From the Outside, Trying to Look In: Occupy Oakland’s #J28,

by zunguzungu

I spent Sunday outside Santa Rita County Jail, waiting with other Occupy Oakland people for the 400 people who were arrested the previous day to be released, to greet them with food, rides, hugs, and cheers. As of last night, the round the clock support team was still there; people were still, slowly, being released. It was a very strange day, but quite pleasant for those of us lucky enough to be free, bathing in the information vacuum, the company, and the California sun. Thousands of birds had occupied the nearby trees – set in the midst of vast grassy lawns whose grass was, according to signs posted, not to be walked upon – and the weird aharmonic chorus of their chirping was both almost as inhumanly robotic as the jail itself, and also quite peculiarly soothing.

For those we were waiting to greet, the situation was somewhat different. When my friend Michelle got out, her first words were a very understated “That place is really not a good place.” As another friend, “Repoliticize,” described her experience on twitter:

For those of you who haven’t had the, ahem, pleasure of paying a visit to the inner corridors of santa rita jail, a few words… this is a cold, concrete space, which will eventually defeat you into lying on surfaces you wouldn’t let children touch. If you stay there long enough to be served more than one “meal,” you realize there is only one meal that they serve in the holding cells, a sealed plastic bag with two thick, stomach-turning slices of bologna, two stale slices of white bread, two soggy cookies, an orange, and a packet of “bernard” orange powder for flavoring the oddly filmy water that comes out of the cell’s one faucet.

The toilet is next to the window, so that you’re forced to pee not only in front of your cellmates, but also passing guards and inmates you’re made to beg for more toilet paper, and there hasn’t been any soap in the cells on either of my visits to santa rita. There are no trash cans, so you sit and lie in your own filth: orange peels, plastic packaging, spilled “bernard” off-brand tang.previous inhabitants of the cells have written on the walls with mustard and the benches are thick and sticky with food and bodily discharge. There’s not thing to do but sleep (if you’re lucky) and ponder whether it’s worth it to eat the “food” or drink the “water”

I don’t want to be overly dramatic with this account — although everything is as disgusting or as bad as I say because this was a TERRIBLE experience — but let’s be real: I was detained for 24 hours. This is one of the LEAST bad experiences one could have in jail.

Now, why were they there? Why did 400 people from Occupy Oakland spend days in a county jail? Why was it necessary? What did this accomplish? And why are some still there?

The easy answer – the one you’d get from newspapers, who are careful to give you a (gradually rising) number of arrestees — is something like “Violence Erupted in Oakland.” And the police exist, as you and I know, to calm the violence, restore stability, preserve order, pacify the situation, etc. Sitting outside the jail, it was hard not to think about the ways those distinctions were being established spatially: inside, those who were arrested (CRIMINALS) were lying in filth; outside, we (CITIZENS) were bathing in the pacific beauty of pristine lawns, sky, sun.

I start by talking about this because I want to expand on the post I wrote on Sunday morning — and I apologize for the excessive length of this — but I’ve been unable to stop thinking about what was has been so viscerally physical for those 400 people who were arrested versus the way we, who are distant from their experience, are able to make sense of why they have gone through it (with perhaps a bit of uneasiness about having been spared it). And I can’t help but talk about where I was and what I saw, not because I’m a narcissistic blogger — that’s just bonus — but because where you are, and when, is what makes the story you are able to tell what it is.

As I wrote on Sunday morning, what was so striking the day after was how all the mainstream news stories seemed to have been composed the same way, starting with OPD’s press release (issued in the mid afternoon) as a rough outline, sprinkling in some quotes from non-OPD sources (often social media, no doubt collected from the comfort of their office chairs), and then (maybe) added on the additional information that between one and four hundred people were arrested in the evening, depending on how late in the day they filed their copy.

It goes beyond the shoddy plagiarism of their work, though. As a result of how poorly these stories were constructed, you got the sense that everything happened at more or less the same time: occupiers tried to occupy a building, threw stones, burned a flag (or some variation on these elements) and the police arrested them all. It all seemed to happen at once (or at least you had no sense of what the rhyme of reason of it all had been). There is some truth to this story – there almost always is – but we should observe both what a simplistic story it became and how overdetermined the shape of that story was by the situation of its writers: since the NYT and CNN lacked any deep information about what happened – having no reporters there, on the ground, to do fancy things like fact checking, interviewing, or getting background – they could only present their readers with SPECTACLE. A picture, a few quotes, a flashy fact like the number of arrestees; that’s all they had, so that’s all they could give. And maybe this is all they want to sell anyway: inform their readers that SPECTACLE happened in Oakland on Saturday (giving them this news immediately, before anything is really known about it), so that they could move on to even more newer news the next day, leaving this story behind, even before all (or even many) details about what actually happened were known.

