Originally published on Oakland North
Relations between Occupy Oakland and Oakland officials have had a tumultuous two weeks that included a number of raids and arrests, but culminated Thursday in an unprecedented meeting between city officials and protesters.
The last two weeks got off to a sour start after a total of 40 people were arrested and a number of others cited and released after a string of incidents that have left protesters feeling that they are targets for harassment. These included campers being dislodged from a vacant West Oakland lot, protesters being evicted from a foreclosed home, and confrontations at Frank Ogawa Plaza involving a teepee at the site of an ongoing vigil.
On December 28, OPD officers disbanded a freshly constructed camp at 21st Street and Mandela Parkway at the behest of the lot’s owners, leading to one arrest and about two dozen citations for trespassing. Members of the Occupy Oakland’s Tactical Action Committee said at the time that they had believed the West Oakland lot to be city-owned, not privately owned, when choosing it as a place to camp.
Then on December 29, officers evicted occupiers and Causa Justa activists from a foreclosed home at 10th Street and Mandela Parkway, leading to a dozen arrests. The house, owned by financial company Fannie Mae, was targeted in response to that lender foreclosing an East Oakland home in May. Protesters urged the company to turn the Mandela house into low-income housing.
During a chaotic scene on December 30, officers raided Occupy Oakland’s 24-hour vigil at Frank Ogawa Plaza after occupiers failed to comply with the terms of a temporary encroachment permit, which allows large items to be placed on public walkways. That raid lest to 13 arrest.
After the permit was revoked, and protesters continued to gather at the site, police conducted another raid on January 4, resulting in 12 more arrests.
For weeks, city officials and Occupy members have had a back-and-forth over the protesters’ presence on the plaza. Following the disbanding of Occupy Oakland’s camp on November 14, city officials have actively enforced the no-camping rule and other city codes at Frank Ogawa Plaza, though anyone is allowed to be there 24 hours a day. Some Occupy members have since gathered in the plaza to host a vigil and occasionally feed the homeless, but protesters and city officials have frequently clashed over what activities are allowed there and what materials can be used.
Typically, the vigil consisted of a medium-sized tepee used to symbolically represent the occupation of the space that previously hosted Occupy Oakland’s massive camp. Nearby there were usually a few chairs and signs and a table with information. At times, food has been served there and free clothes spread out for people to take.
Under the terms of the permit issued to Becca Von Behren on November 29 and renewed multiple times since, occupiers were allowed, among other things, to have a “symbolic tepee structure” during between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., provided no one was sleeping in it and that it was taken down each night. The occupiers were not allowed to store or cook food, or to hang anything from trees.
According to an OPD press release, in mid-December city officials raised concerns that protesters were violating the permit’s limitations, including concerns that people were storing food and sleeping bags at the teepee site. The City Administrator’s Office issued a list of violations to Von Behren on December 15.
On December 30, officers told occupiers they had until 2 p.m. to clear unpermitted items from the site, including sleeping bags and supplies. When police arrived to remove items they were assaulted by occupiers, according to an OPD press release about the incident. According to the press release, officers arrested people on suspicion of a range of crimes, including battery (being spat on and punched), assault with a deadly weapon (an officer was allegedly hit with chair), urging a riot, and “attempting to free those arrested from police officers through force.” Thirteen people were arrested.
But protesters involved in the incident offered a different narrative, claiming that officers targeted people for arrest, in some cases without cause, instead of focusing on removing the disputed items. “This was one of the most efficient exercises I’ve seen by this department,” said protester Naomi Reagan. “They didn’t take any property, only people.”
The trouble started, Reagan said, when police officers attempted to tear down a banner occupiers were wrapping around a tepee and started grabbing people near it. “From there it spiraled out of control,” she said.
A number of occupiers described one incident in which a passerby driving a green minivan verbally harassed them several times during the altercation with police. At one point, the man got out of the van and physically attacked an occupier, punching him, said Khalid Shakur, one of the protesters arrested.
“[The police] escorted him back to the van,” he said. “I was arrested after yelling at them about it for obstruction.”
What was perhaps the strangest twist in the incident was that at least one protester was arrested for what is considered an archaic felony – lynching. Although the term is most associated with public hangings by vigilantes, in the California Penal Code it is defined as “the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer.”
OPD Public Information Officer Johanna Watson confirmed that at least one protester was arrested for that charge.
The 1933 California anti-lynching law, created to prevent white vigilante mobs from abducting and publicly murdering black people publicly, is now being employed against activists by officers during protests in what is becoming an increasingly common law enforcement tactic, said Marcus Kryshka, a legal observer with the National Lawyer’s Guild who assists in the occupier’s legal affairs. “I think the police like to have charges where there’s reasonable suspicion, not probable cause,” he said. Lynching “seems to be (OPD’s) charge of the moment.”
Tiffany Tran, a protester arrested for allegedly trying to grab someone who was being arrested and obstruction of an officer, quickly became a rallying symbol for the Occupy community in Oakland, particularly on Tuesday when at least 40 people showed up to support her at a scheduled arraignment at the Wiley M. Manuel Courthouse.
Because the Alameda District Attorney’s Office has up to a year to file charges against her, Tran, when contacted Wednesday after being released from custody, didn’t want to talk specifically about what happened. But she said she had no idea what she did that constituted the lynching charge.
“Honestly, I think they were just snatching people up,” she said. “It was completely out of line.”
While in custody at Santa Rita Jail, Tran said officers were verbally abusive toward her, mocking her affiliation with the Occupy movement. She also said that officers kept her and a number of others inside a van for hours while being processed.
Shakur, who was held in the same van, asserted that officers kept them inside for hours while handcuffed, and did not allow them to use the restroom or get any water in what he described as “extremely hot” conditions.
“I was about to pass out,” he said. “It was sweltering.”
“It was torture,” Tran said of the treatment.
Tran said that with the threat of a felony hanging over her head for a year, she will be less likely to protest on the front line. She also said she believes that the OPD is timing arrests as a tactic, arresting people before the weekend, when the courts are closed, and then dropping charges after the week begins.
“That’s been a pattern of past arrests,” she said. “I think that’s a form of intimidation.”
As of press time, OPD spokesperson Watson had not responded to requests seeking more information about the specific allegations made by the protesters. However, she did state that at the end of the day, occupiers and officials want the same thing.
“If people want to gather and protest,” she said, “we just want it to be safe for everyone.”
The OPD revoked the teepee permit on January 2 saying that it attracted illegal activity, including people sleeping nearby and serving food without a health permit. Other concerns listed in the OPD’s press release about the permit revocation included a fire started nearby the teepee put out by city staffers, and employee complaints about human waste near city buildings.
This didn’t discourage occupiers from continuing the vigil. In fact, they defied the permit revocation by taking over the southern end of the plaza, setting up a food table, a few large signs and an information table.
On January 4, about 50 riot police moved in against a group of protesters at a vigil on the plaza, arresting 12 people, according to media reports and the National Lawyer’s Guild.
A protest at City Hall Thursday in response to the latest raid led to the first meeting between city officials and Occupy Oakland protesters to discuss freeing what occupiers consider “political prisoners.”
At that meeting, which lasted more than an hour, four members of the Occupy Interfaith group spoke with officials including Mayor Jean Quan’s chief of staff Anne Campbell-Washington and assistant to the City Administrator Arturo Sanchez spoke about police treatment of protesters and laid the groundwork for future dialogue between city staff and protesters.