Yesterday may have been the most violent in the six week history of the Occupy Wall Street movement as police and protesters repeatedly clashed in Oakland, California with cops using gas, flashbangs and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. The Observer was on hand to taste the tear gas.
Our evening began with frantic emails from our editor about Tweets describing concussion grenades and thousands of people in the streets at Occupy Oakland. We rushed through our dim sum, deputized our dinner companion to assist us on the mission and headed out.
As we arrived on the edge of downtown Oakland, we saw a helicopter circling above City Hall shining a searchlight onto the street below. There was no other sign of the trouble at Occupy Oakland. We pulled into a gas station to stock up on coffee and ask if we could use their parking lot. Outside, the security guard asked us how long we’d be gone.
“You don’t want to get your car broken into. This is Oakland,” he said.
Oakland currently has the highest violent crime rate in California and the city has a troubled relationship with its police force. Less than a year after she took office, Mayor Jean Quan is already being criticized for her approach to the city’s crime woes. Police Chief Anthony Batts resigned earlier this month and blamed his departure on local “bureaucracy.” Just two years ago, citizens rioted in anger for months following the shooting of Oscar Grant by a police officer for the public transit system.
Occupy Oakland began against this charged backdrop October 11. Inspired by the protests in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, roughly a 3,000 mile drive away, demonstrators camped in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, adjacent to Oakland’s City Hall. Occupy Oakland grew to include approximately 300 residents.
Oakland police evicted the protesters from Ogawa Plaza in a pre-dawn raid Tuesday that included 200 officers in riot gear armed with batons and shotguns who left ripped tents and signs strewn across the park. About 500 protesters reconvened at about 4 p.m. and staged a march on the Plaza sparking a violent seven hour showdown with the police.
We arrived at the center of the protests on the corner of 14th and Broadway at about 9 p.m. A group of at least 200 protesters faced off with a line of police officers behind a metal barricade blocking the entrance to Ogawa Plaza. There were about 100 cops clad in riot gear and plastic padding and carrying large batons. The vast majority of protesters seemed to be in their 20’s, but they came in all colors. Many wore masks or other equipment to shield their faces from gas.
At the front line near the barricade we met a young woman who said her name was Lauren Sarid. Ms. Sarid had a pair of goggles perched on her forehead. She said she was an accountant who joined the protest after seeing a General Assembly meeting, which she called “the most amazing show of direct democracy I’ve ever seen.” Ms. Sarid told us the police had already gassed the protesters and one man had been injured when a canister struck him in the head.
“Whenever they decide to use tear gas, they get on some PA system, but we can’t hear them,” Ms. Sarid said.
Anger at the police radiated throughout the crowd. One young man who had his face covered by a bandana carried a cardboard sign that said, “OPD Can Suck a Bag of Dicks.” He told the Observer, “I don’t really talk to reporters,” but he gladly posed for a picture. Other protesters on the front lines screamed at officers behind the barricade.
“Indict Bush and Cheney, what are you fucking with us for,” shouted a middle aged man.
“We’re fucking kids!” a young girl with scraggly blonde hair proclaimed.
We attempted to speak to several of the officers, but they didn’t respond. Tension between the two groups mounted.
Shortly before 9:30 p.m. an announcement crackled on a speaker from behind the barricade and we heard several loud bangs.
“We find this to be an unlawful assembly.”
Acrid greenish smoke filled the air as tear gas spread amid the rapidly scattering crowd. We ran backwards down Broadway to film the cloud spreading out among the protesters. It was eerily quiet except for the sound of the gas canisters hitting the pavement and the occasional flashbang grenade that turned the smoke bright white and made a huge noise as it burst.
Tear gas doesn’t hit you immediately, but when it does you are completely overwhelmed. Our eyes seared and our throat choked on the acidic, vinegar smelling smoke. We felt the burn spread through our sinuses and, for a brief moment our chest tightened. We staggered away from the fumes wondering if we just might collapse. As the smoke thinned, we joined dazed and stumbling protesters about two blocks South of the police barricade. People coughed, cried and poured water on each other’s wounds.
