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Tear Gas | Occupied Stories

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Black Bloc in Oakland

Oakland, CA – Rhetoric from some veteran journalists, especially liberal progressives and mainstream TV insist the current tactics of Occupy is alienating the very segment of the population it is trying to reach because of confrontations between protesters and police– presumably egged on by seemingly random acts of violence by black clad protesters identified by the media as either anarchists or the Black Bloc.

I, like Chris Hedges, to name one of the liberal progressives I am referring to, and numerous members of the media that I’ve met at recent events in Oakland and San Francisco am white, greying and not dressed in black.  I, like Chris Hedges, am deeply uncomfortable with violence as a protest tactic BUT unlike Chris Hedges, I am deeply sympathetic to those who feel their voices are not being heard and have never been heard and whose daily lives are impacted by an indifferent if not outright violent “peacekeeping force” we call the police.

I arrived about noon on May 1 to Oakland’s now infamous Oscar Grant Plaza to participate in the May 1st International Workers Day events.  The streets around the plaza were cleared of traffic by the police until sometime around 2:30 pm when suddenly traffic was flowing through the streets demonstrators had been parading around for the duration of my time there. Instead of a few motorcycle police redirecting traffic about two or three blocks away from the square, there were now police two rows deep announcing all demonstrators had to get off the streets and stay on the sidewalks.  A news van peeled out.  Brave demonstrators faced the police line, tear gas canisters popped off, sirens could be heard and within minutes police were 6 deep all around the square.  The air had become sharp from tear gas and the heightened sense of danger.  Young men, in black from head to toe, calmly relayed the police dispersal order to those of us on the fringe and took extra time with parents who had kids in tow. I, along with others, headed for the 12th Street BART station.  The gates were closed.  It seemed there was no in or out. I walked in another direction even after organizers had earlier told us it was safer to stick together and because I was white and an obviously healthy woman, the police smiled, wished me a pleasant afternoon while giving me directions to the nearest open BART station just a few blocks away.  One officer even moved the barricade aside so I could freely pass through.

I am not an experienced activist, I don’t want to get hurt and getting arrested is not a badge of honor for me.   I know the fear of getting hurt is the reason put forth by many of my friends who stay away from the Occupy movement though I think their deeper reason is that they are comfortable so why fuss.  But I, unlike many of my friends and maybe the seasoned mainstream liberal progressives like Chris Hedges who feel they have earned their stripes to say whatever they please about the Occupy movement’s “lack of focus” while blind to the awful reality of the oppressed in America and simultaneously glorifying the oppressed rising up in third world countries, feel heartache when I see police brutality enacted against our young people, against people of color, against those who were not born of privilege and against those who are sick– all of whom have been abandoned by those currently holding power in this country. I am sickened by the idea that this is the richest
country on earth and that our majority citizens feel no moral imperative to feed, house or provide decent heath care for all our people.  I fear what the world and what this country will be like in another 30 years when my children will, most likely, be raising children of their own.  I weep when I see what the establishment does to people exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.  Occupy started out as a protest movement against Wall Street greed and because of oppression against the movement in the name of protecting property over people, it has had to also become a protest movement against the system that uses violence against those who speak out against the numerous injustices suffered by the 99%.

I direct my comments specifically to Chris Hedges because he wrote a piece denigrating the Black Bloc group who then attempted to enlighten Mr. Hedges of their deepest motivations to care for and protect themselves and their fellow protesters from the excessive violent tactics of the police.  Some months later I heard Mr. Hedges speak at a conference in Washington wherein he repeated his deep dislike of the Black Bloc and anyone who resorted to violence during Occupy protests as if he had never read the comments from Black Bloc members or demonstrators who had been helped by Black Bloc members.  Mr. Hedges may not condone violence as a tactic of social change but he does not have to live as far too many others do– facing a bleak future if facing any future at all.  What’s perhaps worse is that he fails to share with his readers that not every non-violent social movement succeeds – assuming there has ever been a flawlessly non-violent social movement.   If Chris Hedges were directing his organizing efforts for the benefit of communities like Newark, New Jersey or Baltimore or  SouthCentral LA rather than Manhattan perhaps his views of the “proper” conduct of protesters would be transformed by a greater understanding of the terribly harsh realities many face in today’s “Gilded Age”.

I do not condone violence, ever, even though I fail daily in my efforts to purge violence from my thoughts and deeds.  But America does condone violence.  Every day America enacts war in our streets, at our borders and around the globe.  Violence is a language America understands.  If our poor, our tired, our scared, and our sick are not being heard, then maybe the only alternative is to use the language power understands so intimately well.  Chris Hedges has no formula to guarantee the success of this or any other political or social movement.  None of us do but by participating we will move forward.