The result is that, as more and more information trickles out – and as the story develops further, as people talk to each other, as video comes out, as new accounts emerge – the mainstream faucet of news about Oakland has already slowed to a trickle, if that; Saturday recedes deep into the past, and the news cycle churns on to the next thing.

All sorts of information asymmetries result from this sequencing: the stories written Saturday have details on every injury suffered by the handful of police who (supposedly) suffered injuries… because the police were in a position to supply the press with loving detail of every pinky scrape. It would not be until yesterday, by contrast, that the National Lawyers Guild – whose green-hatted observers were all over the place on the day of the march – would be able to write this account of and response to what happened:

“It is appalling that the OPD continues to violate the law and its own policies,” said Carlos Villarreal, NLGSF Executive Director. “The police instigated the confrontation by immediately attacking the march with chemical agents, flashbang bombs, and a volley of rifle or shotgun-fired projectiles.”

As of 11 a.m., Monday, January 30, the NLGSF can confirm that at least 284 people were arrested on Saturday during Occupy Oakland’s Move In Day. The NLGSF received many reports of assaults on protesters, including an incident in which police knocked one person’s teeth out with a baton strike to the face. Police reportedly threw others through a glass door, and down a flight of steps. A videographer was pushed to the ground and clubbed.

“OPD has shown itself incapable of handling crowd control in a legal, much less professional manner,” said NLGSF Attorney Rachel Lederman. “We would urge the appointed monitor to take action immediately to rein in this abusive conduct, which is leading to ever increasing liability for the City.”

Now, these are lawyers speaking, lawyers who had multiple trained observers on the ground, and two days after they event, they are speaking from this accumulated observation, now checked against other sources and carefully justified. Let us then note, however, that while theirs is clearly the most credible account of what happened – the most informed, the best sourced – theirs is precisely the story that will not be widely reported, if at all. The moment has passed for that; only new developments will be reported, and this is old news. The “record” has been set, while everything else will remain merely “anecdotal” and unprinted. It will remain a subjective impression that the police were using indiscriminate physical violence, the kind of subjective impression you get if you talk to a whole bunch of protesters as they leave jail, hearing an accumulated record of expereince over the course of hours.

This is one problem with chronology; another is that the narrative logic of a newspaper article has its own warped sense of time, a distinctly non-chronological version of reality: beginning with The Thing (Clashes! Tear Gas! Arrests!, etc) it then goes on to add context and quotes and commentary on The Thing, thereby re-establishing that it was a singular thing, an event, a lede, a story. But it isn’t really a story in the strict sense of a chronological narrative: instead of a series of events linked together by various causes, effects, complications, and ambiguities – leading out of causes in the past and pointing towards new events in an inchoate future – it will be a singular thing, which happened, which has been “Reported” and which we can all consume and move on from.

There are rare exceptions, of course, but they are rare for clear reasons; Susie Cagle has been covering Occupy Oakland since the very beginning, because she’s an Oakland based reporter and because she wanted to. As a result, she has the deepest and most complete and most contextually rich version of the event. But no one has paid her consistently to do this, and that’s exactly the point: because the NYT (and even the Oakland Tribune) can weave together a story from OPD press releases and quotes from twitter, why should they pay someone to, you know, actually be informed about what’s happened? When Susie wrote her story, she didn’t know if she’d have anyone to pay her for writing it (whereas all the paid journalists who would write stories about what happened were either absent or had their eyes closed).

This is all, perhaps, completely unsurprising: since newspapers are in the business of producing news product, each article is a little commodified piece of information, easily swallowed, easily understood, and easily forgotten (so you’ll be ready for the next one). But all of this means that, for example, the “paper of record” produces their final story on Saturday night’s mass arrests (going to print on Sunday) by opening with this quite misleading sentence:

About 400 people were arrested and three police officers were injured after a weekend protest by members of the Occupy movement in Oakland, Calif., turned into a violent confrontation with law enforcement officers that led to an assault on City Hall.

