Peaceful Occupy Oakland crowd returns to City Center plaza Wednesday night

Occupy Oakland protesters returned to Frank Ogawa Plaza and gathered a standing-room only crowed into a meeting in the amphitheatre outside City Hall  Wednesday night, less than 24 hours after clashing with police on streets outside the plaza.

Mayor Jean Quan was also back at City Hall, after flying in from Washington D.C. late Tuesday. At a press conference Wednesday evening, Quan gave her first public comments since a tumultuous day that included a police raid on the Occupy campsites, repeated confrontations between police and protesters, tear gas canisters flying from the police side, and finally what police said was a total of 97 arrests.

Quan said she met this afternoon with members of the Occupy Oakland camp and discussed ways to “prevent last night’s events from happening again” and support the protesters.

“We don’t want this to be about police and demonstrators,” she said. “We want this to be about the cause. We need to get some justice, jobs, employment and fair deals for every American.”

After a day of little protest, when the former Occupy Oakland campsite remained vacant and behind fencing, the downtown began to fill up slowly as night fell.

Around 5:30, near the intersection of 14th and Broadway in front of Tully’s Coffee, Hare Krishnas served rice and vegetables out of orange Home Depot buckets and a few people sat next to them doing yoga. The media had already come out, and news trucks parked along 14th Street.

After a crowd of about 100 had gathered, a man introducing himself as a member of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21 climbed onto the cement pedestal of a light pole and, using a bullhorn, read a statement of solidarity that he said his union local had voted on and approved earlier that day. “You are reviving the best traditions of the labor movement—mass defiance, occupation,” he said.

A man identifying himself as a member of the International Workers of the World was next to speak, asking that next Wednesday be dedicated to youth outreach in East and West Oakland.

Dan Siegel, the legal adviser to Mayor Quan, asked to speak, and the question of whether he could do so was put to a vote.

“Freedom of speech!” a few people yelled from the sides.  Siegel took the bullhorn, stood on the pedestal, and said that he had “strongly” advised Mayor Quan to let the encampment at the plaza stay in place.

A protester asked Siegel whether, in his professional opinion as the mayor’s legal advisor, he believed the city’s actions Tuesday night had been legal.

“No, I don’t,” he said.

By a quarter to six, the crowd had swelled to several hundred people. Three helicopters were in the air by then, drowning out the bullhorn.

At a little past six, people started marching up 14th Street towards Frank Ogawa Plaza, heading for the amphitheater to hold a “general assembly” meeting, a open discussion that Occupy Oakland protesters had held nightly before the police raid.

The crowd continued to grow, until every seat was filled and much of the ground below was also taken over. People not able to get a seat stood along 14th and peered through the fence, and others sat seated shoulder to shoulder on the wide landings in front of the darkened City Hall building, the only light shining down from a few streetlamps.

With only one modestly-powered microphone — it was not apparent where the power was coming from — the crowd improvised a kind of human amplification system in which speakers holding the mic, down in the center of the amphitheatre, waited after each phrase for the nearest listeners to repeat what had just been said to those behind them.

Speakers—most of whom declined to give their names—disagreed over whether to show respect towards the police. “They have families,” one speaker said. “They are part of the 99 percent, too.”

But others were more hostile. “There are neo-Nazis and fascists who are poor too,” said one to an eruption of cheers. “But I don’t want them in my fucking movement!”

When the meeting began, two sets of fencing surrounded the plaza—a larger one around the plaza itself and a smaller one around the grass area. Occupy Oakland protesters were being admitted to the plaza through an entrance on 14th Street.

At around 7 pm, a few protesters took down the outside fencing and several people began jumping on it, including a little girl. Jake Grumbach, a 23-year-old public health researcher from San Francisco, used a megaphone to tell the small crowd that had formed around her, “She’s jumping on the symbols of police brutality!”

“It’s a figurative barrier to our first amendment right to freedom of speech and assembly,” Grumach said of the fence.

At 7:15, as others began to take down the second set of fencing and neatly fold and stack it in piles, the protesters applauded and chanted “Our street, our world!”

Taking down the fence was not planned, several protestors said. “People were pissed off when Jean Quan said anyone can be here at allotted hours, but the fences were still up,” said Leo Ritz-Barr, 21, a protester from West Oakland. He added that he felt great to be back, but was nervous. “I’m anxious because I don’t know what they’d do next. They’ve already used tear gas, and rubber bullets.”

The speakers with the microphone declined to identify themselves, passing the mic back and forth to each other mid-sentence so that each completed thought emerged from a group rather than one person. It was in this fashion that one small group of men and women with the mic proposed what they called “a citywide general strike” on Nov. 2 — “that we shut down the one percent,” as they put it, a reference to what has been labeled the only part of American society to reap benefit from the current economic structure. “We hope that all students will walk out of school,” the speakers urged the crowd, “and all workers, instead of going to work–they will converge downtown to shut down the city.

