Call it a tale of two California cities: San Francisco and Oakland. While calm reigned at the Occupy encampment in San Francisco, a sense of crisis enveloped the encampment in Oakland. The difference: just one day. Oakland – long known for its brutal police force – launched an unprovoked attack on demonstrators lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired at crowds on the 18th day of a raucous protest movement that started slowly on October 10, 2011 in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and that grew quickly into a force of its own. The police attack shifted global attention away from Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in the heart of Oakland.
In hindsight, the violent confrontation looked inevitable, given a police department with a history of rioting, and given provocative slogans by demonstrators such as “Eat the Rich,” and speeches by the likes of David Hilliard, the former chief of staff of the Black Panther Party that was born in Oakland 45 years ago. Moreover, in Oakland, where the unemployment rate is far above the national average, where schools are in disarray, and foreclosure an epidemic, talk of revolution found receptive ears. The powers-that-be were jittery. Inevitably, the blood of citizens was also spilled during the Occupy Oakland protests. The first major casualty in the battle between the Oakland police and some 500 demonstrators was a veteran of the War in Iraq who had served two tours of duty. Scott Olson, an idealistic, crusading 24-year-old ex-Marine and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by the police and was taken, unconscious, to the hospital. He had survived Iraq without a serious wound. The Oakland police also fired teargas on the demonstrators who went to Olson’s aid. Almost immediately, photos of his bloodied head went up at Occupy sites around the country and on the Web, as well.
The Occupy Movement had its first national hero. From coast-to-coast, vigils for Olson sprang up spontaneously. His injury, along with the police assault on hundreds of other protesters and their lawful encampment, brought hundreds of fresh recruits into the streets of Oakland and stiffened their resolve. Doctors at Highland Hospital in Oakland said that they hoped Olson would fully recover, and friends were eager for him to return to the streets.
“This was a good old-fashioned police riot,” a 36-year-old Oakland native said. “In a history class, I read about what happened in Chicago in 1968 and while the Oakland police riot wasn’t nearly as big as the Chicago police riot, in both cases the whole world was watching.”
Protesters demanded the resignation of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan – known on the streets as “Jean the Queen” - who scurried about trying to save face and save her own job. Quan said she was sorry and promised an investigation, but that didn’t silence cries for her to step down. Howard Jordan, the interim Police Chief of a department riddled with corruption in a city riddled with crime, called the injury to Olson “unfortunate,” and added that “our goal is not to cause injury to anyone.” But the police attack on Olson and on hundreds of other law-abiding citizens was hardly accidental. Officers from 18 separate law enforcement agencies converged on the streets of Oakland the night of the attack, many of the officers acting on their own initiative, many eager to assault protesters, and many of them behaving badly and down-right unlawfully, according to the lawyers who drafted rules and regulations about the use of force by the police.
In 2003, Oakland police used “excessive force” against anti-war demonstrators and the city had to pay more than $2,000,000 to injured individuals. Oakland City Councilmember, Rebecca Kaplan, was aghast that the city had not learned from the mistakes of the past, and called for more stringent rules about the police. Her own constituents were appalled and outraged.
“This is a classic case of the police violating the First Amendment rights of American citizens,” a 21-year-old UC Berkeley student said. “The politicians praise the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia, but when it happens here they call out the police.”
The Oakland establishment has aimed to rule with an iron fist almost from the moment Oakland was born. In the 1890s, Jack London, perhaps Oakland’s most famous writer, was arrested and jailed for speaking on a street corner without the required permit from the mayor himself. Later, the autocratic Knowland family, long-time owners of The Oakland Tribune, ruled the city as though it was their own feudal estate, accusing nearly all dissenters of being Communists. In the 1960s, police officers stood by while members of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Gang assaulted anti-war demonstrators. Indeed, Oakland has a long rap sheet, and, while the smell of tear gas soon lifted from the streets, the city may never be the same again.
No one who lives in this big sprawling metropolis can stop talking about the clash between police and protesters. No one has stopped asking questions, either, and no one has decided to stay safely at home and sit out the battle. If anything, the police riot has led to a growing wave of rebellion not only in Oakland, but all around the country - wherever there are veterans of wars, anti-war protestors, and casualties in the war waged by Wall Street against the citizens of the United States. Across the Bay in San Francisco, one protester held a sign that said, “If you raid us we’ll only grow bigger and stronger.”
In Oakland, a high school student explained, “This is my chance to be a part of history. I’m in this for the long haul.”