14th and Broadway

by zunguzungu

You might find it a bit confusing trying to keep track of the different times the Oakland Police department used tear gas on peaceful protesters yesterday. In the morning, they raided the Occupy Oakland camp and destroyed everything the occupiers had built, as I wrote about yesterday (and you can see video of that here).

But then, in the afternoon, this march gathered at the Oakland public library at 4 and proceeded to march back towards Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. In response, OPD declared the protest to be an unlawful assembly, gave us 5 minutes to disperse, and then attacked the crowd with tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. I was there until that point, and I can testify that it was a peaceful march until the police attacked it.

If you read an account of the march like this one — or listen to the Oakland Police Chief here — you will get the impression that the crowd was the aggressor (“Occupy Oakland demonstrators clashed…with police” and that “The demonstrators sparred”)  and that “[OPD] had to deploy gas in order to stop the crowd and people from pelting us with bottles and rocks and…chemical agents that were thrown at the officers.” It’s very hard to see everything that is happening in a huge crowd like that, so the Oakland police chief may well be telling the truth when he says that his officers were “pelted by paint and a chemical irritant” But whether or not his officers were hit with paint — and even if that justifies what happened next — it has nothing to do with how or why the OPD (and officers from every police department in the area) first used the kind of force they did, when they did.

When a thousand people marched first from the library to the detention facility at 7th and Washington (where the 70 or so occupiers that were arrested that morning were being held), we were met with tear gas for the first time (and billy clubs). Then, when we turned back towards Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza, we were again hit with tear gas at the intersection of Broadway and 14th.

If you look at these pictures I posted yesterday, you’re seeing the crowd. The first and second were taken before the first round of tear gas, and the third and fourth pictures were taken only one block from Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant plaza, where the police announced on a bullhorn that it was an unlawful assembly, they would use gas to disperse us, and that we would be subject to injury if we stayed. They said this very clearly — and I saw the front line very clearly at this point — well before the crowd had done anything but take over the intersection. And then the police did exactly what they said they would do. They were not reacting to anything other than the presence of a very large and angry crowd of protesters, who were at that point simply present. They said that if the crowd did not disperse, they would use force to disperse it, and they made good on their promise.

At that point, I have no idea what happened, because I left. The crowd left 14th and Broadway and began marching to Snow Park (whose occupation had also been raided by the police that morning); I figured that was the end of it and went home to eat and post pictures. At Snow Park, it seems, the general assembly decided to return to Oscar Grant plaza and then they did. But this video accurately represents exactly what happened from my perspective up until that point: the police warned an otherwise peaceful demonstration that it was illegal, and they would use “chemical agents” to make them disperse.

Most of the most violent footage you will see comes from after this point; things got so much worse after I left, that the very mild tear gassing the first two times are not worth reporting on very much. This sort of thing went on for hours:

Moreover, they just happened to begin firing tear gas into the crowd, the third time, right after the two major media outlets that were covering it with live feeds turned off their cameras (as I can verify because I was watching those feeds from the safety of my living room while following the twitter feeds of people like @garonsen and @susie_c). And that coincidence was quite a coincidence. ABC and CBS later claimed their helicopters had to refuel, and they did show footage from later. But what a coincidence that they happened to both turn off their cameras just before the police attacked? That their helicopters ran out of gas at precisely the same time, that time?

You can get a more complete rundown from Mother Jones, who had some great people there. Oakland North had great coverage. And TheLede has a good round up, as does Greg Mitchell.

But the most important point, I think, is this: when we left the Oakland Public Library, the last speaker’s last words (after making as clear as possible to the crowd that we were marching to liberate Oscar Grant plaza from massed riot cops, and telling people who couldn’t be down for that to stay at the library) were something along the lines of “No matter what happens, this is only the beginning of a long struggle.” At the time, I was worried. He said that after this march, we should meet at 14th and Broadway every day at six p.m., from now on, and take “whatever space we can.” But before the police tear gassed a non-violent protest, I was not confident that this thing would continue, was worried that today would be not the beginning but the ending. It didn’t seem like much of a strategy, and without the camp to give the movement a center, well, I was worried. “Whatever space we can” is not likely to be much. But now, who knows? I’m ready to occupy some space. So I’ll see you at 14th and Broadway, today at six.