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“It Felt Like a War-Zone:” Police Violence in Oakland

OAKLAND, CA – I think my arm may be broken. It hurts as I type this. I just got home from the Oakland protests tonight, Oct. 25 2011. They started at about 4 p.m. in front of the Oakland Main Library. The rally was a response to the brutal raid early this a.m. at Frank Ogawa Plaza, dubbed “Oscar Grant Plaza” (an innocent young man brutally shot by an OPD officer in the back while he was handcuffed face-down) by Occupy Oakland. Police from agencies all over Alameda Contra-Costa counties, 18 in total, formed an envoy and descended upon the camp with armored vehicles, tear gas, rubber bullets and batons, forcibly arresting sleeping protesters, nearly 100 people, and destroying the encampment. I chatted with one camper earlier who was punched in the face by a cop while she tried to pull her friend out of the raid.

The rally gathered about 400 people, departing at about 5 p.m. and wove through downtown Oakland heading for the Alameda County Courthouse to show solidarity with those incarcerated from the raid. Police in riot gear were stationed in front, and about a block away as we approached a group of 10 or so riot police (previously forming a line across the street, but quickly overwhelmed by the mass) tore through the crowd, flailing batons, and tackled two protesters. The crowd surrounded the officers, who had formed a circle around the arrestees, chanting angrily. There was a stalemate that lasted about 15 minutes, while people threw what looked like colorful paint balls at the cops and some beverages in plastic cups, yelling “LET THEM GO! LET THEM GO!” I watched an officer radio for backup, and a few minutes later, more cops descended upon the group and teargas canisters were discharged. The crowd scattered. I started to run, and saw a couple up against a storefront, banging on the doors while a canister belched gas beside them. The owner opened the door and I ran in with them, and he locked it behind us. They were both in shock, and the girl was clearly having a panic attack. I told her to relax, and had her sit down. Our eyes were watering, the guy said his lungs were burning and he couldn’t breathe. I calmly told them they would be fine (though my adrenaline was pumping), the girl asked anxiously for water and I gave them my canteen. I asked what happened, or something to that effect, and the girl said, “They fired the teargas right AT us!!” The owners had brought some more water, and we thanked them profusely for providing a safe haven. We walked back to the windows and looked out, taking video on our phones. “This is a fucking police state,” was all I could mutter. I told them I had to get back out there, the crowd had cleared a bit and I wanted to be with the main group. The couple thanked me and I told them to stay safe.

The riot cops had started to vacate, apparently the group had c ircled the block and was coming back around, heading east towards Broadway. I reconvened with them, and we made our way down Broadway towards 14th and the plaza. The plaza was still cordoned off and a line of riot cops blocked all of 14th and the entrance to the park behind a barricade, as well as all other approaches to the plaza. As the group started to occupy the intersection, protesters removed the metal barricades between the crowd and line as more officers from the AC sheriff’s department jogged up behind them in full riot garb–including plastic shields and gas masks. Sergeant Banks of the OPD was giving warnings over a loudspeaker, declaring the group was an unlawful assembly, in violation of CA penal code 409, and if it did not disperse in 5 minutes that “chemical agents” and “force” would be used and injury would be possible. The crowd shouted back, chanting various memes, one of which stuck with me “WHO ARE YOU PROTECTING?” The marchers decided to head down Broadway, just as some of us began to sit down in the intersection. The group made its way, directed by none other than Boots Riley of The Coup, down to the intersection of 20th and Harrison amidst a cluster of Mega-Banks. We stayed for 10 minutes before heading 2 blocks east to Snow Park, site of the satellite Occupy camp that was also raided earlier today. Upon seeing how dark the park was, people amassed in the adjacent street underneath lamps for an impromptu General Assembly. After some group negotiations and a whole lot of cheering, it was decided to head back towards the plaza to reclaim it for the people.

Police and news helicopters were constantly circling, with spotlights periodically highlighting the crowd. At this point, the march had grown to over 1,000 strong. We took back up 20th to Broadway, where we made a left and headed back towards Grant Plaza. People were joining left and right, and the crowd had swelled considerably from the modest group gathered in front of the Library earlier. Back at the intersection of 14th/Broadway, Sgt. Banks repeated the same warnings from earlier. No time limit was given. At about 7:45 p.m., flash grenades and teargas canisters were launched into the intersection with a thunderous announcement. The group scattered and started running, and I had brief pangs about a stampede but no one seemed to be getting trampled. Explosions were going off all around us, and it felt like a war-zone. I looked back and pushed people ahead of me, spotting a disabled woman in a wheelchair still in front of the barricade and riot line. A man was behind her trying to push the heavy motorized chair away, and I started back to help him. Gas burned my eyes and lungs as explosions continued to go off around me. I felt a sharp pain on my arm and it took me a few seconds to realize I’d been hit by a projectile. The pain was excruciating and my entire right forearm went numb. I spun around and sprinted away as bullets hit me in my backpack and left heel. It all happened so quickly that none of it had yet registered. As I ran down the street cursing, I looked down and realized I was bleeding. There was a large, round welt on my arm and blood was dripping down my hand. I took my hankerchief and wrapped it around, jogging down 14th towards the marchers.