Certain categories leap out, of course, as they always do, in the passive voice: while one group of people “were arrested,” another group of people “were injured.” Protesters are not classifiable as “injured,” even though so many of them were; the 400 people arrested were behind the walls of Glen Dyer and Santa Rita prisons, so little of no information was to be had about their injuries (or even still). In a vicious irony, since they’ve become “bodies” (as incarcerated human beings come to be called by police), they become effectively uninjurable; it wouldn’t be until they had returned to the world that we could know about their sprained wrists, head wounds, etc.

But the larger issue is this: if you were there – or even if you simply experienced it in real-time, over the livestream (as I did), or twitter, or whatever – you know how misleading that one sentence is. It isn’t untrue, exactly; those things did happen – more or less – but the chronology is incredibly important, and that’s the thing that’s been removed (along with protester injuries), when you reduce a narrative into a lede, especially one which strongly implies – as this one does – that the arrest was a response to the “assault on City Hall.”

Parenthetically, City Hall loves this kind of language, where the protesters are waging a war against the city. Councilmember Larry Reid claimed that “It’s almost like we’re being held hostage,” a strange thing to say while protesters were still in jail. Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said that Occupy protesters were engaging in “domestic terrorism.” Pictures like this one show us Jean Quan mourning the assault on her beloved city (this is a model of the county courthouse building):

And this, perhaps the most iconic image, is of protesters who took a flag out of City Hall, waved it around, then torched it:

I’m not going to defend things like burning of flags or vandalizing city hall; I wouldn’t have done it, I wish they hadn’t done it, and I think it was stupid to do it. I don’t think it accomplishes anything, and it feeds into the story that people like Reid and De La Fuente want to tell about Occupy Oakland, making it seem like Occupy are the violent ones.

That said, the “assault on City Hall” was virtually the last thing that happened on Saturday. It wasn’t the cause of the police reaction, as the National Lawyer’s Guild noted: it was a response to the actions taken by OPD and the city of Oakland. You can still think whatever you want about it; you can be appalled at the protesters who did it, if you like. But it wasn’t the cause of the days events; it was the coda to the night’s events, if that.

The story of what happened before that is there, though, if we gave it some room to breathe. Kevin Gosztola wrote a pretty strong account of what happened – relying mainly on livestreams and hard work –and Benjamin Phillips’ account at Occupy Oakland Media is quite accurate. If you want a deep and informed account of community (bad) relations with OPD, you will find Cami Graves’ story informative (also at OOM, starting with “The long, dark history of a troubled police department”).

The simplest version of the chronology that doesn’t complete obscure it would, I think, divide the day into two stages. Stage one was the confrontation at the Kaiser Convention Center, which happened in the early afternoon. This account describes what happened there, more or less as I experienced it; suffice it to say that the march took a long time to get to the Kaiser Center because the police were already there, and then the police used smoke bombs, tear gas, clubs, and bean-bag rounds[1] to drive the crowd away. It’s unclear what Occupy Oakland’s plan was, but whatever it was, it didn’t work. This photo (taken by Millicent) shows you the scene, but what you can’t see are the cops between the marchers and the Kaiser Center itself:

At that point, the march was stalled, and so they turned back along Oak Avenue, and came up against a line of police, briefly trying to stand up to them:

After that, the march turned away and began working its way back to Oscar Grant Plaza. They would eventually regroup there, but it seemed, from my perspective at the back, like a very near thing: the police were moving in military phalanxes, beating protesters who didn’t move fast enough, and obviously trying to kettle the march. It was scary. The fact that they were using physical force should surprise no one at this point, but what was new was the way they were using it: the police were on the offensive. Once the march got stalled at the Kaiser Center, they were moving us, at least until the marchers took back that momentum. I suspect that if they could have kettled the march there, they would have arrested everyone right then.

Once the march got back to OGP, there was a pause. And this, too, is important: it was some time later that a different march (with many of the same people but also many different people), started marching from Oscar Grant Plaza to try to take, apparently, the Travelers Aid building. That pause fooled me; I thought, from the demeanor of the crowd, that the day was over, and I went home. And, honestly, I was pretty bummed by what had happened, and not in the mood to march around the city chanting, which is what Occupy Oakland has been doing on Saturday nights for the last few weeks. I was tired, and I had stuff to do. And if it sounds like I’m re-thinking or trying to justify that decision, well, I obviously am: you cannot spend hours outside a jail, waiting, where your friends are imprisoned inside, without thinking really hard about why it was that they are in there and you are out here.

