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A Witness To The Violence In Oakland

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The function of a civil resistance is to provoke response
and we will continue to provoke until they respond or
change the law. They are not in control; we are.

-- Gandhi

If Gandhi was right, yesterday's Civil Resistance Action in Oakland, California, achieved all of its aims. By day's end a heavily-armed, fully-militarized police force was in control of Frank Ogawa Plaza, but Occupy Oakland was in control of the agenda.

Two major confrontations occurred between police and protesters in Oakland, both marked by non-violent restraint on the part of the protesters and a lack of restraint -- each time leading to violence -- by the police.

The day began with a fully-coordinated assault by riot police on Occupy Oakland's encampment in Frank Ogawa Plaza. The police have charged one protester with resisting arrest. What is not in dispute is that they used tear gas, beanbag shotgun rounds and rubber bullets. In all, 95 protesters were arrested, mostly charged with unlawful camping violations.

The second confrontation began with a rally at the Oakland Public Library. Occupy Oakland organizers obtained permission from the Oakland Library to meet there to discuss their options. The meeting was announced on the OccupyOakland website with a 4 pm start. By 4 pm, the area in front of the Library was packed with over 2,000 resisters determined to make a stand or, more precisely, undertake a march against the razing of the encampment that morning, and to reclaim it. The mood was passionate and upbeat, but there was a clear understanding that between the Library and the Plaza the marchers would be confronted by police ... in riot gear, of course. Many, many of them.

As the march began I remained out in front of the crowd with about two dozen other independent cameramen and women. We tried to stay in position to film any potential confrontation between the police, who were everywhere, and the protesters who were on the march. The refrain of "Keep it non-violent!" was heard as often as "Our streets!"

Perhaps not surprisingly, media reports have chronically underestimated the size of the crowd.

Within three blocks, the crowd had swelled to 2,500 strong and was growing as it ran into its first police blockade. It turned to avoid a confrontation -- a process that would be repeated again and again as the police forced the march off course both south and east of Ogawa Plaza. Not that it would have mattered because the Plaza itself was guarded by over 100 police in full riot gear. No unarmed, non-violent protester had any chance of making it into that Plaza. Period.

For a time the marchers and the police continued to play out the drama in a fairly predictable manner. Time and again, it was the police escalating the situation. They began to basically break up the march. They relied on two main tactics: first, sever the march by blocking it off into sections; second, cut it into pieces by inserting lines of riot gear-clad officers into the column of marchers. That had the effect of chopping the march into sections. The other tactic was direct confrontation. Park a line of police in front of the march and say, "You'll have to march through this if you want to keep going." That worked for a while, but then the marchers decided that they were not going to take it anymore.

Armed only with a growing chant of "Our streets!" the marchers moved forward towards the line of police in riot gear. Shoulder to shoulder in non-violent defiance, the marchers tried to filter through the line of riot-armored police. The police attacked the marchers with their truncheons, mostly spearing at protesters' midsections. It did not work.

The marchers took the blows, overwhelmed the police and kept on marching. The police, however, were not to be outdone and singled out one of the marchers for arrest, quickly throwing him to the ground and forming a circle around the conspicuous incident in the middle of the march. A melee ensued. The demonstrators encircled the police, shouting "Shame!" and "Let him go!" Again the police attacked with truncheons and the demonstrators pushed back with their hands. The crowd began to pelt the police with water bottles and paint ... red and blue paint.

By this point the march had been repeatedly interrupted and was splintering. The police again blocked the path of the section of the march I was in, which was now moving towards the police station. This time they used more officers. The marchers halted and a standoff followed. An announcement was made on a megaphone, "This is an unlawful assembly! Disperse now or you will be arrested!" I began to work my way out of what was quickly becoming a kettle. I made it out, but another young woman did not. A riot-clad police officer stopped her and ordered her back into the crowd. So, clearly the crowd was told to disperse, but not allowed to do so. I maneuvered free and moved carefully around and back towards Ogawa Plaza. There I would find a "public plaza" under military siege. Entry would have been impossible. My cellphone and camera batteries were running low and so was I. I made the decision to pull out with the film I had.

Whatever meaning the Occupy Movement represents to the protesters who participate, to the Oakland Police Department, and the system they are paid to protect, it obviously represents something to be feared and repressed ... violently, and even lethally, if necessary. The police that confronted the people in the streets of Oakland, California, were scared, their riot gear notwithstanding. Make no mistake about it. More importantly their corporate employers are scared, too.

Several Northern California police departments were pulled in to support the siege in Oakland. It was more than the Oakland Police Department itself could handle. The alternative to all of this insanity was to let the kids camp out in the park. That was apparently a greater threat than turning downtown Oakland into war zone.

Yesterday the police, the city fathers and the commercial media saw Oakland and made their decisions based on that. But they did not see the movement within its "world-wide" context. This is big ... very big, and spreading rapidly across the United States and around the world. And there is no indication that police violence can stop it.

Cross-posted from Reader Supported News


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Marc Ash is the founder and former Executive Director of Truthout, now the founder, editor and publisher of Reader Supported News:

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