William Rivers Pitt | Then They Fight You, Fri 28 Oct 2011: Truthout | Op-Ed

William Rivers Pitt | Then They Fight You
Friday 28 October 2011

by: William Rivers Pitt, Truthout | Op-Ed

Occupy Oakland protesters after their camp was destroyed by Oakland police along with ten neighboring police departments.  Several hundred protesters regrouped at the intersection of 14th and Broadway where police tried dispersing the crowd with tear gas, flash bang rounds, rubber bullets and bean bag shots. (Photo: ekai)

The national standoff between authorities and protesters in the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement has reached a new and dangerous level of tension and violence.

At first glance, it looked like something out of Pink Floyd's film 'The Wall': menacing images of creatures in gas masks swarming toward the camera under a dark and forbidding sky. This was no dystopian fantasy, however; these were members of the Oakland police department charging into a group of protesters behind a wall of tear gas, flash-bang bombs, rubber bullets and bean-bag projectiles. The police bull-rushed these unarmed protesters with the intention to do violence, and violence is exactly what they did.

As of this writing, one woman is known to have been seriously injured when a flash-bang grenade went off right by her head. She was seen being carried away unconscious from the scene of the police riot by other protesters. Anther known injured protester has a name, and a face, and a record of service to his country. Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran of two Iraq tours, was participating in the Occupy Oakland protest when he was shot in the head by a ‘less-than-lethal’ police projectile, suffered a fractured skull, and was taken to the hospital in critical condition. His condition has since been upgraded to fair.

Welcome home, Marine. Thank you for your service to your country, but since you dared to exercise your First Amendment right to peaceable assembly, here's a cracked head for your trouble. And you thought Iraq was dangerous.

According to Oakland officials, the justification for this eight-hour-long explosion of force was that the area being occupied by protesters had become unsanitary, and that people were being raped within the camp zone. This was news to those who had been peacefully occupying the space in front of Oakland's city hall. It sounded suspiciously familiar to some last-decade claims about weapons of mass destruction being justification for a different burst of violence, and smells just as bad. The extreme nature of this police action might have had more to do with the fact that the protester's camp was unofficially named Oscar Grant Plaza, after the unarmed citizen who was murdered in 2009 by BART transit police, an incident that was caught on camera and broadcast to the world. Maybe the Oakland police did not like the reminder, and so swung their truncheons with an excess of vigor.

This is not the first example of excessive violence being directed at protesters in the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement. A number of incidents directed at unarmed, non-resisting protesters in New York City have been documented in detail, and in one case, an official inquiry into one NYPD officer's use of pepper spray is ongoing. The scene that played out in Oakland could very well have taken place several days ago in New York, had Mayor Bloomberg not made the wise, last-minute decision to back down from his demand that Liberty Park be cleared of protesters so it could be "cleaned." A number of protesters were injured by police in San Francisco and Denver, as well.

What happened in Oakland in the hours between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, however, is a definite escalation of tensions between protesters and authorities, and seems to indicate those authorities are edging closer and closer towards unleashing the dogs of war on people who offer no violence and pose no threat to anyone other than the financial power-brokers who have so thoroughly ravaged this country's future.

It goes without saying that not every person participating in these national actions are docile lambs; every movement, no matter its political denomination, is going to have its share of idiots and adrenaline-junkies. Within the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement, however, these types of people make up so small a fraction of the main as to be negligible...but they do offer authorities a nice excuse to bulldoze the whole movement, and it makes you wonder how many of these so-called agitators are running around causing trouble with a badge in their back pocket. Beyond agitators, there is the simple fact that not everyone is going to react like Gandhi when they get gassed, pepper-sprayed, flash-bombed, clubbed and shot with projectiles for peacefully assembling to point out a grievous wrong.

'Occupy Wall Street' is about saying "No."

"No" to institutionalized greed of such vast width and breadth that it plunders our country even as it smiles around a mouthful of filet mignon.

"No" to the ocean of corporate cash that drowns our democracy.

"No" to rewarding the failure of frauds who proudly carry the banner of capitalism even as they enjoy the galloping socialism of the government bailout.

