On the morning of October 10, 2011, a group of tents appeared in the grass of Frank Ogawa Plaza. In a week, the encampment grew from about 100 protesters to over 550 people, brought together by the issues of economic disparity raised by Occupy Wall Street—the gap between the “1 Percent” and “99 Percent,” in the rhetoric of the group.
In its first week, the protest looked like many that existed on a national level, with people from all walks of life spending their days and nights in an improvised communal space marked with tents and banners. “But from the beginning, it felt like we were coming together to address issues in Oakland,” recalls Jaime Omar Yassin, a longtime community activist who was with Occupy Oakland since the early days of the encampment.
The scope of the makeshift city grew in pace with its population, and soon included portable toilets, a library, art and children’s activities, a gardening effort and a kitchen that prepared meals for the camp. A group that included anarchists, retirees and college students shared food and shelter with the city’s homeless and anyone else who turned up in the camp.
Like many all over the country, the Occupy Oakland camp was governed by a leaderless system meant to ensure decisions came from consensus. Decisions were brought before General Assembly meetings, where people voted by means of hand gestures indicating agreement, tolerant disagreement or opposition. In theory, no decision could be made while anyone expressed hard opposition. A system called “the people’s microphone” was used to amplify each speaker’s statements by having the crowd repeat them line by line.
“It was easy to have an important conversation about what really mattered,” says Rita Nakashima Brock of the atmosphere in the camp. Brock was a member of the Interfaith Tent at Occupy, an outpost meant to allow protesters of all religions to worship and exchange ideas in peace. “There was a remarkable spirit of creativity and joy,” she says.
David Firestein, an Oakland elementary school teacher, says he had been very active in protests for 15 years before Occupy came to Oakland. remembers the camp as “a reclamation of all space—actual space, space for political discourse, and space for the free exchange of ideas.”
But as the number of protesters grew, and concerns began to circulate from nearby business owners and parents of children in several schools nearby, city officials began to worry that public safety was being compromised within the camp. Ten days after founding the camp, protesters received an eviction notice from the City Administrator’s Office citing concerns that the city could no longer ensure safety in a camp that would not allow police inside. It also cited concerns about fire hazards, the accumulation of waste, public urination damage to the plaza’s historic oak tree, and that the group was monopolizing space meant to be open to all.
But the protesters would not leave. “We are the public, it’s ours,” says Firestein of the plaza, recalling the attitude in the camp at the time.
After several rounds of eviction notices and tense days of waiting, the police arrived at the camp on October 25, 2011. At 5:30 am, several hundred officers in riot gear surrounded the plaza. After police twice directed protesters to clear the square, the raid began. Loud bangs sounded and plumes of white smoke rose into the air as police advanced, dismantling tents, making repeated commands for protesters to disperse, and arresting those who failed to comply.
Ousted protesters overturned trashcans and dumpsters before facing off with police. Police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd, and were pelted with bottles, rocks, and kitchen utensils. By 10 am, the plaza was deserted. 75 arrests had been made.
By the evening of October 25, protesters had reassembled in front of the downtown library began to march. While the evening began peacefully, after night fell, protesters and police officers faced off in the first of what was to become a series of violent confrontations. Officers with batons and shiny visors, and protesters who carried red-paint-filled balloons and wore scarves and handkerchiefs over their faces, all maneuvered dowtown throughout the night, trading teargas from one side for rocks and paint bombs from the other. In the course of the conflict, a tear gas canister struck Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen in the head, sending him to the hospital and Oakland into the national spotlight.
“Those of us who had a history of clashing with the police expected this,” says Firestein. “We expected this to come sooner.” He insists that many protesters were determined to remain nonaggressive until they saw how much force police officers were willing to use. “It wasn’t until after the raid that people started to internalize, ‘They are the enemy.’”
Protesters re-established a camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza on the night of October 26. A meeting of a few hundred protesters on the plaza that night revealed disagreement about whether to be aggressive when dealing with the police- a division within Occupy that would deepen over the coming year, as Occupy members debated whether to embrace a “diversity of tactics” or to only use non-violent ones. “You saw less and less at Occupy as time went on—people who, as liberals, wanted to be ‘peaceful’ and who wanted to talk to the police officers and change their minds,” says Yassin.
But the city’s use of force was drawing criticism, too. The city government and the Oakland Police Department came under national scrutiny as a result of the crowd control tactics used against protesters. “The whole way Occupy Oakland was bungled by the mayor, at the outset, cost the city millions of dollars,” recall Frank Castro, who was involved in one of the unsuccessful subsequent efforts to recall Mayor Jean Quan.
Castro, who is chairperson on the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council for North Oakland, says he has never seen a more poorly handled situation in his years working with police on public safety issues. “I don’t really know whether the city has recovered form that,” he says. The next confrontation between police and protesters followed the general strike organized by Occupy on November 2. The protest itself which saw thousands of supporters marching through downtown, culminated in a march to the Port of Oakland. The march and port shutdown were planned to support the International Longshore Warehouse Union’s dispute with the EGT company—a multinational consortium. The daytime march was largely peaceful, with the exception of a few acts of vandalism against bank storefronts. That night, however, protesters who had built barricades made of dumpsters and wooden pallets faced off with riot police at San Pablo Avenue and 17th Street.
