I was profoundly saddened and discouraged by the events of Tuesday night at the Occupy Oakland protest. One young man critically injured, several others shot with rubber bullets, and hundreds more who didn't know why they were being tear-gassed. Our city once again in the headlines for a terrible reason. As a City leader, I am ashamed that we were not able to prevent something like this from happening. All Oakland leaders, including me, have to take responsibility for what happened.
Thousands of people across the nation are emailing the Oakland City Council, calling upon us to condemn the Police Department for what happened during the protest on Tuesday night. Though my response will anger many of you, I don't think the culpability is so simple. I think the causes of this debacle are more complex than that and I think the men and women of the Oakland Police Department deserve to have in investigation done before we lay all the blame at their door.
I am committed to a full and impartial investigation of what went wrong so that wrongdoers on either or both sides will be held accountable for their actions. As a City we need to know whether individual officers violated department policy and whether policies need to be changed. We need to know to what extent, if any, officers from other cities deviated from Oakland policy, and whether they were properly trained on how to follow Oakland crowd control policies. If they were not, our command staff needs to be held accountable for that.
The City has already initiated investigations into the incidents where people were injured by projectiles, particularly the case of Scott Olsen, who was very seriously injured. I am going to insist, as will many others, that the results of those investigations be made public and within a reasonable time. But I also will demand that there be an impartial body who investigates this, as I don't think the City will have credibility investigating itself. When all the evidence is examined, blame can be laid where blame is due.
Many of us are asking ourselves, how could something like this happen in Oakland, a city which has some of the most progressive social policies in the country? Much of it has to do with the particular make-up of political activism in the Bay Area, including the recent history of the Oscar Grant protests. The unfortunate truth in the Bay Area is that no matter how just the cause and how peaceful the majority of marchers, there will always a small group of provocateurs who show up to intentionally instigate violence. It makes the police department's job very difficult. Given that I and other Oakland elected officials are familiar with these dynamics, we should have foreseen that using a major police action to evict the campers was likely to play into the hands of those whose agenda is to provoke police into using force. We have to take responsibility for that.
If there is any silver lining to the unfortunate events of last Tuesday, it is that thousands of "regular folk"--the true 99%--have been motivated to come out to get actively involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. That is a very good thing.
The City Council is holding a special Council meeting next Thursday night, Nov. 3, at 5:30 pm, solely on the topic of what happened at the Tuesday night protest. The public is invited to come and speak. Our goal, then and continuing, is to make the changes needed so that peaceful protests don't turn into violent confrontations.
For anyone who cares to read more about my thoughts on this issue, here are further observations.
There were a series of events that I think contributed to the very regrettable occurrences of Tuesday night. I offer these observations, not as excuses for myself, the police or anyone else, but just by way of understanding how decisions by well-meaning people can end up with unintended and tragic consequences.
1. In my opinion, the City should not have allowed the tents to go up in the Plaza in the first place. The permanent encampment set up a situation where a confrontation would be almost inevitable at some point. The City Council enthusiastically supports free speech in public places, but permanently taking over a public park is not a protected form of speech, even for speech with which we agree.
2. By the second week the encampment had become a dangerous fire hazard for the people staying there, not to mention a health hazard from people defecating all over the place. The people who were residing in the encampment on Frank Ogawa Plaza refused to talk with or cooperate with City staff about how to make the encampment safe for the people staying there. The residents of the encampment included people in fringe political groups, chronically homeless people, and others who refused to take responsibility for keeping the place clean or safe. They had open flames from candles and barbeques right over the hay which covered the entire site, not to mention propane tanks in the mix. The place was a conflagration waiting to happen. There were a host of other issues, including the refusal of the campers to allow paramedics into the camp, even when campers called 911. The City Administrator very reasonably believed it was a life safety issue and decided the campers must be evicted since she couldn't get any cooperation from them.
3. Some of the media coverage and much of the internet reporting of the police evicting the campers was one-sided and inflammatory. Many reports left out the fact that the police gave the campers the opportunity to leave the camp voluntarily, which a lot of them did. The ones who resisted pelted the officers with rocks, plates and bottles, but still the eviction happened without anyone getting hurt.
4. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, the City should probably not have had such a large and visible police presence at the Tuesday night protest march. The sight of all those officers in riot gear set a confrontational tone. However, given the recent history of the Oscar Grant riots, the Police Chief had good reason to think it would be prudent to have a large force available. At the first Oscar Grant protest, the police took a more passive approach, only to have the march turn into a riot where small businesses were vandalized all over downtown. OPD took criticism for allowing that to happen, so they have staffed up for subsequent demonstrations. The unfortunate truth in the Bay Area is that no matter how just the cause and how reasonable the majority of marchers, there will always a small group of anarchist provocateurs who show up to instigate violence.
Finally, a note of hope for non-violent protest (non-violent on both sides): The two nights of Occupy protests since Tuesday have been very large and very peaceful. (There are a few trouble-makers, but the majority of people keep them in check.) The police are staying out of sight and things are going well. Lots of people on both sides are working to keep it that way.