"No" to those who refuse to hire new employees because they want to screw over the economy and remove a president they don't like. But it is also about so much else.

The ‘Occupy’ movement is as diverse and multifaceted as the cities and towns where it has been happening. More often than not, local issues are at the forefront of the protester’s concerns; Wall Street is local for New York City, but in Oakland, the protest has been geared more toward halting austerity measures and the closures of schools and libraries…and, yes, police violence. Yet even as every ‘Occupy’ community has its own set of priorities, it is all part of a single continuum, as the issues being protested all stem from the same core concerns that crashed the economy, and created the movement, in the first place.

'Occupy Wall Street' is not about getting into a public crunch with cops over whether or not tents should be allowed in a public park. Rather than react with violence to people who are sacrificing themselves to point out what has gone so terribly wrong with the America we all love, these authorities should take a step back and encompass the awesome fact that such a movement has become so very necessary in the first place.

They should remember that violence is the last refuge of the desperate, that violence directed towards these protests will only make them stronger, and will put a big, bloody underscore beneath their efforts. Every punch thrown by a police officer, every protester clubbed or gassed or bombed or shot down with a riot-control projectile, only proves the point of that protester, and invigorates the entire movement.

They should remember that this is the year 2011, and every single person gathered at these protests has a phone with a camera that will make any unnecessary or egregious act of official violence an instant media sensation. These authorities are not working in the dark, not by a long chalk. One protester with a steady hand will make an over-the-top cop famous in all the wrong ways in exactly as much time it takes to read this sentence. Enough footage like that, and matters will escalate quickly indeed. The whole world is, in fact, watching.

Every police officer dealing with these 'Occupy' protests is not a frothing mad dog, any more than every 'Occupy' protester is a brick-throwing terrorist. Police in Albany recently refused an order to clear out a group of 'Occupy' protesters, a decision that was roundly praised. But if the Battle of Oakland shows us anything, it is how quickly this can get out of hand. The protesters are not going anywhere, and if they are met with violence on the order of what took place Tuesday night, there is no telling where we will find ourselves in the end.



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As the medical condition of Marine Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen appears to have improved, he is becoming the Neda Agha-Soltan - the martyr of the Iranian Green Revolution - of the "Occupy" struggle for economic justice.

What occurred this week in Oakland - including the wounding of Olsen - shouldn't have happened. In June of 2004, the Oakland Police Department reached an agreement to refrain from using the kind of bloody and militarized tactics that they employed earlier this week.

According to a November 2004 San Francisco Chronicle article:

Oakland police will no longer indiscriminately use wooden or rubber bullets, Taser stun guns, pepper spray and motorcycles to break up crowds, under an agreement announced Friday....

The new policy settles part of a federal class-action lawsuit filed by 52 people who claimed their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly were violated as they targeted two shipping companies with contracts tied to the war in Iraq.

"What we've done is create a comprehensive policy that really provides a much more sensible, reasoned approach to managing demonstrations and crowds," said Rachel Lederman of the National Lawyers Guild in San Francisco.

Obviously, as Olsen's situation demonstrates, the Oakland Police did not adhere to the letter or spirit of the 2004 agreement on Tuesday night. Lederman told the San Francisco Chronicle that when the policy was negotiated, "these projectile weapons are very dangerous. It was only a matter of luck that someone wasn't killed on April 7, 2003, in Oakland. That's what we're trying to prevent."

Lederman is referring to a 2003 Oakland police riot against anti-Iraq war demonstrators that resulted in the serious wounding of many protesters. In fact, according to ThinkProgress, "the demonstrators were not without recourse. They took the city to court, and Oakland eventually awarded $2 million to 58 demonstrators for police abuses."

You would think that after signing an agreement and paying out taxpayer money to "compensate" for abusive police practices, the Oakland Police Department would learn how to behave in a civilized fashion when dealing with people exercising their First Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, the Oakland School Board voted on Wednesday night, this week, to close five elementary schools, in large part due to budget constraints. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland school district officials say that the school closings will save about $2 million a year, about what the Oakland Police Department paid out to protesters it abused in 2003.

Mark Karlin
Editor, BuzzFlash at Truthout

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