|Police used tear gas in multiple attempts to disperse hundreds of protesters on Tuesday [Reuters]|
Early on Tuesday morning in Oakland, California, police raided a protest encampment that had been making local news for more than two weeks, by firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades into an area where hundreds were sleeping.
The Occupy Oakland protest, inspired by New York’s Occupy Wall Street, was opposing the government’s approach to dealing with a federal and local austerity crisis – which came close to closing numerous libraries and laying off about 500 local teachers in the past year. Five Oakland schools are scheduled to close down before the next school year.
Occupy Oakland began with a 2,000-or-more person rally on October 9. A group of local labour unions quickly paid for port-o-potties, and after pressure from Occupy Oakland’s twitter account, rapper Lupe Fiasco visited to donate food and an electrical generator. A make-shift kitchen and barbecue-made food available for free at all hours – donated by neighbourhood supporters – and a library was established with a steadily increasing number of books available to anyone. One rumour at the camp was that nearby homeless shelters had directed people without beds to the encampment where they would receive better services than at the shelter.
But critics of the occupation noted a variety of city law and health code violations and an apparent increase in the plaza’s rodent population.
One of the first decisions made collectively by the protest group was to keep the camp space in front of Oakland’s city hall a “police-free zone”. Until Tuesday morning, police did not enter the space, and barely walked by, despite city claims that violence, including sexual assault, had occurred in the plaza.
But after a few hours of tear gas-fuelled chaos resulting in the arrest of about 85 protesters, police took over the square for the rest of the day, and the city’s mayor justified the action in a statement: “Over the last week, it was apparent that neither the demonstrators nor the city could maintain safe or sanitary conditions, or control the ongoing vandalism.”
“At one point, the police cut all of the city lights on that intersection and then started launching tear gas canisters and concussion grenades and shooting rubber bullets.” – Kristin, Oakland protester
Activists quickly called for supporters to show up at 4 pm a few blocks away to plan a protest response. Early in the afternoon rally, activists decided to attempt to take over the plaza that had been cleared out by police in the morning. With the encampment area in front of Oakland’s city hall still guarded by officers, thousands of protesters snaked through the city’s streets toward the plaza, where demonstrators were hit by swaths of crowd control weaponry.
“The crowd started throwing bottles, paints, beer, eggs at myself and the other officers,” said Oakland Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan, defending his force’s tactics. “We were in a position where we had to deploy gas in order to stop the crowd and people from pelting us with bottles and rocks.”
But some activists saw events unfold differently.
“Folks were being really peaceful and just marching and chanting and staying together in the group,” Lily Haskell, an Oakland activist with the Arab Resource and Organising Center, told Al Jazeera. She said that officers went on the offensive after a few protesters threw what appeared to be balled up paper at officers. “Police used that as an excuse to attack everyone and create an entirely unsafe situation, but they were clearly not facing any harm.”
One activist told Al Jazeera that her boyfriend was beaten by police and hospitalised before being jailed and beaten again. Asking only to go by ‘Anne’, she asked that her partner not be named for safety reasons.
“They beat him… and then they took him to another room and they put his head in a toilet, put his hands in a toilet, and threw him against a wall.” – ‘Anne’
When he was first arrested around 6 pm on Tuesday, she said: “The police thought that he was Latino and started calling him Poncho and making racial slurs and sexual gestures. He said the fire department people and paramedics were doing this along with the cops.”
Once hospitalised, the man filed a police brutality report, after which the officer recording the complaint told him he would “go to jail for assault or battery of a police officer and resisting arrest,” Anne said. He was then moved from the hospital to the local county jail.
“I talked to him twice now since he’s been in Santa Rita [County Jail] and he said they were basically torturing him there. They beat him in front of a bunch of people, including a nurse, and then they took him to another room and they put his head in a toilet, put his hands in a toilet, threw him against a wall.” The allegations could not be independently verified.
Besides his being in a crowd of protesters, Anne said that her partner’s arrest was completely unprovoked.
Back in the streets, the clashes raged for nearly eight hours, with numerous reports of tear gas, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets and bean bag projectiles. Al Jazeera cannot independently verify the police use of all of these weapons. Oakland Police Department’s crowd control policy says that the type of bean bags activists say were used on Tuesday “shall not be used for crowd management, crowd control or crowd dispersal during demonstrations”.
One video from Tuesday evening, from a local Fox news affiliate, shows a group of protesters being hit by what appears to be tear gas. As people begin to regroup and try to carry away a man who appeared to have been knocked unconscious, police fired a concussion grenade into the group.
Scott Olsen, the injured man who is a former US Marine and veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq, is now in critical condition in an Oakland hospital, after being hit in the forehead with a projectile that activists say was fired by police. The injury caused a skull fracture and brain swelling, and doctors put Olsen into a medically-induced coma.
An activist who was in the midst of tear gas and concussion grenades said he tried to help another woman he saw on the ground. “She was already lying on the ground bleeding, and I watched a flash-bang grenade land right next to her head and explode right next to her face,” he said.
Kristin, a protester and graduate student who asked to be identified only by her first name, told Al Jazeera that the situation in Oakland’s streets became increasingly dangerous.
“At one point, the police cut all of the city lights on that intersection and then started launching tear gas canisters and concussion grenades and shooting rubber bullets,” she said.
Soon after, she said, “A group of people were being treated by medics for wounds inflicted by police. It hadn’t been long since the last round of tear gas, and then the cops launched another round and people started running and tripping over each other and the people who were getting treated.”
According to Lily Haskell, the protest that had planned to create a permanent encampment in the city centre has now evolved: “The protest, more broadly speaking, is about showing that this is a peaceful movement of people and that we’re not going to tolerate police repression in our city.”
Protesters reportedly left the city centre by about midnight, but Occupy Oakland organisers put an online social networking call for further protests “tomorrow at 6pm for round three. and four. and five. and six. We will not be moved.”
As the city’s air clears of tear gas, unless police drastically change their tack, there is reason to expect at least another heated night in the city of 400,000.
Follow Jesse Strauss on Twitter: @AJEsseStrauss