Serious Questions About OPD’s Ability to Oversee Freedom of Speech Events

Posted on November 24, 2011

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Occupy Oakland has had some rough times lately. Two at first wildly successful–and then frustrated–occupations. And, of course, a lot of negative press and pressure from the city and its corporate bosses. A Thanksgiving feast for the public held today in the amphitheatre of Frank Ogawa Plaza—as OO called it, a Day of Gratitude—was meant to be a healing and community building experience. The same kitchen committee with their unquenchable political philosophy of feeding the hungry managed the event for friends, strangers, and comrades alike.

But then the police came and ruined all of that in a disgusting display of disorder and out of control violence—that is the actual hurting of human bodies, not destruction of property. All of the witnesses I talked to today described a similar scene, part of which can be seen in this video edited by activists at Occupy Oakland.

There’s some necessary background that can’t be seen in the video. As part of the feast, OO ordered a pair of porta potties to be delivered to the site—a large number of people were expected and on a holiday surrounding businesses are closed, so that makes sense. When the company truck entered the north end of the plaza to deliver them, police intercepted and tried to force the driver to go back. A group of attendees at the gratitude function went over to see what was going on—there was some understandable rancor. There is nothing very controversial about a porta potty; but then again, there was no legal reason to block the porta potties, so tempers flared.

While in statements Mayor Jean Quan has claimed that no structures will be allowed in the plaza, the resolution passed last night to carry out a 24/7 vigil in the plaza, is based on a reading of the law which indeed allows structures in the plaza for the purposes of a vigil. The interfaith committee is currently holding a vigil in which they are allowed a tent by police—police claim that the tent must be taken down at night, and the interfaith tent is complying, but its clear that the police themselves don’t understand the legal basis for freedom of speech in the plaza and that this is, at best, an arbitrary “concession”, based on little more than uninformed judgement call.

One of the OO participants who presented the vigil proposal last night, a lawyer and member of the National Lawyer’s Guild, tried repeatedly to show police officers the legal foundation for allowing the porta potties at the start of the altercation, he received a hand in the face, and was ignored. Had police simply conferred with him, this brutal event would have been avoided. Despite the fact that not allowing the porta potties in the plaza contradicted the logic behind the previous permission to allow tents during the day—a ‘structure’, like the porta potties—police continued to block and try to turn back the truck.

In the video, a police officer attacks a bystander—who I only know as Rasta, a fixture at the camp since the early days, who’s become an integral part of the OO community. There is no provocation apparent. It’s a simple assault by an armed police officer. Once the attack proceeds, other police officers join in—you can see the police officer who initiated the attack grabbing Rasta by the hair, and others holding him down in the most aggressive and violent way imaginable. Recall, that in this very video no attack from Rasta is visible, and as witnesses corroborate, there was no physical movement from Rasta. The officer reacts, other officers simply join in violently without question.

But they don’t only attack Rasta. As you can see, once the police officers have given themselves the greenlight for violence, anyone that gets in their way is fair game. The young woman getting shoved right after the altercation begins is the facilitator that you hear in the recording I made of the GA last night [of chicken-nuggets fame], who I can assure is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. Throughout the video, police shove and strike people repeatedly. Ignorant of the law, its a literal wilding against people using the park in a completely legal manner.

There are two important take-aways from the Thanksgiving Police Riot. First, this may finally quell the discussion of “violence” versus “non-violence” in relation to Occupy Oakland. What you see in this video is the very definition of violence. Indeed, this–and the more extreme versions that we have seen before at the hands of the very same militarized organization—is the most critical area of the spectrum of acts that fall under the broad term “violence”. In another video, which I saw on cam at the plaza, and which I hope to have access to soon, police appear to hit a bystander as they drive away–a middle aged, or elderly woman. What is incontrovertible is that police visit violence on bystanders and activists alike with no provocation of any kind. The standard meme of the past month, that actions on the part of protesters produce an “understandable” violent response from police, is untenable.

Second, but of crucial importance, this incident [as well as others] brings up serious concerns about the OPD’s ability to oversee political events based on understandings of constitutionally allowed free speech, such as the vigil which OO will soon begin in the plaza. A team of constitutional lawyers have vetted the vigil plan not only for Occupy Oakland, but for all occupations throughout the country that are experiencing similar repression. Occupy Oakland will be carrying out this constitutionally protected vigil in the coming days, so its obvious that the city must do something to reign in police before then. Perhaps its time the city educate itself about the constitutional rights of the residents it has sworn to protect.