Misinformation, Disinformation and African-American Lynchers

Posted on January 6, 2012

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Several news sources and articles, as well as the OPD Press Release dated January 3rd, 2012,  have misstated the facts surrounding recent city and police actions at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa plaza.

For the record, here are some facts to counter some misinformation caused by lazy mainstream media reporting:

1. The Tipi Vigil was the product of a general assembly proposal that passed through the GA. But the permit was not something that the GA agreed on. On the day that the vigil committee tried to establish the tipi in the public park–which is constitutionally protected activity–police physically prevented it, grabbing the tipi polls out of the hands of the committee members. Facing arrest and failure of the vigil idea, the committee members opted to negotiate with the city on a permitted vigil. This was not voted through the GA, and was not discussed with anyone outside of the vigil committee. Despite this, the permitted vigil has been integral to the continued occupation of the plaza.

2. The permit established an area around the tipi in which certain activities were banned. None of the activities that the city claimed had occured in its press release were in the area around the tipi. Other activists and citizens trying to occupy the area by other means should not have influenced the conditions of the permit. Mainstream local media has a tendency to take the city’s claims as fact, without bothering to ask witnesses and permit holders if this was the case.

3. The vigil committee associated with the tipi is not Occupy Oakland’s legal team. Occupy Oakland does not have a legal team associated with it. The National Lawyer’s Guild and other individuals have—as they do with many activist organizations—provided legal aid when arrests during protests occur. No legal strategy around the tipi has been voted for by the GA.

And now to clear up the Disinformation:

1. The city and police have used discriminatory and possibly illegal and unconstitutional means to “clear the plaza”. Previous raids have targeted Occupy Oakland activists, and have resulted in arrests for such crimes as having a blanket and other property in the plaza. One of those arrested, Marcel Johnson, received felony charges once jailed, and now faces decades in prison.

2. The city’s claims of what occurred prior to mass arrests on Friday, December 30th are contradicted by witnesses at the scene, who claim they were cooperating with officers by clearing stored items themselves. Despite their obvious efforts to comply, police began to arrest members of the group. It was police that incited a riot.

3. The Oakland Police Department is also inaccurate when it lists the charges of arrestees on December 30th. The press release states:

“…charges included: “attempting to free those arrested from police officers through force;”

The charge, however, has an uglier and absurdly inappropriate name. “Lynching”, section 405a of the California penal code, was created to combat white mobs that lynched hundreds of African Americans throughout the country in the early 20th century after their arrests. And, even more absurdly, one such protester charged in the 12/30 arrests with lynching, was African American. Its no surprise that the OPD didn’t want to boast of their grossly distorted view of justice, nor their cynical parsing of the law and kept the actual name and code for the felony out of the media’s reach.

Why an African American Can be Charged with Lynching in Oakland:

Working on the media committee of Occupy Oakland , I can say with certainty that the media is quite likely to print whatever they read in a city press release without checking the facts or getting another perspective from groups involved. When I spoke to a Chronicle reporter yesterday for example, I asked him if he knew anything about the previous night’s arrests. He replied that he only knew so far what the police had told him; but he had already been standing around the protest that was forming for at least half an hour, if not longer. He’d apparently made no move to find other perspectives.

The confusion and misinformation that proceeds from the media-“official sources” dynamic, speaks equally of a dishonest city agency and a lazy and power-invested local media. That can be the only reason why a scandal has not yet broken out over the fact that an African American standing in the middle of a public plaza was arrested and detained in a county jail for a law that was meant to protect African Americans from murder.

The most fundamental basis of the Occupy movements is that no permit is required to assemble and peacefully bring grievances to the public sphere. The constitution does not limit freedom of speech rights based on how nice protesters are, whether they smell good, or are well-liked by local businesses. It does not regulate the amount of time they can spend in “peaceable assembly” nor whether they’re allowed to sleep during this time. It doesn’t recognize the city’s role of creating wealth for rich elites. Most importantly, its inconceivable that the framers of this right did not mean it to be used exactly before the halls of political power as it has been with Occupy Oakland.

There can be no more appropriate use of the right to assembly enshrined in the first amendment, than an assembly before City Hall that lasts as long as it takes to make elected leaders and their corrupt cronies listen to the will of the people—be that hours, days or even years. Indeed, this right is so obvious and integral to a functioning democracy that its also a right guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 20. It’s a right we celebrate when it occurs in other parts of the world such as the Middle East, the African continent and the Balkans, but become strangely ambivalent about when it comes to our own shores.

Occupy Oakland activists like Naomi—now jailed—who used her right of assembly and free speech by protecting the symbolic occupation of the plaza through civil disobedience, and with the placard, “the first amendment is my permit” could not have been more correct. All the perverse and draconian machinations of the city and police won’t remove that right, though they may destroy several lives in the process. Those rights belong to everyone, and each such injury is an injury to everyone.

If the OPD’s charging of an African-American with “lynching” to suppress his right to free speech doesn’t make Americans see that, I’m not sure what will.