Though I was a couple blocks away now, the teargas effects somehow got worse, my eyes were watering and I couldn’t keep them open. I sat on a curb briefly, shaking from the intense pain and adrenaline, realizing that I needed to locate a medic. At that point I continued down 14th to Alice, where a group had stopped and someone was talking over a loudspeaker. “Has anyone seen a medic?!” I yelled. “Yes! Right here.” The woman beside me happened to be one. That was easy, I thought. She led me over to the sidewalk where two other gas-masked medics, who’d been present the entire march, assisted in cleaning and dressing my wound. I asked one of them if the bullets could break bones, as I was concerned that I’d suffered a fracture. They said yes, but I was able to move my arm and wrist so it probably wasn’t broken. A small group had gathered and 6 or 8 people were taking photos of my wound. I got up and thanked the brave medics, and we continued following the march. It looked as though they were circling and heading back for downtown. I was at the back, and a few people had stopped after seeing a line of cops one block down to the left. It seemed like they were going to box the crowd in and try to break it with force. We tried calling the group back, but it was too late. Some were in communication with others at the front, and our small group doubled back to circle around and meet up with the march again. I started chatting with a young woman that had just gotten there, and as we approached 14th I decided that I’d had enough excitement for one day. Call me a wussy, but I was not about to charge back into the lion’s den at that point. I walked back to the Library where my bike was locked, and slowly rode home like a defeated sportsman.

My arm is still aching, I can’t move it without pain, and a huge bruise had popped up when I checked it at home to take more pictures. Tomorrow I might get an x-ray, if I can afford it. The last one I got was $800. The helicopters seemed to have stopped circling for now, though I still hear one buzzing about. It’s almost 11 o’clock. I guess tomorrow’s another day.

10/26: I went to work for a couple hours, but my limited dexterity made it difficult. I couldn’t grip or use my wrist without a lot of pain. I went home with intentions of going to the hospital. Lacking medical insurance, I really couldn’t afford to pay for a visit (nor did I feel I should be financially responsible). It wasn’t easy to decide, but after removing the bandages and seeing how swollen my arm was (almost doubled), plus the pain when trying to move my arm muscles, I was convinced that it was the best idea. I went to Highland Hospital, an Alameda County-run community hospital. It was about 2 p.m. and the wait wasn’t too long. A doctor saw me, had me grip her hand and do some exercises and told me it didn’t appear to be broken. She sent me in for the x-ray to be sure. Apparently, the projectile had struck a large nerve, literally, that runs from your shoulder all the way to your thumb. This explained the debilitating pain and numbness I experienced . She explained that the swelling was still pressing on the nerve, which is why it was still numb around the wound. I didn’t find out about Scott Olsen until later, which made my meager flesh wound seem insignificant at best. Looking at footage of the scene, I realized that I was about twenty feet from him when he was hit. I’ve had a hard time reconciling my fortunate fate, and felt very lucky to say the least. The x-ray came back with no fracture. The doctor told me to take some ibuprofen, and I was on my way.

I went home for a bit, then headed back to the plaza around 6, unsure of what scenario I would find there. Traffic was normal as I approached on my bike, a good sign. There were scattered folks around the entrance, the ubiquitous news vans, and a chain-link fence around the grass that people were starting to pull down. Everything had been removed, and the plaza had been power-washed. There were no police anywhere, and combined with the quiet platitude of the plaza, it made for an eerie atmosphere. I kept looking nervously down the streets, expecting a line of riot cops to come marching down, but nothing of the sort happened. Still, I kept my bike helmet on and a scarf wrapped around my face. I made my way over to the rotunda, and couldn’t believe what I saw.

The amphitheater was packed with people. There was hardly any room to move. I stood on top of a wall by the ramp, and watched speakers as they recounted the horrors of the previous night, spoke about injustice, and gave riveting speeches to a very receptive crowd. Families were there, all kinds of folks from young to old, incensed by the violence they either experienced or saw video of. Some estimated the crowd to be about 3,000 in total. It was a deeply moving scene. Suddenly, people wanted to be involved. Sad though it was that it took a capitulating event of brutality to motivate this level of support, it was an amazingly heartwarming sight to see. Perhaps what happened was a blessing. A proposal for a General Strike on Nov. 2 was brought forth and announced. We broke into groups of 20 to discuss. It was so crowded, you couldn’t move. Between the shock of being in such a markedly different, emotional situation, and lack of sleep, I couldn’t contribute much to the discussion. But I did listen. There were a lot of new faces and a lot of new ideas, and it was beautiful. The proposal ended up passing with an overwhelming majority, by many people who were there for the first time.


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