The national media embedded itself in a police propaganda assault on Occupy Oakland, Saturday, after 400 protesters were arrested. They were trying to occupy unused buildings in search of a new home for the movement’s daily activities: meeting, serving food, and providing a place for people to stay. Mayor Jean Quan condemned the local movement’s tactics as “a constant provocation of the police with a lot of violence toward them” and blamed “one faction using Oakland as their playground.”
The fact that the notoriously violent Oakland PD initiated the confrontations was left out of the story. BagNews pointed out that prejudicial photos of unidentified protesters burning a U.S. flag taken from City Hall became part of the media’s lead narrative, while others taken a few moments earlier, showing an occupier pleading with them not to burn it, were spiked.
Establishing the actual order of events on Saturday is important to counter the police justification that the demonstrators arrived with the intention of provoking violence. Eyewitness accounts make it clear that while a small number of protesters threw objects and pulled down fencing, this was only after marchers had been attacked with tear gas and other crowd-control devices.
The New York Times, for example, gave credence to the police story by just reporting “clashes” between protesters and the police: “The clashes began about 3 p.m. on Saturday when protesters marched toward the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center and began to tear down construction barricades, and the violence extended into early Sunday. The Oakland Police Department said in a statement that the crowd was ordered to disperse after protesters ‘began destroying construction equipment and fencing’.”
Kevin Army, an OpenSalon blogger, gives this important eyewitness corrective from the march: “The day began with a rally at noon at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. I asked many people if they were planning to enter the building. Almost everyone said they were uncertain, they would wait and see how things were going. There were about 500 people gathered. … After a few blocks, we came across police blocking off certain streets, herding the protesters through Laney College. By this time there were over 1,000 protesters. It was becoming clear that the police knew where the protesters were going; the secrecy was in vain. I ended up walking around and taking a different route, as I had promised myself I wouldn’t get arrested or hurt. I learned the targeted building was the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, and I proceeded there with caution. The Kaiser Center is vacant and is not currently in use.
“As I watched the larger group moving toward the building, it looked like a trap. Very soon after the protesters arrived at the Kaiser Center, the police fired tear gas into the crowd. Those of us standing two blocks away could taste it. Later, when I spoke to people who had been at the front, everyone said they Occupiers had done nothing to provoke the tear gas other than arriving at the building.”
Alternet published an account drawn from internet broadcasting of the event. “A livestream offered by Occupy Oakland’s Mark Mason and Chris Krakauer showed protesters approaching the Henry Kaiser Convention Center in the early afternoon, where they were greeted by skirmish lines of police clad in riot gear. At one point, Mason, narrating as he moved through the crowd, could be heard saying, ‘uh-oh, some people are throwing things at the cops,’ before moving away from the front-lines. Later, an Occupier visiting from Los Angeles told Mason of confronting one of the protesters who had thrown an object at police. ‘That’s just stupid, you know,’ said the young woman. ‘And she threw it from the middle of the crowd, which just puts people in the front in danger.’ … But OPD’s large-scale use of force against the mostly peaceful crowd visibly escalated the tension. ‘There are fucking kids here!’ one activist could be heard shouting on Mark Mason’s livestream. ‘What’s wrong with you fucking people?’”
Omar Yassin, a member of the group’s media committee, told the New York Times that the vandalism against construction equipment and fencing was “not something I would have done. But I do understand that people were enraged by the brutality that they had already seen. There were children in that crowd; there were families in that crowd.”
After the police had dispersed the first march, the protesters regrouped. Kevin Army’s account continues: “When it was time to begin the second march, the crowd was probably back down to about 700. The group remained remarkably upbeat and determined. We arrived at the ‘alternate’ building, and got herded away by the police. So people marched around, continually getting corralled and surrounded. I stayed behind, and the friend I was walking with noticed police coming at us from both directions. We decided to get out as it looked like a bad place to be. Our only exit was toward the police. On our way, an officer told us to turn around. I held out my homemade press pass and said we just wanted to leave. He told us we couldn’t and said, ‘You chose to be here.’ … There was a wire fence on one side of the Occupiers, and some of them pushed it down and everyone escaped across a vacant lot. They ended up in front of the YMCA on Broadway. I heard reports that some protesters entered the building and ran out the back. A large group in front of the Y got surrounded by police. Many were arrested.”
The New York Times account confirmed this: “Most of the Oakland arrests occurred late Saturday, when large groups were corralled in front of the downtown Y.M.C.A. on Broadway. Joshua Hewitt, 20, of San Leandro, Calif., said he was arrested as he attempted to follow the police instructions to disperse but was caught between two rows of officers.” In a statement on Sunday afternoon, the police said the marchers “invaded” the Y.M.C.A. This was contradicted by Caitlin Manning, a film professor and Occupy supporter, who told the NYT that “protesters had been invited into the Y.M.C.A. to escape being boxed in on Broadway, but ended up being prevented by the police from leaving through a rear door.”
In line with police tactics at December’s Occupy evictions, journalists were also arrested. Mother Jones reporter Gavin Aronsen found himself kettled with the other protesters outside the YMCA. “I displayed my press credentials to a line of officers and asked where to stand to avoid arrest. In past protests, the technique always proved successful. But this time, no officer said a word. One pointed back in the direction of the protesters, refusing to let me leave. Another issued a notice that everyone in the area was under arrest. I wound up in a back corner of the space between the YMCA and a neighboring building, where I met Vivian Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle and Kristin Hanes of KGO Radio. … As I waited in line to be processed and transported to jail, Ho approached me with an officer who had released her from custody. The two explained to my arresting officer that I was with the media. ‘Oh, he’s with the media?’ the officer replied, although I had already repeatedly told him as much and my credentials had been plainly visible all night. He appeared ready to release me, until a nearby officer piped in, without explanation: ‘He’s getting arrested’.”
Illegal victimization of peaceful protesters and journalists was repeated at a support demonstration for Occupy Oakland in New York City on Sunday night, where twelve marchers were arrested. The NYT CityRoom blog reported: “… on Park Avenue, a man wearing dark clothes and wearing no visible badge grabbed a woman by the arm and threw her to the ground. Uniformed officers arrested her and a second woman as other officers blocked the lens of a newspaper photographer attempting to document the arrests. As they were led away in handcuffs, the two told onlookers that they had done nothing to deserve being arrested. The woman thrown to the ground identified herself as Jessica Lemmer, 21, and said that the man in the dark clothes had thrown her down after she told him not to push her.” The NYC marchers were on their way to an empty former school building that had housed the Charas/ El Bohio Cultural and Community Center before the group was evicted ten years ago by a developer who had bought the building at a city auction.
What stands out from the accounts is how even those with reservations about certain forms of protest remain committed to the Occupy movement’s goals. Kevin Army conveys this eloquently in the conclusion to his report: “Right or wrong, I knew I was marching with people who care, who care enough to risk being assaulted by the police, to risk arrest and injury. Some might look at that and think it’s insane. I think insanity is looking at how things are these days and doing nothing. I’m open to other ideas. But for now, Occupy is the best idea around. Even when it’s a mess, and things don’t go right, and I’m not sure what I think, it’s a great, inspiring idea.”