Why is the Oakland Police Department Hiding the Truth About Its Violent Crackdown on the Occupy Protests?

After three notably violent crackdowns on protesters in as many weeks, Oakland Police Department officials have refused a request by the ACLU of Northern California to release police reports documenting their use of force as required by law.

“We saw events that we found extremely troubling, and which violated provisions of Oakland's own crowd control policy,” Linda Lye, a staff attorney with ACLU of Northern California told AlterNet.

After recent police actions in Oakland gained national attention, “there was a lot of lip service paid to transparency and accountability and the public's interest in monitoring the situation,” she said. “But then OPD proceeded to say that it was invoking one of the statutory exceptions to the Public Records Act for the vast majority of our requests.”

The exception officials cited exempted documents prepared pursuant to a criminal investigation, but, says Lye, “these records weren't notes of a detective working on a murder case. These were very different records — they're reports documenting the use of force during a massive police enforcement action, and many are required pursuant to routine reporting procedures under Oakland's own policies.” She added, “Not only does the law require that they release the records, but the overall situation demands that they do so.”

A legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild told AlterNet that they had received “numerous reports of excessive force” after riot police evicted the encampment in front of City Hall during the early morning hours of October 25. According to Lye, one of the difficulties sorting out exactly what happened stems from the fact that, according to reports, as many as 17 police agencies were involved in the raid, which, according to the National Lawyers Guild observer, resulted in a head injury requiring hospitalization and three broken hands.

The following evening, as protesters regrouped, police dispersed crowds with round after round of teargas, flash-bang grenades and “less lethal” projectiles. Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen suffered a traumatic head injury when he was struck by some sort of projectile – reportedly a teargas canister – in the melee. As a group of people rushed to drag the unconscious Olsen to safety, police threw a flash-bang grenade into their midst (video of the incident is below).

The following week, after a rousing, peaceful day of demonstrations culminated in the Port of Oakland being “occupied,” things once again became violent on the streets of Oakland. During that action, Kayvan Sabehgi, also a veteran of the Iraq war, ended up in intensive care with a ruptured spleen. Sabehgi told the Guardian that he was walking alone, away from the action when he ran into trouble.

“There was a group of police in front of me,” he told the Guardian from his hospital bed. “They told me to move, but I was like: 'Move to where?' There was nowhere to move.

“Then they lined up in front of me. I was talking to one of them, saying 'Why are you doing this?' when one moved forward and hit me in my arm and legs and back with his baton. Then three or four cops tackled me and arrested me.”

Sabehgi says he lay on the floor of a jail cell writhing in pain for hours until finally receiving medical attention the following evening.

That night, another protester videotaped what appears to be a flagrant and unnecessary use of force against him (view the video below). Scott Campbell, 30, a resident of Oakland, was also standing away from the bulk of the action, taping a line of riot police on the north end of Frank Ogawa Plaza. An officer asked him to move back and he complied. On the tape, he can be heard asking police repeatedly, “Is this OK?” He gets no answer, and then suddenly an officer raises a weapon and shoots him with a “less lethal” projectile of some kind. The tape ends with him crying out in pain.

Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who's an expert in police procedures and the use of force, told the Oakland Tribune that the video left him “astonished, amazed and embarrassed.”

“Unless there's something we don't know, that's one of the most outrageous uses of a firearm that I've ever seen,” he said. “That just looks like absolute punishment, which is the worst type of excessive force.”

All of these acts, on their face, violate OPD's own manual for proper crowd control (PDF). The strict guidelines resulted from a 2003 civil suit against OPD for using wooden bullets and teargas to disperse a nonviolent crowd of citizens protesting the Iraq war. Jim Chanin, the civil rights attorney who won the suit, told CBS news that they restrict the use of chemical weapons until “all other means have failed.” “From what I could see [in videos of the incidents on March 25], they hadn’t even tried marching forward,” he said.

California's Crowd Management and Civil Disobedience guidelines (PDF) state, “Only that force which is objectively reasonable may be used to arrest violators and restore order.”

Officials Aren't Giving Honest Accounts of Events

These actions are justified by officials with inaccurate claims of what happened out on the streets those nights.

The first pre-dawn raid was necessary, according to the mayor's office, due to health and safety violations, and a report that protesters had blocked emergency personnel from entering the camp after a fight broke out.

Those are legitimate concerns, but we know that suppressing dissent is a goal unto itself because on October 25, police also raided, and made arrests at Snow Park, a small satellite occupation some distance from City Hall. Snow Park was a small cluster of tents on a hill overlooking Lake Merritt. It had no kitchen, no sanitation issues – it had been established more recently than the main encampment – and while there is a small minority within Occupy Oakland that wants to mix it up with the police, everyone at Snow Park was committed to a non-confrontational stance. If the eviction of the camp in front of City Hall was executed only because of the reasons stated by the mayor's office and police officials, Snow Park would have been left unmolested.

In a press conference following the first raid, Acting Police Chief Howard Jordan claimed that teargas and other weapons were used on protesters only “in order to stop the crowd and people from pelting us with bottles and rocks.” I was not at the very front, but I saw nothing thrown at officers before the first round of gas was deployed. Other accounts appear to confirm that, but in any event they were not, as the chief claimed, being “pelted” with multiple projectiles. (I did witness a few plastic water bottles and perhaps a rock thrown before subsequent uses of force by police.)

