The Road to Radicalization
The Road to Radicalization Part 1: The March
My entire life I’ve put police officers on a pedestal. There are many reasons why, but I suppose the most basic of these is that they put their lives at risk every day in order to keep their neighbors safe. When a police officer asked me to do something, Ialways trusted that they would only have asked if it was in the interests of furthering public safety and would always comply. I trusted the police and believed that an officer of the law would always do what’s right.
If you’ll notice, all of the verbs in the previous paragraph are in the past tense. So, what happened? Occupy Oakland.
I had been participating in events at Occupy San Francisco for a few weeks when I heard about what happened to the occupiers at Oscar Grant Plaza. For the police to have swept into the tent city with such brutality was astonishing to me and I was glad to join in the march the following day to show my dissatisfaction with what was an obviously excessive use of force. I showed up that day with no sign and no bandana, just participating as an act of solidarity with my fellow occupiers across the Bay. At every turn, the march was met with police in full riot gear. Gradually, paranoia began to set in that the police were trying to direct the march in such a way as to box us in and arrest the entire group. Even someone like me who, at this point, instinctively trusted someone with a badge, could start to feel uneasy about what was going on around them.
When the march arrived at Oscar Grant Plaza, the line of riot cops was ready and waiting. Over a loudspeaker the Oakland Police read over and over the same statement: “This is Sergeant _______. I am an officer with the Oakland Police Department. This has been declared an unlawful assembly and you are ordered to disperse. If you remain in the area, you will be subject to arrest and the use of force, regardless of your purpose for being here.” The protesters decided to march on to Snow Park but once arriving there, an impromptu General Assembly decided to return to Oscar Grant Plaza and re-occupy that space. The riot police were still there but this time, no one was leaving.
It seemed like hours but couldn’t have been more than minutes before the first tear gas canister was shot off. At first, many around me stood their ground but suddenly there were bright flashes and loud *CRACK!* noises all around. Some people thought the police had opened fire with live ammunition, but most just had no idea what was happening and the stampede began. The police fired the gas canisters farther and farther back, hitting people who were already fleeing the area. It seemed, at this point, like they were just looking to punish people for not heeding their order to disperse quickly enough. It was clear at that point, and has remained the case to this day, that many of the officers that have been participating in crowd control at these incidents are motivated by a desire for payback and, in one officer’s words, a chance to “bust some heads.” When I heard about Scott Olsen, I wondered if, perhaps, it had been that officer who was responsible.
The Road to Radicalization Part 2: General Strike
I had spent a week in Madison, WI protesting Governor Walker’s attack on the right of state employees to collectively bargain. There had been a lot of talk in Walkerville (the camp outside of the capitol) about a General Strike but nothing really came of it. The lack of enthusiasm for a General Strike was always disappointing to me because I had seen it as an amazing tool for catalyzing action on an issue. So, when Occupy Oakland approved a General Strike for November 2nd, I was elated and couldn’t wait to participate.
I had been to the camp a few times since the incident the previous week but nothing could have prepared me for the enormous crowd that awaited me at Oscar Grant Plaza. It was, overall, a pretty festive atmosphere. There were children playing, bands rotated on stage, and there were tents everywhere distributing literature about environmentally, socially, fiscally, and sexually progressive organizations. A few hours after I arrived, we began to assemble for a march to the Port of Oakland to shut down the 6pm shift. Up to this point, police had been entirely absent from the event except for the presence of plainclothes undercover officers. In case you think this claim is grounded in nothing but paranoia, I confirmed with an Oakland police officer on the scene that there were undercover officers not only present in the plaza that day, but undercover officers living in the plaza on a nightly basis.
The march to the port was inspirational and full of the energy, passion, and creativity that has become a halmark of the Occupy movement nationwide. After arriving in the port, we successfully blockaded each individual entrance and several hours later received word that the port had been successfully shut down. Despite this extraordinary achievement, we also learned that many of the shipments had been expedited so that port businesses wouldn’t lose money over the strike. It was decided that occupiers would return to shut down the 3am and 6am shifts as well, so that the message of the strike would be truly effective. Committed to return for the 3am shut down, I decided to go visit my partner in Berkeley and rest for a bit before returning.
Shortly after arriving at his apartment, I saw on twitter that an undercover officer had been discovered at the plaza and was being questioned by occupiers. Then word began to spread that police were en route to the plaza and that occupiers had taken over a long-abandoned homeless aid building with the intention to use it for a social hall. Without having received a complaint from the building’s owner, Oakland Police decided to storm the building and remove the occupiers. With memories of the previous week’s police violence still fresh in everyone’s mind, Occupy Oakland panicked at the small army of law enforcement caravanning their way and barricaded the streets with dumpsters, plaza furniture, and whatever else they could find. As an added measure to prevent law enforcement from storming the camp, the dumpsters’ contents were set on fire.
