What Happened at Occupy Oakland

An eyewitness report from Frank Ogawa Plaza


It has been a feverish, exhausting couple of days here where I live in downtown Oakland, just three blocks from the Occupy Oakland protestors. The Occupy crowd has been my neighbor for a couple of weeks now, and the protestors have been friendly, not too noisy, and generally pleasant.

So I was a bit startled to find myself woken up at 4:30 A.M. the other day by the the drone of helicopters. It turned out that Oakland police, assisted by law enforcement agencies from around the state, were clearing out the Occupy Oakland campsite on Frank Ogawa Plaza (dubbed by the protestors as "Oscar Grant Plaza" in honor of a man who was killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit police in 2009).

If you've been following the mainstream media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests, odds are that you've heard about events at Occupy Oakland. What you can't tell from the news clips is how the situation has played out for those of us who live here. I can't speak for everyone, but I do know that my reaction, both to the protestors and to the violent police interventions against them, is hardly an uncommon one.  

Pre-Dawn: October 25, 2011

I knew I had to see what was happening for myself. Since there was a chance I would be arrested, or worse, I took off my watch and emptied my wallet of most of its cash—I carried only a single ID and a credit card (the latter in case I had to make bail).

It was still dark. The thunder of the choppers was much louder outside. I walked towards the protest and saw crowds of people either standing and watching or moving away from the plaza. The people leaving the plaza were ethnically diverse, more young than not, and frequently muffled by scarves. I initially thought they were hiding their faces from photographers, though later I guessed they were hoping to use the scarves as a defense against tear gas.

It was common to see expressions of confusion or shock—although I later learned the Occupiers been warned about the possibility of a police intervention, and either they didn't have a fallback plan or their fallback plans had been thwarted. (Police apparently prevented protestors from regrouping at Harrison and 15th, just east of the plaza.)

Twelfth Street was blocked by police to anyone wanting to move further up—people were allowed to exit the police perimeter, but not to enter it. The BART subway station at 12th Street was closed and barricaded—no reinforcements could arrive, and nobody could leave by transit. I moved east on 12th and spotted a group of police officers in riot gear, moving in loose formation at about 15th and Harrison. At 17th I encountered another group, also in riot gear, walking three-by-three east. Scattered groups of onlookers at the intersections watched them move past, staying carefully out of the street and out of the way. Some were likely refugees from the plaza encampment (they had scarves on their faces)—others were neighbors, people trying to get to their early-morning jobs, or the homeless who regularly inhabit downtown Oakland.

I stayed in the vicinity of the plaza until 6:45 A.M. or so. Nothing happened except for the occasional protestor shouting or muttering at the police. Most comments were along the lines of: "Who are you protecting? Aren't you supposed to be protecting us?" I heard nothing more profane than a single protestor loudly complaining about "dumbass cops."

At that point it seemed nothing more was going to happen so I made my way downtown to prepare myself for a planned trip that day into San Francisco to work on a project. I later learned that local businesses had been told to consider advising employees not to come to work in the five-block area until later in the morning.

After Nightfall: October 25

I learned during the course of the day that the evicted protestors and others were planning to reconvene at Ogawa Plaza at 4 P.M. When it became clear from the ambient noise outside at about 9 P.M. that the gathering of protestors had not abated, I hit the streets of my neighborhood again.

There were many more police on the street than there had been in the morning. I immediately saw four motorcycle policemen, turning north on Clay Street, heading uptown. A couple of blocks further on, at the downtown Oakland Marriott, I saw a great number of motorcycle police whose insignia showed that they were from San Jose. It's a bit of a hike to get here from San Jose on a police motorcycle, but they had still come out in force to hold down the perimeter.

Heading further uptown I soon heard distant shouting and saw what I thought were faint streams of gas or smoke. BART—the Bay Area Rapid Transit—was blocked off. I saw the gate screens down and locked at the 12th Street entrances. Approaching 13th Street I saw lines of police officers in riot gear blocking the entrance to Ogawa Plaza. Further up Broadway I saw a large crowd of people, apparently centered at the 14th Street intersection.

The vibe where I was standing was tense. Occasionally an individual shouted at the arrayed police, "This is America! What are you doing here?" Or, "I can't believe you're doing this! We love you guys but what you're doing is wrong!" I didn't think it was a great idea to shout at the (silent but intent) array of police—it wasn't likely they were going to suddenly relent, and I knew they had been wearing heavy riot gear and carrying weapons (including astonishingly large batons) for six or more hours. My instinct was that it was not particularly safe to shout at tired men and women with weapons, no matter how righteous one's outrage is.

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.