During a city council meeting on November 3, Jordan said that during the evening of the 25th, the protesters had been given free rein to demonstrate throughout the city with a few exceptions, one of which was that they couldn't attempt to enter the police building located on 6th Street and Broadway. “But,” he said, “they did try to enter the building.” This is false — I can't be sure if police set up their lines on 7th or 8th Street, but in any event, at no time did protesters get anywhere near the police building.

The protesters had been peaceful throughout the afternoon, and if OPD had let them demonstrate outside the police building where over 100 of their fellow activists were being detained – allowing some tension to be diffused – they likely would have remained so. Instead, lines of riot police repeatedly blocked and boxed in protesters in a seemingly random fashion, and it was only when the crowd's frustration had mounted that some protesters surrounded a small number of police, which led to a violent response.

If All You Have Is a Hammer, All the World Looks Like a Nail

During that same city council meeting, addressing the violence on the night of November 2, both interim Chief Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan said that police “had to” use significant force against protesters who had “occupied” an abandoned building that once served as a shelter for the Traveler's Aid Society. The officials said that protesters had erected a barricade on 16th Street, which they set ablaze, and only then did OPD deploy multiple rounds of teargas and open fire with “less lethal” rounds.

That analysis is marred by a common problem: examining events in the moments before violence breaks out while ignoring the fact that command decisions taken beforehand had an enormous influence on the nature of the protests.

It's true that when police arrived, they found a chaotic and provocative crowd. When I arrived at the scene a half-hour before police, it was already clear that things would not end peacefully that night. And, sure enough, injuries and over 100 arrests followed (including that of AlterNet contributor Susie Cagle, whose account can be read here).

But the sequence of events leading up to that point is crucially important. The “occupiers” plan, at first, was to “reclaim” the building and use it as a refuge for protesters to get indoors, have access to electricity, etc. At first, about 50 people did just that.

A decision was made by officials to send a large contingent of riot police to evict those 50 original occupiers in the middle of the night on a non-residential street. It was only when word spread through the camp that hundreds of police were staging for a raid did another 150 or so protesters join them, including a number who were not dedicated to the nonviolent nature of the Occupy Movement. And that was when the barricade was erected and things started getting rowdy.

A question nobody asked at the press conference that followed or at the city council meeting is whether it was necessary to send a large force of riot police to evict those 50 original occupiers, or if a less aggressive solution could have been worked out in the light of the following day. Again, this is an unexamined question, and it represents a major problem in Oakland: during my time at these protests, I have seen only two modes of enforcement: either police maintain a “minimal presence” – without an officer in sight – or there is a massive, heavily armed and aggressive display of force. There appears to be no middle ground, and judging by officials' statements, such a middle ground never occurred to them.

Those who have developed an image of police actions from New York should understand that riot police in Oakland – and those from the neighboring agencies that joined these actions – are highly militarized, clad in full, black body armor and bristling with automatic weapons, tear gas launchers, flash-bang grenades and tasers. When they move in, it's reminiscent of a battlefield, with a series of jarring explosions and extensive gunfire. Those aggressive tactics create a dangerous cycle, allowing the minority of protesters who do seek confrontation with law enforcement to justify their provocations as acts of “self-defense.”

Legacy of Distrust

In Oakland, tensions between law enforcement and the community predate the Occupy Movement by generations, and it's proving to be a real obstacle for addressing the legitimate concerns that many Oaklanders have about the camp. Both occupiers and the mayor's office have repeatedly called for “dialogue,” but the sense that the citizens of Oakland are under siege – felt especially by people of color – makes cooperation between the city and protesters extremely difficult. There is a serious deficit of trust.

That should come as little surprise. The OPD has been involved in a number of controversial shootings. The department has been under a federal consent decree since 2003, stemming from a 2003 case in which a band of “rogue” OPD officers were fired for beating and robbing suspects in West Oakland and then planting evidence on them. (Criminal charges against three of the officers ended in mistrials, but the city paid out $10 million to the plaintiffs and entered into the federal decree as a result of the civil suit.)

Just weeks before the recent clashes with Occupy Oakland protesters, Robert Warshaw, the federal monitor assigned to oversee the department, issued a report that found that in 28 percent of the instances in which OPD officers pointed their guns at someone, there was no indication that the officer or anyone else “faced imminent threat of harm.” Warshaw called the instances “inappropriate” and “unnecesary.” Civil rights attorney Jim Chanin told the San Jose Mercury News, “if you are doing nothing and you have a gun pointed at you by a police officer, it leaves an indelible impression and can alienate someone from the police forever, particularly if they're a minority.”

Another Crackdown Imminent?

There are signs that city officials are preparing to evict the Occupy Oakland encampment once again. On November 9, four members of the City Council joined the Oakland Chamber of Commerce for a press conference decrying the Occupation's purported impact on the local community and insisting that the protesters be removed as soon as it is practically feasable. The San Francisco Chronicle reported,

“Oakland police have canceled all training exercises for next week, which is a 'pretty good indication' that the cops are making plans once again to clear out the Occupy camp outside City Hall,” according to a police source.

The next step — if there is one — would be to cancel police leaves and put out the call for mutual aid from surrounding law enforcement agencies.

According to the source, police brass issued the no-training order just about the time Mayor Jean Quan handed out a warning Tuesday to the Occupy camp that “we cannot ignore violence, property destruction and health and safety issues in Frank Ogawa Plaza.”

The occupiers, meanwhile, appear intent on remaining in the plaza. So it appears that the already tense situation is likely to end up in another night of violence on the streets of Oakland.

Video: Scott Olsen is wounded.

Scott Campbell is shot with a “less lethal” projectile.