Were Oakland Police’s Tactics Against Anti-Trump Protesters ‘Excessive’?

'Driving motorcycles on the sidewalk was completely unnecessary and dangerous.'

In the evening after last Friday’s inauguration, rain dumped on downtown Oakland, and a crowd of protesters lingering in Frank Ogawa Plaza near City Hall grew restless. After a day full of demonstrations, they were getting soaked trying to wait out a storm, for more than an hour, in hopes of beginning the nighttime march. “Are we marching or what?” someone shouted. “Fuck Donald Trump!” another person yelled. A man with a megaphone called out, “Whose streets?” The 200 people huddled together yelled back, “Our streets!” And then everyone followed him out of the plaza. The protest was underway.

It wouldn’t last long.

Officers from the Oakland Police Department and other agencies immediately flanked the march. To the protesters’ left, motorcycle cops sped in a single-file line on the sidewalk. To their right, police ran on foot. Behind the action was another row of officers, followed by bike cops, law-enforcement vans and vehicles, and even a helicopter circling above.

Officials framed these actions as necessary steps to prevent vandalism and ensure the safety of both officers and participants. But protesters denounced the show of force as unusual, excessive, and unnecessary.

EmilyRose Johns, a legal observer with a local chapter of National Lawyers Guild, commented that she had never seen these kinds of police tactics used before Friday. “The conduct of the Oakland Police Department went beyond any suppression efforts I have seen recently,” she wrote in an email. “It was a likely unlawful, and certainly baffling, infringement upon people’s First Amendment activities.”

Johns explained that, while OPD didn’t use violent force, officers prevented freedom of assembly and speech by “clamping down on the movement of the march.” Cops shadowed Friday’s protesters for nearly an hour, as the group marched quickly through downtown and Chinatown. Eventually, police squeezed protesters back toward City Hall, then blocked them from re-entering the streets.

OPD told the crowd that it was there to “facilitate” the protest, and that everyone must remain in the plaza or on sidewalks. An official dispersal order was never given. But by 8 p.m., only a small group of activists remained. Some challenged the officers — who at this point appeared to outnumber the protesters — and accused them of violating their rights.

Three individuals were ultimately arrested: one for not cooperating with officers, and two others for graffiti. There were no reports of any other vandalism to downtown businesses and buildings, or violence.

OPD spokesperson Johnna Watson stressed that the strategies used on Friday were not new, and that officers were abiding by Oakland’s official Crowd Control and Crowd Management Policy.

“We are operating within our policy,” she told the Express. “But we will use different formations to discourage or prevent vandalism or assault against officers or assault against anyone else.”

She also said that the city was prepared for a much larger turnout Friday night. Every available OPD officer was on-duty, and other agencies — including the Alameda County Sheriff’s, California Highway Patrol, BART and AC Transit officers, Public Works, and the Emergency Operating Center — were “fully activated” throughout the weekend.

The unified approach, she said, had been planned during the months after the November election. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in the nights that followed, lighting fires and vandalizing buildings during demonstrations against Trump’s victory.

But Johns with the National Lawyers Guild suggested that OPD over-reacted this past Friday. She described the show of force as “quite excessive,” especially considering that it was a peaceful march, she added.

“They were also unsafe,” Johns said of the officers. “Driving motorcycles on the sidewalk was completely unnecessary and dangerous.”

Watson explained that these tactics were in response to the marchers. “Each group has a different dynamic to them, and different groups have different agendas,” she said, explaining that the organizers of other demonstrations held throughout the weekend had coordinated with OPD to clarify their intentions. “When we have communication, we can help each other,” she added. “Let us help you be safe.”

Participants in Friday night’s march, however, made it clear that they didn’t feel OPD was there to support them. Brandon, a protester who declined to give his last name, said he thought the police were too aggressive.

“They immediately started stifling our right to protest, even though the group was small and wasn’t being violent, or even insinuating violence,” he said.

Even though the march ended earlier than expected, he hoped the message got through. “It was about showing that people aren’t just sad,” he said resolutely. “People are angry, too.”

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