Nearly 400 protesters were arrested last Saturday when an Occupy Oakland rally turned violent. Oakland has recently become a central location for the Occupy movements’ campaign against economic inequality that began last year in New York City and has since spread to dozens of major cities. The march was initially planned as a peaceful takeover of a vacant building for use as a new social center and base for the Occupy movement. However, the environment became hostile and tensions escalated, resulting in at least four considerable injuries. Protesters reportedly threw objects at police, including rocks, glass bottles, and improvised explosive devices before breaking into a local YMCA and the Oakland City Hall. Once inside, 50 protesters smashed glass cases, overturned a historical model of Oakland, and burned a California state and American flag. Police responded with tear gas and flash grenades, eventually arresting over 400 protesters as the demonstration dispersed.
Contradictory statements from Oakland officials and Occupy Oakland leaders reveal both the significance and uncertainty of the affair. Oakland Chief of Police Chief Jordan stated:“It became clear that the objective of this crowd was not to peacefully assemble and march, but to seek opportunity to further criminal acts, confront police, and repeatedly attempt to illegally occupy buildings.” Oakland Mayor Jean Quan similarly condemned the demonstrations, claiming that acts of vandalism have accounted for $2 million in damages, while the presence of demonstrators, in general, has cost the city a total of $5 million. She said: “Once again, a violent splinter group of the Occupy Movement is engaging in violent actions against Oakland. The Bay Area Occupy Movement has got to stop using Oakland as their playground.”
Occupy Oakland’s Media Committee has issued a response saying officers did not give demonstrators enough time before making mass arrests. In addition, the Committee has accused the Oakland police force of using extreme and unjustified violence against protesters. In a news release, the Committee asserted: “These arrests are completely illegal, and this will probably result in another class action lawsuit against the OPD, who have already cost Oakland $58 million in lawsuits over the past 10 years.” Concerning the original goal of Saturday’s events, Occupy Oakland Spokesman Leo Ritz-Bar said of the occupation of the Henry Kaiser Convention Center that it would signal “a new direction for the Occupy movement: putting vacant buildings at the service of the community.” The movement had previously warned of their plans, issuing an open letter to Quan on Wednesday in which they threatened “indefinite occupation” of Oakland’s airport, port, and city hall should police attempt to thwart these buildings’ seizure.
Saturday’s events warn of the potential dangers of large-scale protests such as the Occupy movements across the U.S.. Despite the widespread peaceful nature and admirable initial goals of the organization, small “splinter groups” can endanger the entire system by resorting to anarchic and riotous tactics rather than remaining nonviolent. The right to free speech and organization hold valid only until methods degenerate into aggression. The actions of this small group in Oakland cause the entire movement to lose face internationally, and members of the Occupy movement agree.
Astoria Haiku of Astoria, NY wrote in reference to the events: “Oakland? That’s not a movement. Violence, setting fires, vandalizing public buildings, that’s not what #OWS is supposed to be about.”
Although the events of the day are uncertain, and whether police overreacted remains to seen, such acts as invading City Hall and burning flags are intolerable. By romanticizing and justifying hostility, they can incite similar violence in other cities in the name of the Occupy movement. Following the arrests in Oakland, a similar clash occurred in Brooklyn, New York when fifty Occupy Wall Street members were thrown out of a vacant Brooklyn building where they had been allegedly throwing an ‘Occu-party.’ Four of these protesters proceeded to block traffic, throwing garbage cans at cars and attacking police officers. Six police officers were injured, including one who was pepper-sprayed.
Even in light of the importance of Constitutional rights of free speech and organization, and the successes of the Occupy Wall Street movement in bringing heightened focus to significant income disparities within the United States, the use of violence is unacceptable. Occupy’s size necessarily means it will include some extremists, whose actions border on terrorism. Actions of such extremists should not be allowed to go unpunished, but also must not damage the legitimacy of the original movement and the message it aims to extend peacefully.
– Ari Salas