-Graham comments: “Whatever happened, it’s clear that occupiers chose not to involve the police, for reasons that are clear to those familiar with the OPD’s violent reputation, but also because the encampment’s participants appear to be taking the challenges posed by state violence and austerity seriously, responding with efforts to autonomously care for and govern themselves.”
“The encampment therefore not only set up its own security system by which volunteers help one another keep the peace, but a major part of Occupy Oakland has included attempts to set up, albeit on a micro-scale, the very services the city government has been destroying in recent years: a free school, library, food kitchen, clothing distribution, child care, health care, and much more. … The mayor and several city council members initially praised the Occupy protests, specifically hailing the massive Occupy Oakland convergence and general assembly on October 10th because they misunderstood it as a critique solely aimed at Washington D.C. and distant centers of economic power. But from the very beginning Occupy Oakland took a radical stance and localized the terms of struggle. …”
When homeless people and African-American youth joined the occupation in Oakland, the administration’s reflex was to unleash the kind of of police brutality against the protesters as they use to control primarily African-American neighborhoods. The middle class in Oakland, like in the rest of the country, has become aligned with an underclass that has been routinely repressed for many years in the U.S.
Bond-Graham explains how this worked out: “Few cities in California have been struck harder by foreclosures than Oakland. The predatory sortie of home seizures led by banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America have included 28,000 Oakland residences in just three years. Most of these stolen homes are concentrated in the city’s vast eastern neighborhoods populated by Black and immigrant communities. Many of these displaced families have been pushed into slummed rental housing, while some have become homeless. …
“Many of these families have been struck equally hard by the state’s unemployment crisis, causing a cyclical decline in consumer spending, leading to fewer sales tax revenues. With no recovery in sight Oaklanders have turned to their local government in a time of need only to find schools closing, libraries cutting hours, infrastructure crumbling, and all other aspects of the public sphere and the safety net being pulled out from under them.”
A national struggle against plutocratic control of the political system has merged with local struggles over homelessness, unemployment, and budget cuts. Resources needed for social welfare have been given over to the prison system and the police, who have a history of brutality in the neighborhoods and clashes with protesters. An involuntary manslaughter verdict on a transit policeman who shot dead Oscar Grant, a young black man who was handcuffed and lying on his stomach, led to huge protests in 2009 and 2010 which were suppressed with tear gas. The community erupted again when the judge sentenced the officer to two years jail time instead of the usual four years for manslaughter, because the jury decided he had mistaken his gun for a taser.
So the Occupy Oakland demonstrations have introduced a new element into what is already a tense power balance between the forces of the state and dispossessed citizens. Activists need to be cognizant of the dangers but not intimidated by police tactics. At the same time, broadening the movement and working for support from community groups and unions is the best way to neutralize attempts to defeat the occupations by force.