These exhortations were passed back through the amphitheatre, phrase by phrase, to enthusiastic although not overwhelming applause and approval.  “We urge all banks and businesses to shut down, or we will march on them,” the speakers at the center of the amphitheatre continued. “Oakland in 1946 was the last city to have a general strike,” they shouted. “Let’s have it be the next.”

The crowd then broke apart for a time to discuss in small groups the notion of a general strike — one of which did take place in Oakland in 1946, triggered by city employers’ resistance to workers’ unionization efforts.   They sat crosslegged on the ground, or in the amphitheatre, talking quietly.  “It sounds like a really cool idea,” said a 25 year old Oakland woman who identified herself as Monica Cadena.  “It’s reminiscent of ‘A Day Without a Mexican’…I think we can do it.”

Ryan Perez, an 18 year old from South San Francisco, also agreed with the November 2 proposal.  “We want to be really strong about nonviolence,” Perez said.”We don’t want to be jackasses.”

On the matted, mostly dead grass that had held the Occupy Oakland campground, a single gray tent, just outside a fence protecting the great Ogawa Plaza oak tree, could be seen going up as the discussions were underway.  There were rumors that the police were on their way, but no police or city official presence could be seen.  Soon the tent was raised, and decorated with a sign urging donation of more tents.

At 10 pm, the final vote was talled: 1,480 votes for a general strike, 36 against and 77 abstentions. “Strike, strike, strike!” shouted the crowd, as the song “Thriller” began to play and the meeting broke up.

Hours earlier, at her packed City Hall press conference, Quan said her Washington D.C. trip had been planned months ago to help raise federal grants for the Port of Oakland..

Quan said she did not direct the eviction of protesters and police, and that she was saddened by the eviction and regretted the clashes Tuesday night. In a low voice, looking down at the table, Quan said city leaders faced “a tough situation.”

“We support the cause of Occupy Wall Street,” she said. “Sadly, last week, with the escalating problems of safety and violence, the decision was made to close the evening camp and maintain the plaza as a free speech zone from 6 am to 10 pm. Obviously, some people disagreed.”

Quan said she didn’t know about the police-protester clashes because she was flying across the country. “Before I got in the plane, things seemed pretty peaceful,” Quan said, to the nods of  an Occupy Oakland press representative who identified himself as J Tao.  “That’s what I learned from the reports,” Quan said, in J Tao’s direction.

One of the people injured Tuesday night near 14th and Broadway was Scott Olsen, a war veteran who was hit in the head by a projectile during the riot. Olsen remains in a hospital in serious but stable condition, according to accounts of his friends and protesters. Quan said the incident and reports will be investigated.

“That was very unfortunate,” Quan said of Olsen’s injury. “We received complaints of excessive use of force, and we are taking them very seriously.”

Interim Oakland Chief of Police Howard Jordan added that police will investigate Olsen’s case, as well as question of whether there was lethal use of force by officers. Police action will be reviewed by the OPD’s internal affairs office, he said, as well as by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and federal police monitors. “I wish it hadn’t happened,” Jordan said of Olsen’s injury. “Our objective is not to cause injuries to anyone.”

But Jordan added that he believed OPD “took appropriate action” to ensure the safety of Oakland’s citizens during the events of Tuesday. “The First Amendment right to assemble does not allow for the use of violence or activities that endanger the public or property,” Jordan said. “Our job is to protect life.”

OPD used tear gas and beanbag projectiles, Jordan said, as a response to protesters’ assaults, which included throwing “bottles, rocks and hazardous materials.” Jordan said OPD officers did not use rubber pellets or other explosive devices, as had been reported. However, he added that although the 16 police agencies that aided OPD during the eviction and protest on Tuesday should have complied with OPD’s code and due processes, it is possible they used devices that weren’t used by Oakland police officers. “We are asking each agency to file the required documentation of their use of force to review the kind of devices used,” Jordan said.

OPD will deploy officers to ensure safety during today’s protests, Jordan said — one organized by Occupy Oakland, and another protesting the closure of five schools in Oakland. He also urged the news media and protesters to inform police of any cases of injury, or situations in which police may have used excessive force.

Quan said her office and the City Administrator’s office are working to restore Frank Ogawa Plaza as a place for free speech and peaceful assembly, but said that night camping will not be allowed. The field area will be fenced until it’s free of chemicals and other hazards, Quan said.

Some city councilmembers were among the audience at the press conference Tuesday afternoon, including Larry Reid (District 7), Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5) and Jane Brunner (District 1).

Reid said that he agreed with the eviction of protesters from the plaza, but said Quan should have made sure she was going to be in town when it happened.

“I think Mayor Quan should have been here, it is her responsibility as mayor of Oakland,” Reid said. “She should have been present to oversee the actions taken yesterday.”

You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here. 

This story was written by Ryan Phillips with reporting by Adam Grossberg, Monica Cruz-Rosas, Amina Waheed, Byrhonda Lyons, Rachel Waldholz, Megan Molteni, Brittany Schell, Alex Park, and Wendi Jonassen.

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