Notes from the Police State

by zunguzungu

On the night of the general strike, Scott Campbell thought that asking police if it was okay to film them would be the safe thing to do; you can hear him asking “Is this okay? Is this okay?” as he edges out into the street and films the hundreds of police who have lined up there. For 32 seconds, he films the long line of riot cops from maybe 30 feet away, and gets no answer. Then, without warning, one of them shoots him with a rubber bullet, in the thigh:

To say this is indefensible is to make the mistake of thinking OPD ever has to defend its actions. This simply is what it is: if you are in the area when the police come in force — no matter if you are simply a guy holding a camera in a supremely unthreatening way — you can become a target of that force. The policeman who fired that bullet was not in danger from a guy with a camera. And it was not an accident. That policeman had complete power over the situation, and this is how he chose to use that power.

The same night, journalist Susie Cagle was arrested along with 92 others, for the misdemeanor “failure to leave scene of riot, etc.” You should read her account of her arrest, where she makes quite clear how impossible the OPD made it to know where exactly the sidelines were and how to stand on them:

The Oakland Police Department arrestee lists my arrest as occurring at 1:00 a.m. which is impossible, as I tweeted at 1:11 a.m.: sounds like they are declaring unlawful assembly at north end of plaza.

As I hit send, a teargas canister was thrown down a side street just north of city hall, followed by a line of police running, yelling and firing on individuals in the very spot where just a few hours earlier people had been barbecuing hot dogs.

I ran for cover in a nearby doorway with medics, legal observers and many scared occupiers as two police lines marched on the plaza, firing tear gas, flash bangs and “less lethal” projectiles in rapid succession. When they approached the entrance to our doorway, people screamed, “Peace, we want peace!” and “Don’t shoot!” with hands up.

“We don’t want to hurt you guys, we hope you don’t want to hurt us!”

A minute later we were all face down on the ground.

When I told my arresting officer that I was press, I was first told, “We’ll take care of that in a minute.” That next minute turned into 15 hours in two different jails.

She also took video of her arrest:

Some things to note would be: after the police start firing flash-bangs, tear gas, and (probably) rubber bullets to “disperse” the crowd, Susie is one of a large group who takes cover in a sort of large concrete entryway. They intentionally “kettle” themselves, enclosing themselves in a small space and staying there, clearly no threat. When OPD shows up, they shout “peace, peace!” They are the people trying hardest to comply with OPD’s dispersal orders, because they are largely people trying to document what is happening: reporters, National Lawyer’s Guild observers, medics, and peaceful demonstrators who have shown (by their actions) that they are trying to be present without being confrontational. This is not enough:

Over the course of two hours sitting handcuffed on a curb before being transferred to jail, I asked arresting OPD officers what their dispersal orders had been in the minutes before and after 1 a.m. They smiled and laughed. “We told you guys a million times, go back into the tents,” they said.

“Not the plaza?” I asked.

“The tents, the tents,” they emphasized.

No one I spoke with since Wednesday night heard this order, or understood it when discussed. Kate Sassoon crossed the barricade at the north end of the plaza around 1 a.m. because she couldn’t hear the garbled order.  “I didn’t hear where to disperse to or the time limit,” she told me. “We were all in the plaza, so I felt like, everyone is safe here, what is going on? Why are you threatening us? This was supposed to be okay here.”

Where exactly was the scene of the riot which they failed to leave? Again, to talk about the rules the police broke here would be to pretend that police have to follow rules. Once there is a state of emergency, these emergency responders of the state can use whatever force they decide to use, on whoever they wish to use it. As Susie points out:

“Journalists have no special protections in Occupy demonstrations, especially journalists representing national media organizations. Local police rules give privilege to local media with locally dispensed “official” press passes, resulting in a local media who are more or less embedded with the government. This system actively discourages prying outside eyes.

But my experience counterintuitively revealed the opposite. At a time of such intense public scrutiny, the Oakland Police Department made the mistake of arresting a journalist, and sending her into the heart of an ugly process with which not only demonstrators but many other Oakland residents have long been familiar. They gave me an unmatched, visceral opportunity to understand what makes Oakland residents so angry with the police.

And then they threatened me upon release not to return to the plaza, because if I am arrested on the same misdemeanor charge before my December 5 arraignment date, I will be charged with a felony.

Chief Jordan said that police Wednesday night and Thursday morning were attacked with rocks, bottles and spit by many demonstrators. But of 101 protestors, 93 were charged with a PC 409 misdemeanor, “failure to leave scene of riot, etc.” These are Jordan’s “generally anarchists and provocateurs,” the ones used to justify the force he called in — reporters, National Lawyer’s Guild observers, medics, dozens of peaceful demonstrators, and even bystanders on their way home from BART and downtown bars.

Arrest a lot of people on meaningless misdemeanor charges, and then threaten them that if they are charged with a second misdemeanor — after their experience has shown that you cannot cover a protest peacefully without running risk of being randomly arrested — they will receive a felony. It’s almost as if this is an intentional effort to threaten and intimidate the press? I suppose that depends on how highly you think of OPD’s reasoning abilities.