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When I turned my attention back to the 14th Street intersection—it seemed like only an instant since I'd been watching people shout at the police at Ogawa Plaza—I saw that the crowd uptown had suddenly scattered, and there was a lot of smoke or gas in the air. I also heard what sounded like muffled or distant explosions. Many people were now moving toward me, some wearing scarves or mufflers, others wiping their eyes or noses from what turned out to be tear gas. I moved back 50 feet or so. One guy passing me on the way downtown warned about tear gas. I spotted New York Times reporter Malia Wollan talking into her mobile—as she walked past I heard her describing the apparent effects of the gas on individuals exposed to it. Her account is available here.
Of the people headed toward me, I first thought a disproportionate number were bicyclists—only a few minutes later did I realize, embarrassingly, that there were other reasons for wearing a bicycle helmet that night. The tension in the crowd was palpably building so I decided it was time to head home. Keeping my distance turned out to have been wise, because this is what I missed getting caught up in:
I was also standing 50-100 feet south from where a police officer appears to have thrown a flash grenade into a crowd of people gathered to help 24-year-old Scott Olsen, who suffered massive head injuries after allegedly being struck by a tear gas canister.
I confess that it breaks my heart to watch this clip. If I had seen someone collapsed in the street, I'd have tried to help that person too. These people were apparently punished for their impulse to help.
Early Evening, October 26
I learned that another gathering of protestors was planned for Ogawa Plaza at 6 P.M. so I headed out again.
The gathering was huge, energized, massively covered by media, and completely anticlimactic. The plaza had been "reoccupied" all right, though it was filled with as many onlookers as protestors. The helicopters overhead were still drowning out much of what the speakers had to say, and unlike the Occupy Wall Street protestors, the folks in Oakland were using electronic amplification.
What I did hear was not particularly inspiring. One guy earnestly argued for "not free trade, but fair trade," though the previous days’ events had nothing to do with NAFTA or the WTO. The protestors' General Assembly, which had to move to a small amphitheater nearby, picked a few speakers to give one-minute statements about what they'd seen so far. The personal accounts of people being physically assaulted and jailed and their (mostly meager) property destroyed were the most moving.
The dominant emotion, however, was a sense of outrage about the actions of the police. This made the continuing statements in support of nonviolence ring a little hollow, but the overall sense of defiance and solidarity was oddly comforting.
I don’t know how to interpret everything I saw, and I can’t state with any authority what Occupy Oakland or any of the other protests ultimately mean. But I do know this: The millions of dollars California just spent on this crackdown did nothing to dispel or discourage the protestors. In fact, the police intervention has echoed around the world. Occupy Wall Street committed to sending $20,000 to Occupy Oakland and protestors as far away as Tahrir Square in Egypt have expressed their solidarity with the Oakland protestors.
History tends to happen when you least expect it, and my new neighbors have taken their first steps into its pages.
Mike Godwin is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.