Oakland – Seeking to cool the violent tone set by Tuesday night's street clashes with Occupy Oakland protesters, police pulled down barricades Wednesday near City Hall, dramatically reduced their presence and said they would allow nightly demonstrations in the area until 10 p.m.
Hundreds of protesters responded Wednesday night by packing the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa Plaza, where they voted to hold a citywide general strike on Nov. 2, when workers and students will be urged to stay home to show support of the Occupy movement.
A grassy section of the plaza – the site of an elaborate encampment that police dismantled Tuesday morning – remained fenced off for cleaning, though not for long. By 7 p.m., the fence had been torn down as the lawn filled with protesters chanting, “Whose park? Our park!” Police officers kept their distance.
By 10 p.m., demonstrators had pitched a single tent. Some had left on BART trains for San Francisco, in anticipation of a police raid on an encampment in Justin Herman Plaza along the Embarcadero. More than 1,000 others marched through Oakland after police prevented them from entering BART, which also shut down its Embarcadero Station in San Francisco.
At a late-night news conference, Oakland officials said the plaza grass was a “biohazard” because of chemicals used to clean it. Still, Mayor Jean Quan said, “If it remains a peaceful demonstration, we will maintain a minimum police presence.” She would not say what action the city will take if protesters re-establish their camp.
The fence around the plaza became a metaphor of sorts in a debate over the aggressiveness of protest tactics. One of those who ripped down the fence was Toby Barton, 37, who said he lives in a van in Oakland. As some people tried to get him to stop, he shouted, “This is direct action. Nothing changes until s- gets torn down.”
David Hoffer, 24, of San Francisco tried to keep the fence intact, saying, “We can't be knocking down fences. If you want democracy, you have to work within our democratic system.”
The dispute over protest tactics came after an afternoon news conference in which interim Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan defended the tactics of his department. “We are committed to allowing free speech,” he said, “but the First Amendment doesn't allow violence or endangering the public or property.”
Tuesday's removal of the camp saw mass arrests but was largely peaceful. A downtown march later in the day, however, turned into a protracted street confrontation between protesters and police officers from more than a dozen agencies who set off tear gas and used shotguns to fire projectiles designed to inflict pain but not cause serious injury.
Police said they had to protect themselves from protesters who hurled rocks, bottles and paint.
On Wednesday, protesters displayed rubber bullets and beanbags they said were fired at them the night before. Jordan said his department used the beanbags but not rubber bullets, but that other agencies may have used the rubber bullets.
Iraq Vet Injured
Six or seven people were injured, Jordan said. The most seriously wounded was Scott Olsen, 24, of Daly City, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who was listed in critical condition Wednesday at Highland General Hospital in Oakland.
The antiwar group said Olsen, a systems administrator at a San Francisco software firm, suffered a skull fracture when he was hit by a “blunt object.” Olsen joined the U.S. Marines in 2006, served two tours in Iraq, and was discharged in 2010, the group said.
Video footage distributed on the Internet shows a protester, identified by the antiwar group as Olsen, being carried away by others with a head wound. The cause was unclear. While he lay wounded, the footage appears to show an officer tossing something – perhaps a tear gas canister – toward people trying to help him.
“I think it is a sad state of affairs when a Marine can't assemble peacefully in the streets without getting injured,” said Jose Sanchez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Jordan said the incident was under investigation. “I wish it didn't happen. Our goal is not to cause injury to anyone.”
The protesters are upset about growing economic inequality, among other issues.
Debate on Tactics
But the street confrontations are bringing focus to a central question that those in the Occupy Oakland camp debated repeatedly during their 15 nights outside City Hall – whether demonstrators should opt for violence against police, meeting force with force.
The majority has supported nonviolence, and many are frustrated that some in the crowd threw bottles and paint at police. But some protesters favoring aggression are determined to continue the tactic. At the heart of the debate is what message the movement wants to project and in what way.
David Hartsough, who helped lead civil rights sit-ins and marches in the South in the early 1960s, said he has urged Occupy participants in Oakland and San Francisco to redouble nonviolence efforts.
“If people had fought back when police put the dogs on them in Selma and Birmingham, they wouldn't have gathered the support they got,” said Hartsough, who founded the San Francisco-based Nonviolent Peaceforce.
When Tuesday's protest devolved into a volley of rocks and tear gas, some organizers took to bullhorns. “If you throw something, you're as bad as a cop,” one speaker said to the applause of several hundred people.
A chant followed, conveying the same message, but then someone from the back of the crowd lobbed a glass bottle that shattered on police helmets. Officers responded, lobbing tear gas again.
Occupy Oakland protester Casey Jones, 28, wore a T-shirt Wednesday reading “thrash and burn,” and skateboarded up and down Broadway yelling, “Bring it on!”
“I'm all about the riot – we need to be violent,” he said. “We need more numbers. We'll just keep marching on.”