An OPD officer retrieves a metal shield from protestors during Tuesday evening's demonstration.
Over the course of a few minutes, a mostly-peaceful Occupy Oakland May Day protest turned into a police action Tuesday evening, leaving many observers and participants wondering what happened, why it happened and how the tenor changed so quickly.
At about 7 p.m. Tuesday evening, an estimated crowd of 3,500 people were peacefully demonstrating at the intersection of 14th and Broadway and in and around Frank Ogawa Plaza, sometimes referred to as "Oscar Grant Plaza." Various speakers were denouncing everything from immigration policies to police brutality and it appeared that everyone was in for a long evening.
However, according to Oakland Police Department spokesman Sgt. Chris Bolton, around 8:30 p.m., police identified an individual in Ogawa Plaza who had been issued a “stay-away” order and who was therefore in violation of that order. OPD officers attempted to arrest him and the man ran away. Officers gave chase and tackled him. Upon seeing this, the crowd surged toward police, became hostile and began throwing projectiles at officers. One newspaper reporter who witnessed the scene said he saw one policeman struck in the face with a glass bottle and commented that the assailants were “good throwers.” Bolton confirmed there were “multiple incidents of officers being struck and paint being thrown at them.”
Bolton said once the crowd intervened in an attempted arrest, OPD declared an unlawful assembly and ordered the crowd to disperse, which signaled a change in police tactics.
Within minutes, OPD and mutual aid units numbering in the hundreds of officers orchestrated and executed a coordinated dispersal plan. Police squads of about 30 or 40 officers were observed roaming into the crowds, targeting protestors with metal shields and wresting the makeshift equipment from their owners. By 8:40 p.m., a stack of the shields were lined up behind the police line, on the sidewalk next to at the BART station on 14th Street.
After being ordered to disperse, most of the crowd did just that. The next few hours saw police and remaining protestors engage in a cat-and-mouse game, with police pushing protestors farther and farther away from the downtown area. Every time protestors attempted to gather in numbers, police squads quickly arrived on the scene to disperse them. There were scattered instances of tear gas being used, police vehicles being vandalized, graffiti tagging of anarchist or anti-police slogans, along with reports of small fires being set, which were quickly extinguished. The wukka-wukka of police and media helicopters overhead could be heard as police attempted to clear out any remaining pockets of protestors while preventing a mass return to - and possible occupation of - Ogawa Plaza.
By 11 p.m., police had made dozens of arrests; most of the fight had gone out of protestors. Yet unlike prior protests, which resulted in hundreds of peaceful demonstrators being tear-gassed and/or arrested in retaliation for the actions of a few cowardly individuals using Black Bloc tactics, OPD didn’t appear to violate its own crowd-control policies. There were a few unconfirmed reports of excessive force, however; one reportedly against a 65 year-old man who was allegedly injured while attempting to videotape police.
Going into Tuesday’s events, Bolton said, “our goal was to facilitate lawful assembly.” Throughout the day, OPD’s presence appeared to be much more restrained than in previous instances. Even an earlier incident in which tear gas and flash-bangs were used after paint was thrown at an officer did not result in widespread chaos or the declaration of unlawful assembly.
Earlier in the afternoon, at about 2:30 p.m., a confrontation on 14th Street, near Clay, between approximately 30 cops and 500 protestors appeared to have the potential to get out of hand. But it never did. While arresting one protestor who became confrontational toward police, officers deployed a flash-bang grenade - the sound of which brought hundreds of people to check out the commotion.
A tense stand-off ensued. A line of masked protestors wielding homemade shields spray-painted with anarchist slogans and fashioned out of plastic trashcans and corrugated metal-and-plywood pallets dug in directly in front of the police, as if re-enacting a scene from an "urban warfare" video game. The helmeted officers gripped their batons with both hands, in preparation of possible deployment. Just behind the skirmish line, OPD officers wielded shotguns armed with non-lethal rounds. Neither side flinched, nor charged. A police spokesperson with a PA system informed protestors that they had the right to peaceful assembly, but that engaging in violence or vandalism would result in “immediate arrest.”
Protestors were asked to leave the area and return to the plaza. However, the instructions couldn’t be heard clearly over the sound of house music being played nearby on a portable sound system. Eventually, the police moved their PA system closer and the crowd dispersed.
Overall, it was clearly a better showing for Oakland’s much-maligned police department. Every single OPD officer appeared to have badge/and or helmet numbers clearly visible. Dispersal orders were clearly given and exit routes were announced. Flash-bangs and tear gas didn’t appear to be used indiscriminately against large crowds. Police were able to successfully target and isolate individual troublemakers.
Yet as one media observer remarked, it was hard to proffer kudos without asking the obvious question: Why couldn’t OPD have done what they did Tuesday - efficiently make arrests throughout the day and disperse crowds without herding people and making mass arrests of peaceful protestors - before?
When asked directly, Bolton refused to comment on whether OPD’s improved performance was the direct result of a federal monitor’s report which was highly critical of OPD’s handling of Occupy protests or new training in crowd control policies Police Chief Howard Jordan said officers received.