City of Oakland officials and Occupy Oakland protesters laid the groundwork for building trust at a meeting at City Hall on Thursday afternoon, following weeks of contentious incidents in West Oakland and on Frank Ogawa Plaza that have led to 40 arrests.The first steps toward building that trust, members of the Occupy Oakland Interfaith group told city officials, involve helping to get the 16 protesters still in custody released.
The meeting was unprecedented, in that it was the first time city officials and protesters formally discussed issues involving the ongoing Occupy Oakland protests. It also came about after a tense scene where at least 80 protesters tried to occupy City Hall in response to a raid last night at Frank Ogawa Plaza that resulted in 12 arrests. Two more protesters were arrested Thursday afternoon, the reason for which was not know before press time.
At the meeting, delegates from the Interfaith Group, one of the many groups associated with Occupy Oakland, called for the Oakland Police Department and city officials to change their culture which they said has been one of hostility toward the protesters.
“There’s a huge culture shift that needs to happen” said Nichola Torbett, one of the Occupy Interfaith members said at the meeting. “City employees and elected officials need to be human beings first, not functionaries. We raised that issue, and I believe we were heard.”
The Interfaith Group had originally planned to occupy City Hall this afternoon to demand the release all of what they called “political prisoners” in custody. But when protesters approached City Hall, they found locked doors and police officers.
Only people with prior appointments were being allowed into City Hall, not large groups of people, said City Administrator spokesperson Karen Boyd in a phone interview. City officials then agreed to meet with Occupy delegates to discuss the protesters still in police custody and how the Oakland Police Department has treated protesters.
Four Interfaith members met with a group from the city that included Boyd, Mayor Jean Quan’s chief of staff Anne Campbell-Washington and assistant to the City Administrator Arturo Sanchez. During the hour-plus long meeting, Interfaith members talked about three major points: the release of any protesters imprisoned, the need for OPD to change what members deemed an “arrest-oriented” culture and more of a willingness for city officials to listen to concerns of protesters.
“We recognize that it’s challenging for everyone to step outside of our own experience in order to create a greater sense of community,” said a woman named Patricia, one of the Interfaith members at the meeting, “but we are committed to working toward that.”
Boyd called the meeting “productive” and a first step toward dialogue on how to address these issues. She agreed that addressing long-standing issues between OPD and the community, such as mistrust of police due to officer-involved shootings.
“We as a city, and certainly the mayor, are very interested in seeing that happen,” Boyd said.
Boyd added there are health and safety concerns that need to be addressed as well on the plaza, mentioning that a number of employees have felt increasingly unsafe while going through the plaza over the past months, though she did not attribute anything specific to Occupy Oakland.
“There’s been an increase in aggressive behavior that is creating an environment that is unsafe,” Boyd said.
While more meetings between city officials and the Occupy group are planned moving forward, with a tentative meeting planned for early next week, all decisions the group makes must be passed by consensus by the General Assembly. But for the time being, Interfaith representatives say they are willing to continue talking with city officials.
A sign of a potentially new relationship between protesters and the city could come in the form of releasing those in custody. The Interfaith Group, and Boyd confirmed, that Campbell-Washington asked for the names of protesters still in custody, and would look into if they could be released.
But Boyd said that city officials can’t tell Alameda County Sheriff officials to release the prisoners, all of whom are being held at Santa Rita County Jail.
As the meeting went on upstairs, protesters outside, locked out and frustrated by the recent arrests, banged on the doors chanting “Let us in!” One protester tried to jimmy the door open with a bar, but then ran off when officers arrived.
Later, a group of officers swept into the entry way of the side door facing 14th Street, and grabbed two protesters. It is not known as of press time what the two were arrested for, but they were quickly taken from the building by officers, much to the ire of protesters.
Protesters also congregated outside the front steps of the plaza, holding a momentary prayer and then sharing their frustrations. Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel said he believes they were seeing the death throes of free speech after the recent successive raids on the plaza.
“This city is not yours or mine anymore,” he said to the crowd. “We’ve been holding on to an illusion for too long.”
Last night’s events led to 12 arrests after about 50 officers in riot gear descended on the plaza. Last Friday, 13 protesters were arrested in what erupted into a chaotic scene after officers demanded protesters remove items from the ground that were in violation of their permit.
Samsarah Morgan, an Interfaith representative at the meeting, said she believed that city officials were genuine in their willingness to hash out issues.
“We made it clear that the city has not behaved in a very trustworthy fashion,” Morgan said. “I believe (our concerns were) authentically heard and we will not stop until it is fact.”