I arrived 15 minutes after the initial reports that police were on their way to discover the plaza was surrounded by lines of riot police. I managed to sneak into Oscar Grant through a side street and assessed the situation. A few windows in the plaza had been broken and a small barricade had been assembled at several entrance points. I asked someone to update me on what had been going on and they showed me the building that had been broken into; a small two story structure that had been obviously left to the elements for quite some time. A few more people joined our conversation and as we stood in a circle discussing the crisis we found ourselves in, there was a sudden *CRACK!* and flash of light right in front of my face. Then several more all around us. The police had fired a tear gas canister right into our circle without any warning whatsoever. As we ran back toward the plaza, more gas canisters rained from the sky, many detonating directly over the tents. We ran through the tent city, waking up the numerous people that had been sleeping, only to awake to a tent filled with tear gas. With their eyes red and burning, they struggled to get dressed as they ran through the plaza out to the intersection of 14th and Broadway.
After a few moments, myself and several others returned to the tents to make sure everyone had made it out okay. As we made our way through the labyrinthine plaza, the three of us heard screams off to the left. I quickly looked to see a group of nearly a hundred police officers with their batons drawn, running toward me as fast as they could. For a few moments, I couldn’t move. I was terrified and frozen in place. As they got within a matter of feet away from me, I took off running toward the intersection. I made it a few steps before my knee suddenly gave way and I hit the ground face first. I rolled over and realized that I had been hit with a baton and before I could get my bearings, an officer was right on top of me and had his hand around my throat. Everything was a blur of black as the crowd of officers rushed by and suddenly, as quickly as he had been on top of me the officer was on the ground. At first I thought another riot cop had accidentally knocked him off but as I looked up I saw an occupier clad in black bandana and all black clothes with his hand cocked back, ready to throw another one of the cans of food that he held in his arms should the officer attempt to attack me again. Our eyes locked and he gestured toward 14th and Broadway, telling me to get my ass up and run.
When I got back to the intersection, I joined the crowd of terrified, angry, and obviously shaken occupiers to assess what had just happened. Many of them, thinking it was safe to return to their tents, had rounded the corner to find a mob of police rushing toward them. One woman was bleeding from her forehead because the police had trampled her in their rush to the tents. We made our way to the police line at 14th and Broadway and sat down to wait for whatever OPD was planning next. For several hours, the police simply stood there, staring silently into the distance as protesters cracked jokes and chanted “You’re sexy! You’re cute! Take off your riot suit!” Around 4:00am, the police finally retreated and the 15 or so protesters that remained awake finally stood to head off to bed.
The Road to Radicalization Part 3: “The port is closed. No work today!”
I began to walk back toward my car, excited to get to my bed, a group of occupiers ran up and informed those of us who had just waited out the cops for 4 hours that more people were needed at the port because we didn’t have enough to cover the intersections. I offered a ride to anyone else who wanted to go and then headed toward the port.
When I pulled up to the intersection of 3rd and Adelaide, I was somewhat surprised. Fences had been erected around the entrance to the port, with one side blockaded by several overturned dumpsters. Minutes later, cars, trucks, and semis began to arrive for work and many turned around and headed home without a word. The rest were a mix between some really encouraging words of support and the most vile obscenity I’ve heard in quite some time. Despite how angry some people seemed, the union workers that found out they got to spend the day with their families were elated and those smiles made it all worthwhile.
Aside from the theatrics of some angry people with a limited vocabulary, the morning was pretty uneventful until a silver GMC pickup drove toward the picket line. Instead of slowing down like most had, the pickup gained speed. The two of us closest to that street yelled for others to get over there because someone was trying to run the picket. We all stood there as he ran the fence down and when he swerved to turn on to the street that led to his underpaid, overworked, low benefit, non union job he hit me. His hood knocked me to the ground and his front passenger’s side tire went over my right foot. His back passenger’s side tire then ran over my hand and his tires squealed as he floored it up the overpass to escape the consequences of his reckless behavior. The irony of this didn’t escape me even as I lay there on the asphalt. The opposition to the Occupy movement talks so much about personal responsibility but this guy, when faced with the opportunity to live up to those principles ran away scared.
One of the other occupiers gave his license plate number to the police and I went back to directing traffic. In retrospect, I probably should have left and sought medical attention but because there weren’t many people there I felt like I couldn’t just leave and risk the safety of the others. I stayed for about an hour longer until the decision was made to divide up and shut down individual gates. More people had arrived and the environment had become substantially less chaotic and dangerous so I headed to the Occupy Oakland camp to get my injuries looked at. After being fitted with a makeshift splint, I called Oakland Police and was instructed to go to the downtown station to file a report. When I arrived, they told me that no one had been notified of the accident because they wouldn’t look for the truck without a police report. I then asked to file a police report and was told I could only do that at the Eastmont station between 11am and 3pm Tuesday through Friday.
The police showed up by the hundreds at 1:00 in the morning to kick a few protesters out of an abandoned building but when I was purposefully hit by a pickup truck that then fled the scene of the crime, the police could only enforce the law between 11am and 3pm. The lesson I learned from that day was one that I will never forget: Government will endanger the life of an average citizen in order to avoid inconveniencing the wealthy and powerful, but can’t be bothered to arrest or even investigate someone who purposefully attempts to end the life of an average citizen.
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