In any case, in the meantime, people had been discussing what had happened, rebuilding spirits, and deciding what to do next. And since it was widely circulated that the Kaiser Center had been Plan A, but that there was a plan B, the second march set forth. This would be the second stage, because the police were now in full effect. In the afternoon, they had been guarding the targets – like the Kaiser Center – and were not visibly following the march; in the evening marches, they were following and attempting to kettle the marchers, pretty clearly so that they could do what they eventually did: arrest every last one of them.

The unstoppable livestreamer Oakfosho was out for the entire time, and his videos show what happened along the march, seen from the ground  (at grueling length, but here’s an only 17 minute long edited and annotated version). But here, with footage take from a building above, you can see with great clarity what was happening at 19th and Telegraph, when the police finally managed to block off all the exits from the square. It is a remarkable thing this video lets you see; you should read Millicent’s analysis of it, but mainly you should just watch it:

The important thing to take from this video is that the police were trying to trap the protesters so they could arrest them all – what they would later do – and they only failed because the protesters were able to push down a fence and and escape through it. Note that, at about 4:10 into that video above, the police fire flash grenades into the crowd – still trapped on all four sides inside the park – and at 4:20, you can see police rushing into the crowd and hitting people with their clubs. They push the crowd back, forcing them into a smaller and smaller area, until – at 5:20 – a group pushes down the fence and the whole crowd is able to escape.

As Millicent notes, while OPD is explicitly required not to treat an entire crowd as one thing (and to allow people who want to leave to leave), they do exactly what they are not supposed to do:

OPD manufactures the very condition it’s supposed to avoid: they are blocking people from leaving the scene. They are creating precisely the “position of heightened danger” they’re supposed to be trying to defuse.

After the escape through the fence, the march continued, with the cops following. But the police caught up with the marchers in front of the YMCA, and this time kettled them more successfully, blocking all the exits (by many accounts clubbing people to force them back and thereby packing them in like sardines) and then, after preventing them from escaping, arresting everybody (or, almost everybody) for failure to disperse (including, I was told, a guy who was just trying to get into his car and didn’t even know what the protest was about). They even brought a tank.

It was clear, at this point, that this is what they’d been trying to do all day, what they’d been planning to do earlier: arrest everybody and sort it out later. And it was only at this point that the “assault on City Hall” happened, maybe five blocks away. Once the 400 people who would be arrested that night had been informed that they were under arrest (which you could hear on the livestream as “Attention marchers: you have failed to disperse! You are now under arrest! Submit to the arrest” several minutes after the protesters had been chanting “Let us Disperse”), protesters who had escaped back to Oscar Grant Plaza “occupied” City Hall.

Think what you want about what happened after that. Think what you want about what happened the whole day, in fact. But I started with the mis-chronology of the NYT story – and the implication that the arrests were a reaction to the “assault on City Hall” – because it was only once police had arrested 400 people that some of the people they hadn’t arrested (and perhaps some other people) went to Oscar Grant Plaza, City Hall’s front lawn, and, angrily, in response to what had happened, did what they did. In other words, a group of occupiers angrily smashed stuff in City Hall and burned a flag after protesters were arrested for a failure to disperse when the police were preventing them from dispersing (and no official order to disperse was given the second time, a violation of their own rules).

At home, I could see what was happening over the livestream, could hear the crowd was chanting “let us disperse” and “this is a hostage situation.” I could read the tweets being sent out from inside the kettle, where protesters were describing what was happening to them. And the New York Times could have done that too, if they had wanted to. If they had, though, they would have to admit that the 400 people who were arrested were not, and could not have been, arrested for what was done in City Hall. They were arrested because Oakland Police Department had already made the decision to do a mass arrest, of everyone they could sweep up and the tie down. They are tired of Occupy Oakland. They want it to end. And so, they are now making decision not based on the law – which will be what causes the vast majority of these charges to be dropped, if the past is any indication, and most likely a class action lawsuit – but on the political desire of City Hall to get back to the business of making Oakland safe for business.


[1] In violation of their crowd control policies, which specifically say “Direct Fired SIM may never be used indiscriminately against a crowd or group of persons even if some members of the crowd or group are violent or disruptive.”