A Glimpse Behind the Oakland Police Response to Antiwar Protest

On April 7, about 600 antiwar demonstrators trying to block two gates to American President Lines at the Port of Oakland were fired upon by members of the Oakland Police Department using "sting balls," wooden projectiles, and bean bags. About 30 protesters were arrested. In trying to control the crowd, the wooden projectiles were fired at or near the protesters' legs and bean bags were shot directly at protesters. Sting balls -- small rubber pellets, which were contained in a larger ball that exploded in the air -- were fired above the crowd, raining pellets down on protesters. A number of demonstrators were hurt, and displayed to members of the media wounds that included golf ball-sized lumps, bloody abrasions, welts and lacerations.

The protest had been organized by Direct Action to Stop the War, saying that, American President Lines ships arms and supplies for the U.S. military and is profiting from the war on Iraq. A statement issued by International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), whose members also participated in the demonstration, complained that the brutal police response was incommensurate with the peaceful protest. Their allegations were documented by by Associated Press photos and video, and other media.

Local observers suggested that the OPD's disproportionate response, which according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian was inconsistent with OPD's own guidelines for use of force, may have been simultaneously a local implementation of Patriot Act "anti-terrorism" directives, an effort to "send a message" to Oakland City Council critics of OPD (who are also mostly staunch opponents of the war), and -- most disturbingly -- part of a wider coordinated effort to contain antiwar dissent.

According to witnesses, the Oakland Police Department "response," which was not actually a response to any real provocation, but appeared to be pre-ordained, was an example of post Patriot Act local security measures. Many police departments throughout the country have drawn up contingency plans to deal with "terrorist threats." OPD behavior, according to observers, may have been the application of such a plan to acts of civil disobedience; they reacted in conformity with the plan rather than with any real flexibility, or any sense of proportion to the events themselves.

Some background.

On the first day of the war, there was a raucous, but comparatively tiny (200 people?) demonstration through downtown Oakland that ended up at City Hall. Interestingly, many if not most of the protestors appeared to be high school students, which in Oakland means young black people. City Hall is at the center of a complex of state and federal office buildings. Within minutes of the first sounds of protest, police had blocked off a two-block stretch of the streets and set up a command post. Police in riot gear gathered behind barricades of police vehicles. Evidently, a phalanx of motorcycle cops essentially herded the protestors into the public plaza in front of City Hall, and did not allow them to go to the federal building, which may have been their destination. All but one entrance to City Hall was locked, and conspicuously armed officers, posted at the only viable entrance, checked ID's.

These were unprecedented measures. According to reliable sources, there were no incidents of violence to prompt such a show of force. Oakland City Hall is the site of dozens of demonstrations during any given year--everything from tenants rights to labor disputes to a protest about who got the barbecue concession at the Oakland Coliseum. None of these demonstrations had ever triggered anything close to the reaction to the antiwar protests. Seen in the context of the localized components of the Patriot Act, which exhorts if not requires local agencies to draw up and implement plans to combat "terrorist threats," these events viewed together (particularly the dramatic show of force in response to a run of the mill demonstration) suggest that Oakland has been, as of the start of the war, operating under some sort of heightened security contingency plan that compels set responses to perceived threats no matter what the reality of the situation turns out to be. One observer described the response as a mirror of the "Powell Doctrine"--meet any threat with overwhelming force.

That is piece number one.

Piece number two is less clear.

Shortly before the war began, Oakland settled a potentially ruinous lawsuit involving over a hundred plaintiffs, all young black men, who had been brutalized and falsely arrested by four officers who called themselves "the Riders." Allegations included beatings, falsified confessions, planted evidence, and, at least in one incident, actual torture of suspects. Financial damage in the settlement was limited to 10 million dollars, with the City's out of pocket damage only a fraction of that. (LA's Ramparts scandal, which was somewhat larger in scale, settled for 40 million, but LA will ultimately may have to pay closer to 100 million.)

The key piece of the Oakland settlement, however, is the imposition of sweeping institutional reforms in the police department, with particular attention to use of force and supervisorial responsibility. The settlement was announced with great fanfare, and several City Council members seized the occasion to excoriate the police department and the Chief. The most vocal critics on the Council just happen to be the most vocal critics of the war. They in fact, some days before the incident at the Port, held a teach in at City Hall. They have been high profile supporters of the protests. Viewed in context, then, the response of OPD to the protest at the Port, which by all eyewitness accounts was, if not completely unprovoked, certainly completely disproportionate to the threat posed, in light of the recent intense public scrutiny of the police in the local press and by local officials, seems too stupid to have been unintentional. Local observers have suggested that it may have been some sort of "statement" about the role of the police (the thin blue line holding back the forces of anarchy) in conjunction with a message indirectly to the anti-police, anti-war Council members, insofar as it was directed against their core constituents as well as political philosophy.

There is a third piece that is even more shadowy, having to do once again with the war on terror.

Some months ago, there was a longshoreman's strike against the Pacific Maritime Association. Bush invoked the Taft Hartley Act and imposed a 30-day cooling off period, effectively gutting the strike. He also threatened to bring in federal troops to unload ships, citing, of course, the war on terror. As noted above, the recent protest at issue here was directed against American President Lines. American President lines is perhaps the leading force in the Pacific Maritime Association, and a primary transporter of materiel to the war in Iraq. While the exact nature of the connection is unclear, evidently the longshoreman's union was also protesting that day (they were at least present--several longshoreman were shot by police), specifically, the award of a contract to Stevedoring Services to run the port at Umm Qasr. Stevedoring Services is virulently anti-union, and, reportedly has been a prime mover in attempts to break the longshoreman's union.

So, the most violent response to protest to date in this country comes at a protest directed against these particular actors, on whose behalf Bush has already taken extraordinary measures, including threats of federal force, all in the name of the war on terror.

Whether there is any real evidence of larger forces at work here is debatable. One local observer noted that governmental bureaucracies are largely incompetent, inefficient, and driven primarily by the impulse to protect their own private fiefdoms, all of which would militate against a theory that OPD was following orders from on high. "But I don't know," he concluded.

"Oakland antiwar protest gets ugly" CNN International 8 Apr. 2003

Thompson, A.C. "Not by the book: Oakland cops violated their own rules at port protest" San Francisco Bay Guardian 16 Apr. 2003