The following is an eyewitness account of #J28 Occupy Oakland Move-In Day written by Kylie Nealis in collaboration with Andrew Montes. Kylie is the assistant to the Community Rights program at Global Exchange and Andrew is a writer and resident of Oakland, CA. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Global Exchange.
The images of street battles and arrests at the Occupy Move In Day in Oakland this past Saturday have garnered national attention. About 400 protestors were arrested during the action. Unfortunately, much of the reporting by mainstream corporate media has been incomplete and/or inaccurate, misrepresenting the intentions behind the march and distorting the sequence of events that led to the mass arrests.
What started as an attempt to reclaim an abandoned space (the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center) and repurpose it for human needs by converting it into a social center was met with intense police aggression resulting in injuries to peaceful protestors, plus the roughly 400 hundred arrests by the end of the day. I was not one of those arrested, but I participated in the action for several hours. Here’s what I experienced:
I arrived downtown around 1:30pm, shortly after the march left Oscar Grant Plaza. Following police helicopters, walking the few blocks towards Laney College, I met lines of riot police forming blockades at strategic intersections throughout downtown before seeing a single protester. The tone for the day was clearly set.
Nervous, I finally caught up with the march inside the Laney College campus, and joined approximately 1,000 people as we zigzagged our way towards the convention center, but as I neared the block where the vacant center is located, I saw smoke ahead. The police had decided they’d seen enough. Over a loudspeaker a disembodied voice declared an unlawful assembly and issued an order to disperse, an order that was punctuated with more flash-bangs and smoke bombs. These would be the first, but not the last shots fired by the police at citizens during the day.
Nearing the entrance to the Oakland Museum of California, I saw the police use rubber bullets and tear gas, many protesters protected themselves using improvised shields. Some responded to the assault by throwing back whatever they could, whatever was at hand, rocks, bottles, the same tear gas canisters that had just been thrown at them. I heard one person yell, “Oakland Police Department, we declare your assembly unlawful, and hereby order you to disperse!”
This is where I saw the first attempt by the police at kettling (a form of crowd control that involves cutting off escape routes, leaving demonstrators trapped), but a small alley was left unguarded and people fled into surrounding blocks. People were confused by the sudden violence, unsure of where to go; nobody around me seemed to know whether the original plan was still being followed or if the police had derailed everything. The general consensus was to move back to Oscar Grant Plaza and City Hall to regroup.
At this point I left, partially in fear of further police violence. My feeling was right, as the evening would see more brutality and eventually mass incarcerations. After the group took to the streets once more towards a backup occupation target, the police finally managed to fully kettle protesters at 19th and Telegraph, a location known as much for a previous occupation attempt in November as for its statue commemorating champions of social justice and civil liberties throughout history. More chemical agents were used without warning, but the cornered protesters escaped by tearing down the very same fences they had torn down in November.
Undaunted, they continued to march until being completely fenced in near the Broadway YMCA. Seeing the dire situation of the protesters, an employee of the YMCA unlocked the door and several dozen people escaped through the back. The rest were not so lucky, and spent the following hours sitting on cold pavement in zip-tie handcuffs, waiting to be processed and bussed to Santa Rita jail. Several reporters were arrested, in flagrant violation of the Police’s own stated Crowd Control and Crowd Management Policy. All of this I watched live, on the internet stream of a citizen journalist.
From my first encounters, it was clear to me from their actions and attitude that the Oakland Police Department was intent on escalating the situation so as to arrest as many people as possible. Tired of the vocal criticism about their handling of past Occupy Oakland actions, they aimed to lock up as many organizers as they could in one fell swoop. In defense of property, they turned their weapons against people. Complicit in this entirely legal crime is the corporate media, which willfully slants coverage to minimize police violence, whitewashing the physical oppression endemic to the system of the 1%.
The previously vacant and newly converted social center would have housed a kitchen for the hungry, a first aid station, sleeping quarters and an assembly area, libraries, and free classes. Instead it remains vacant and empty, a fitting testament to the Oakland Police Department’s hollow victory. Instead there was a fuller jailhouse and court arraignments. A couple of things are clear to me from Saturday’s events, one being that the force used by the police to thwart the demonstration was unjust and entirely heavy handed. And the other is that now is the time, perhaps more than ever before in the Occupy Movement, when it is critical for people to remain unified and committed to taking peaceful action in standing up for the needs and rights of the 99%.