At a long forgotten antiwar demonstration around 20 odd years ago, I stood tense as the atmosphere grew dank from humidity and angst. We were gathered in front of the federal building on Golden Gate Ave. in San Francisco. We wanted to take the steps, but a police line blocked it off. They were in riot gear, shields and all, and the healthy size crowd stood and shouted at them. It was night time. There were no cameras, no smart phones, no Twitter, no Facebook. The crowd was tense and anything could happen. Suddenly, a couple of folks started throwing things at the officers. My heart jumped. I had never been beaten at a demonstration by the police, and I didn’t want to have that track record ruined. How would they react? They didn’t. They held the line in front of the federal building. There was no teargas. There were no rubber bullets or flash-bang bombs. Eventually, the standoff ended and we marched elsewhere. I remember thinking to myself how grateful I was at the professionalism of the police that night. They didn’t overreact. They held firm, we moved on, end of story.
How I wish that had happened Tuesday night here in Oakland. What a bleeping mess.
I was not at the demo last night, but have been horrified by the videos and pictures airing all over the media. Teargas. Rubber bullets. Bean bags. Flash-bang bombs. The lot. Officers from over a dozen police departments, including some from as far away as the Central Valley, descended on Oakland to quell the demonstration and restore “order.” Both Oakland Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan have praised the response. Are they mad?
The most egregious incident is that of Iraq War vet Scott Olsen, who was hit in the head by a blunt object — eye witnesses say a canister of some sort — and is in critical condition in hospital with a skull fracture and swelling of the brain. The Guardian reports that he was taken to hospital by friends. It should also be noted, as seen in this widely aired video, that Mr. Olsen’s friends were trying to assist him as he lay motionless on the ground, only to have an officer throw another exploding canister at them to disperse them.
This incident alone is riddled with wrong, but a couple of points stand out. First, no officer intervened when they saw a man lying on the ground motionless and bleeding. No ambulance or emergency personnel came to Mr. Olsen’s aid. Who knows how long that young man would have been left there had it not been for the good samaritans who came to his aid. Second, there was no justification beyond naked malice to fire a second canister of teargas at the crowd trying help Mr. Olsen. Acting Chief Jordan justifies the overall police action Tuesday night because the police were
“assaulted with bottles and rocks and had hazardous materials thrown at them.”
But look at the clip. Folks were concerned with Mr. Olsen, not the police. Yet they were met by another violent canister exploding in their midst and right next to a man already down and bleeding. Therefore Acting Chief Jordan’s statement is not in keeping with the facts. Canisters, it would seem, were fired irrespective of concerns for police safety. The clip demonstrates that weapons were fired at the caprice of the officers on the front line.
In a year where Oakland is suffering another rash of murders — where last summer a three year-old toddler was killed by a stray bullet — we have multiple police forces coming to Oakland not to help quell the murder rate, as has happened in the past, but to quell and bully peaceful protesters. That’s obscene, and very bizarre coming from a mayor who has pledged to make Oakland safer.
Keith Olbermann made a brief special comment on Countdown which focussed on the police violence and Mayor Quan’s reaction to it. His basic message was simple: repent or resign. She has much to answer for. Last year, as Mr. Olbermann pointed out, then-Councilmember Quan helped to keep a situation from getting out of hand between protesters and police at a rally protesting the verdict in the Oscar Grant murder case. She received much heat from the police for her actions and they even started an investigation on her. Given that background, it is hard to fathom that she would defend the overreaction that took place. She was out of town when the crackdown happened and rushed back to town when it became clear that a situation was brewing. One wonders, though, if she saw any of the footage before making press statements. She fumbled, in a rather obvious way, and may indeed lose her job behind it. Even before this action, some folks have started a recall effort against the mayor.
The police can do better. They can follow the example of the officers from 20 years ago who kept their cool, who were protected by their gear and did not overreact. We do not need police to go crazy on folks demonstrating. As the President is fond of saying, this is not who we are.
As I write this, I understand that there is another demonstration taking place. Early reports indicate that the police are keeping their distance. Good.
© 2011, gar. All rights reserved.