After we recovered from the gas, we walked back to 14th and Broadway where protesters were already beginning to return. About a half hour later, a group of about 100 protesters marched back to the barricade.
Two young men held a pair of signs on the front line with the help of a woman standing in the middle. One sign said, “Oakland Teachers Say No Police Violence.” The other said, “Oakland Commune,” with smaller letters on the bottom showing the protester’s preferred name for Ogawa Plaza, “Oscar Grant Plaza.”
“We are the people, all of us! Fucking cops are fucking traitors!” the woman shouted.
The man holding the “police violence” sign waved his cell phone at the cops.
“You want to talk to my mom? She’d be disappointed in all of you,” he said.
A few minutes later, the Observer overheard him talking to his aforementioned mother.
“I call it the front line, we’re just kind of chilling,” he said.
We spoke to the man holding half of the “Oakland Commune” sign. He wore dark framed glasses and said he was a 24-year-old “digital artist” named Joaquin Jutt.
“I started on the corner nervous, but once they dropped the first canister, I saw someone dropped this sign and I picked it up,” Mr. Jutt said.
Mr. Jutt said he’d been there ever since and had been gassed twice. He described the experience as “terrible.”
“But it does feel good to know that I’ve been gassed, to know I’ve been a part of this,” Mr. Jutt added.
As walked around the area, we saw more tear gas canisters and flashes along another area of the barricades. Protesters washed their flaming eyes in the bathroom of a bar that remained open a sidestreets. A masked bouncer kept the door shut in between arrivals.
We spotted a spent gas canister and grenade laying in the curb. A man stood nearby the charred metal. We weren’t sure if touching it would further irritate our still burning skin.
“Those are mine, I’m just letting them cool off,” the man said as we poked at the canister.
We snapped a picture and went back to the front line.
“Everybody’s taking them, you’ve got to act fast,” the man said smiling at his conquest.
At 11 p.m. we returned to our car to recharge our phone and call into the nightly “ABC News 10″ broadcast in Sacramento that reached out to us after seeing our Tweets from the protest.
“Police are telling us that they are firing the bean bags, and the flashbangs and the tear gas in response to rocks and bottles being tossed by demonstrators. Is that what you’re seeing as well? What are you seeing the demonstrators doing?” the anchor asked.
We explained that we saw “one botlle that was thrown by a protester” that fell short of the police line and nearly shattered on the Observer.
While we were on the phone with “News 10,” we heard flashbangs exploding at City Hall about a quarter mile away.
When we returned to the front line, the protests had dwindled down to a small group of about 30-40 people scattered throughout the intersection of 14th and Broadway. Protesters recited the Fourteenth Amendment. They continued to shout at the police.
“You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit!” went one chant.
A trio of women did an impromptu version of the “Electric Slide” that lasted several minutes.
At about half past midnight, we went off in search of a bathroom. About three blocks from the protests, we were approached by a smiling man who asked if we were “coming from the club.” We were initially wary, but we saw he was carrying three cameras and assumed he was a photographer cracking wise about covering the event. Further down the block, we saw police officers pull up to a store with a broken window and clanging alarm. It was a camera store.
An officer shined a flashlight at the broken glass.
“Ghetto diamonds,” he told us gesturing toward the shards.
“Look how they sparkle,” he said.
Back on the front line, tension mounted any time the police switched out their units by marching in lockstep. The crowd mocked the loud clomping sound of the police by singing Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” from “Star Wars.” Along with the songs, each police maneuver brought fresh speculation about more gas.
We stayed until about two in the morning waiting to see how the story would end. When we left, the protest had dwindled down to a group of about 20 people who stood in front of a line of approximately 75 police. There was no sign that the story of Occupy Oakland or the repeated skirmishes between police and protesters would come to an end any time soon.
With reporting by Danny Bloomfield.