As I sat on a wooden chair in the lobby of the Oakland YMCA on Broadway, my wrists wrapped with tight zip-ties behind my back, I couldn’t help but play through the events of the day. Watching as Oakland Police Department officers processed the dozen or so people inside the lobby, I wondered whether the higher-ups would okay me as a “journalist” and let me go, or whether I would be taking the 45-minute ride to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin with the others.
January 28 was a rough day on the streets of Oakland. A vandalized City Hall. A street confrontation that likely made riot porn addicts drool. And the arrest of about four hundred people over the course of the day, most through mass arrests in which marchers and journalists had no ability to escape. To put the arrests in context, more people were arrested last Saturday than in all the arrests made of Occupy Oakland participants since it first started on October 10.
In the days after #J28, a blame game quickly ensued, a public relations war with incendiary language like “improved explosive devices” (seriously?), “tantrums” (maybe), and “institutional violence” (debatable). But this is what January 28 really showed: Tensions between OPD and Occupy Oakland have escalated to a perpetual feedback loop in which police wait for the slightest provocation to justify force in order to put down the protests of the whole, while Occupy Oakland organizers continue a protesting framework built on confrontations that end up with injuries and arrests in hopes to once again prove “the police are violent.”
January 28 was supposed to be the culmination of a month’s worth of planning to take over an undisclosed vacant building and convert it into a social center, to reactivate a dead building in order to create something useful to the community. The march, attended by close to 1,000 at its peak, was jubilant, largely peaceful, and included a diverse group, young and old.
But it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that after some Occupy Oakland participants threatened the city last week with future blockades if they were met with violence that Oakland would once again become a scene of gas bombs, rubber bullets, and broken glass.
There’s so much that went wrong that day. The fifteen minutes or so of heated confrontation between police and protesters on 10th and Oak streets after OPD created a perimeter around the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center (the target building for occupation) is a prime example. Police fired dozens of rounds of projectiles and lobbed at least a dozen teargas grenades toward the advancing line of shield-bearing marchers, while an undetermined number of protesters threw rocks, bottles, smoke bombs, and even furniture back at police. By the time police pushed the crowd back to Frank Ogawa Plaza, disoriented protesters were choking on tear gas. It was still just the afternoon.
But it was after about five hundred protesters went for their Plan B target that OPD decided to employ mass arrest tactics in violation of their own crowd control policies. The first so-called kettle happened at Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park. Police blocked all the exits and started issuing dispersal orders, only they didn’t offer a safe exit route as mandated by their crowd control policy. The policy specifically states that “the crowd should be given an opportunity to disperse rather than face arrest” and should be afforded with “at least two” exit points, if possible. Also, police are to allow protesters the chance to leave before kettling them. Near panic broke out after officers lobbed teargas grenades at protesters who marched on them with a barricade in hand. Eventually, the protesters tore down two fences to get back onto Telegraph Avenue, at which point police offered an “exit” route.
It was outside the YMCA where the second kettle happened, trapping hundreds of protesters. A bunch of marchers ran up to the Y’s entrance. They pounded on the door and desperately pleaded with staff inside to let them in so that they could escape arrest and teargas. Eventually, someone inside the Y opened the door, and like a dam breaking, protesters poured in jubilantly, with some running deeper inside, and others, like me, lingering in the lobby.
It took all but a minute before police had pushed a group of people inside as they advanced up to the Y, then blocked the entrance, declaring everyone arrested. There was no opportunity to leave, no dispersal orders given, and no breaking and entering as claimed by OPD. Protesters, who were peacefully marching at this point, were not allowed to leave the area as afforded by the law.
The mass arrest tactic of OPD netted six journalists, all of whom had to negotiate their ways out of custody: Gavin Aronsen with Mother Jones, Vivian Ho with the San Francisco Chronicle, Kristin Hanes with KGO radio, Yael Chanoff with the Bay Guardian, graphic journalist Susie Cagle, and me. Chanoff was forced to spend the night in jail.
It took me about an hour to get out of custody. I was told that because I did not have an official OPD press pass that I was “not a journalist.” After pressing a number of officers to check with the public information officers that I was, indeed, a journalist, I was finally allowed to leave after being admonished over how my safety is at risk without having a press pass. In the past, declaring that you were a member of the media or flashing a business card was more than adequate to get by, and was in alignment with the department’s policies.
The mass arrest of protesters and journalists was also a surprising escalation for a department that just lost more autonomy after a federal judge found it is seriously lacking in the required reforms mandated by the courts. The treatment of journalists covering Occupy Wall Street, in particular, is a growing issue nationwide and one of the main reasons that the country fell 27 spots to 47th in terms of press freedom this year, according to Reporters Without Borders.
But what is also troubling is the degree to which Occupy Oakland organizers are both alienating potential “comrades” from their cause with their not-well-thought-out confrontational tactics and by putting their supporters at risk knowing how police will likely respond to their agitations. There are many people in the local movement who have good intentions, but those intentions are being lost amid acts of vandalism and “Fuck the Police” marches that appear designed to provoke a violent police response.