Bay Area NLG pushes police to play by their own rules

By Carols Villarreal

The Bay Area’s Occupy movement began in San Francisco and gained widespread attention when the first raid cleared occupiers from in front of the Federal Reserve building in early October. The police acted violently and recklessly, but in relative terms it would not compare to the actions of the Oakland Police days later. Across the Bay, Occupy Oakland launched with an occupation in public space in front of city hall—a concrete amphitheater surrounded by a large lawn that is frequently used as a political free speech zone. The camp grew to include dozens of tents, frequent entertainment, food service, and numerous booths.

Police moved in early on October 25th violently clearing the park, arresting about 100 individuals and erecting barricades. Later that day and into the night people gathered in response. Police moved in again with tear gas and rubber bullets, firing directly at protesters and injuring many, including Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen. An additional 100-plus individuals were arrested that night.

As we saw during the crackdown on protests of the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer, Oakland police and the outside law enforcement agencies helping them violated California law. And that wasn’t all.

“The police violated just about every provision of their own Crowd Control Policy [that night],” said Bobbie Stein, a NLGSF attorney. “Tear gas canisters were shot and flash bang grenades were thrown directly at protesters. A man’s skull was fractured when he was hit by one of these objects. Demonstrators were shot with rubber bullets and shot-filled ‘bean bags.’ All of this is prohibited under the Policy that we helped write and under which all OPD officers and commanders are required to be trained.”

That policy, developed in collaboration with NLG and ACLU attorneys, was adopted by the City of Oakland as part of the federal court settlement that arose from OPD’s violent clashes with longshoremen and anti-war demonstrators at the Port of Oakland in 2003. The policy specifies how police should deal with crowds, including protocol for so-called “less lethal” weapons. Shooting tear gas directly at protesters or shooting protesters who are simply standing in the street with bean bags is never a proper use of force. Furthermore, holding people accused only of misdemeanors for a prolonged period of time is also prohibited— both by the policy and by state law. Yet Occupy protesters, some with serious injuries, were booked and held for dozens of hours in crowded cells.

The same pattern of violence and misconduct reemerged days later following an enormous march and general strike that successfully shut the Port of Oakland for most of the day. Police presence was light until late that evening when unarmed protesters were again attacked with disproportionate force, injuring many more.

In response, the NLGSF filed a suit against the Oakland police department on November 14 for its egregious constitutional violations against the demonstrators. The Bay Area chapter has also joined with allies to launch the Occupy Legal Collective, which is focusing its attention on the actions in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. Legal workers, law students, lawyers and activists have helped operate a legal hotline 24 hours a day for weeks. A team of attorneys has been coordinating defense of arrestees as well as jail visits. And hundreds of Legal Observers® have been trained in just two months.

The work of chapter members now extends to San Jose, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Sacramento and Davis (where peaceful demonstrators were pepper sprayed in a now iconic scene). As of this writing, an Occupy encampment remains in San Francisco and General Assemblies continue in most of these cities. Planned future actions include occupying foreclosed homes and buildings and a coordinated port shutdown.