November 10 marked the one-month anniversary of Occupy Oakland – the political, social, and economic protest and encampment against corporate greed, social inequality and police brutality, which took over Frank Ogawa Plaza, in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.
But instead of a planned birthday celebration, the Occupy camp turned into a somber vigil, after a late-afternoon outbreak of violence turned deadly, resulting in a fight that led to the shooting of a young man just outside the encampment, on the steps of Frank Ogawa Plaza at just before 5 p.m. Thursday.
The victim later died from his injuries, interim Police Chief Howard Jordan confirmed in a press conference.
“This afternoon, we received a call of gunshots, several gunshots,” Jordan said. “When the officers arrived, they found a young man who was later determined to have died from gunshot injuries.
The name of the victim has not yet been released – pending notification of family – however, it has been reported that the young man stayed a few nights at the encampment and the name “Alex” appears several times on the makeshift memorial to the young man.
The shooting was precipitated by a fight between a group of African-American males, Jordan said.
“During the fight, someone pulls out a gun and fires several rounds into the crowd, striking the victim who subsequently died from his injuries at Highland Hospital,” he added.
Police don’t know who the suspect is, and do not have anyone in custody. The gun has not been recovered. Anyone with information is urged to email OPD at [email protected] There were “reports that several citizens from [the] Occupy Oakland movement tried to break up the fight,” Jordan added.
Just then, spectators in the crowd started chanting, “turn the lights on” – a reference to the fact that the lights at Ogawa Plaza have been dark for days, ostensibly due to broken circuit breakers.
“The lights are gonna come back on,” Jordan vowed. Jordan took no further questions from the assembled media, which included both TV and newspaper reporters. But several eyewitnesses shared their views of what they saw.
Nathan Stalnaker, a board member of Make Oakland Better Now!, said he was in the plaza, next to his bicycle, when the fight started. A group of seven or eight people, he said, were “beating the sh— out of a guy on the ground.” He saw a gun drawn, then, “people from the camp attempted to break it up.”
Stalnaker said he then heard two or three shots, then a mob of people surged forward. Occupiers attempted to clear the area, as the scene became hazy and chaotic.
“It was just kind of a blur,” he said, adding the suspects were African-American males with dreads around 18 to 25 years old.
An African-American woman who identified herself as a nurse practitioner, but declined to give her name for fear of retaliation, said she witnessed the incident.
“It actually started on the corner right here. The people were wearing black and grey, It looked to be more gang affiliation, not having to do with Occupy Oakland,” she said. “Once the fight broke out, that’s when they pulled out the gun. It was about five to seven shots. That was the second set of shots. The initial shots were about three to four shots over around 14th Street, somewhere over there [pointing]. After that, the seven shots went off, another fight broke out and then the media just started flooding in.”
There was so much commotion going on, the woman said, “I couldn’t even get over to help to give CPR and then the gunmen went running down past the T-Mobile store. [One] was a male, maybe about 5’9”, dreads, navy blue sweatshirt, denim jeans, white tennis shoes. The other guy, I don’t really recall what he was wearing.”
Following the incident, the scene in Ogawa Plaza was somber. Dozens of media members clambered about. OPD sealed off the crime scene with yellow tape. Occupiers and their supporters gazed sadly at the proceedings. Some lit candles and burned sage. Others milled around, talking amongst themselves about what this latest incident meant and the possibility that the encampment might be raided this very evening.
“I think it’s ridiculous how there’s so much police here, all this media coverage, just because it’s in front of Occupy Oakland,” said Marsha, a single mother and encampment resident, who declined to give her last name.
Had the shooting happened down the street, “Maybe it would have been on the news, but there wouldn’t have been so much attention on it,” she said.
“Only because it’s in Occupy Oakland, they’re making a big deal out of it,” Marsha continued. “We already have a bad rep over here about the violence. For someone to get killed in front of Occupy Oakland, it’s all bad. They’re gonna shut it down tonight, I‘m pretty sure, and we won’t be able to come back.” The act of violence, she added, “defeats the whole purpose why we’re out here.”
Khalid Shakur, one of the most visible occupiers over the past month, emphasized that there was “absolutely no connection between the fight and what the Occupy/Decolonize movement is built on or trying to establish.
“They were individuals that we were trying to bring into the movement and trying to rehabilitate,” Shakur said. “Once again, there were infiltrators from the police department and several other factions such as black bloc using psychological warfare on young black men to either break windows or to have some kind of violent interaction.”
Today was the day, Shakur said, “it came to a boiling point.” What happened today, he speculated, “was a case of typical Oakland black on black crime … [It’s] a shame that it happened outside of the steps of Occupy/Decolonize Oakland.”
Hopefully, Shakur added, “this isn’t a death blow. This is a nightmare for everyone. It’s not just a nightmare for Occupy Oakland, it’s a nightmare for Oakland residents in general who have to deal with this on an everyday basis.”
That theme was reiterated by onlooker and author Jessie Douglas Allen-Taylor, who said, “We got our issues with the police, but we also have our issues with street violence.”
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, however, took the opportunity to call for an end to the encampment.
“Tonight’s incident underscores the reason why the encampment must end,” she said, adding, “The risks are too great. We need to return OPD resources to addressing violence throughout the city … Camping is a tactic, not a solution.”
Meanwhile, occupier Fungai Gova took advantage of the opportunity to address the media.
“This does not represent us,” he said. “We have been doing the city’s job, feeding the homeless. What happened here is not a symptom of the occupation. Violence happens on East Oakland and West Oakland’s doorstep” and on “every single street in Oakland. We occupy for this reason.”