Many protesters wore bandanas over their mouths. Some had brought their own gas masks, in anticipation of a police standoff. In the ensuing conflict, police fired off flash bang grenades and more teargas. Windows were smashed at the OPD recruiting office. By the end of the night, police had made more than 100 arrests.
Cortt Dunlap owns Awaken Café, which sits just across from Frank Ogawa Plaza. Dunlap says he and his employees were at “ground zero” for much of the Occupy protest, and that he was sympathetic to the ideals of Occupy; the café routinely let protesters in to charge phones and use the restroom. But he noticed a marked difference between protest activities before and after sunset. “During the day, Occupy was great and colorful. People could speak their mind and had their causes represented,” Dunlap says. “As the day went on and night fell, the parts of the organization who believed in property damage did their thing.”
Arguments about the limits of the acceptable were intensifying. Occupy held a General Assembly meeting on November 9 to discuss the use of more aggressive “Black Bloc” tactics, which involve protesters dressing in black clothes, hiding their faces to appear indistinguishable from one another, and embracing police antagonism and property damage. Yassin says this ongoing discussion centered around how to define the term “violence.”
“It became not a moral question, but a tactical question,” says Yassin of the use of property damage and aggression in Occupy. “Violence is something that hurts people. Property destruction isn’t necessarily violence, and can sometimes be effective.”
A turning point in the city’s decision about whether to allow the protesters to remain in Frank Ogawa Plaza came on November 10, when a man named Kayode Foster was shot and killed near the Occupy camp. Occupiers said that no connection could be made between the shooting and their protest, but Quan considered this a sign that the chaos of the camp had made downtown unsafe. Looking back, she says, she was noticing a dangerous division taking place within Occupy. “Anarchists were pushing out the people who wanted to keep the camp more stable,” she said in an interview with Oakland North this week. “We were very worried.”
Once again, the city began circulating eviction notices to the encampment. “It was a lot of waiting,” says Rita Nakashima Brock. “We knew the raid was coming.”
On November 14, police raided the camp a second time. Officers surrounded the encampment at 4 am and gave the order for protesters to disperse. Brock said she was among the several dozen protesters arrested for refusing to leave. “The police came in from back of the plaza and roughed up some people trying to get food out,” she says. “Then they squeezed in toward us.”
Some 1,000 protesters reconvened that night at the plaza for a meeting and a march, which concluded peacefully.
With the plaza no longer an option, Occupy members began scoping out new campsites. On November 19, protesters tried to occupy a lot at 19th Street and Telegraph in downtown Oakland. In a festival atmosphere complete with a brass band and drummers, hundreds of people raised about 25 tents. They were evicted without incident by early the next morning. A homemade raft christened the SS Don’t Let The Banks Punk You Out sailed from December 11 – 15 in an attempt to “Aquapy” Lake Merritt. Police ultimately had it removed from the lake, but its crew was not arrested. Protesters searching for a new headquarters in December briefly occupied an unused lot in West Oakland at Mandela Parkway and 20th Street, which was eventually cleared peacefully by police.
On December 12, Occupy made a second march on the Port of Oakland in an attempt to shut it down. This time, they lacked the support of several large unions that operate out of the port, who argued that a port closure would not be helpful to middle class port workers.
As winter deepened, Occupy members continued to debate the use of aggressive tactics. Firestein says that while there was no attempt to push out the more pacifist protesters, by this point, he says, “A lot of the people who had done a lot of the work in the camps had left. They got tired.” And, he says, the more frequently Occupy clashed with police, the more the group’s ratio tipped in favor of members who resented police tactics. “That kind of swayed the balance of power,” he says. “A lot of the people involved were new to the ideals, so they went in with both feet before they understood the terrain.”
Brock says that she, too, saw a change occurring in the protesters’ strategy with police. “They were ready,” she said of protesters by the time of the second raid. “They had bandanas and gas masks and they started making shields out of heavy garbage can lids painted with Occupy signs.”
“There’s a combination of things that have made Occupy less popular as time’s gone on,” says Yassin. “As more people have left, there’s been a process of winnowing down to a number of people who have experienced oppression from the police. It became less of a larger group and became a bit of a cadre.”
The next face-off between police and protesters became violent relatively quickly. On January 28, 2012, protesters attempted to take over the abandoned Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center where they planned to hold a festival. But they found the Convention Center fenced off and surrounded by police, who ordered them to disperse after protesters began throwing bottles, rocks, spray cans and other items at them. The protesters began marching back toward city hall, but ran into another police line near the Oakland Museum of California. Protesters and police confronted one another—the police using teargas and beanbag projectiles, the protesters throwing chairs and rocks and protecting themselves using homemade shields.
“At one point, Occupiers got a corrugated piece of metal five feet long,” Brock recalls, “and they used it to keep marching when police tried to stop them.”
The police line advanced, firing nonlethal rounds until the protesters were pushed back. The protesters scattered, reconvened at Frank Ogawa Plaza, and briefly tried to occupy the former Traveler’s Aid Society Building on 16th Street near the plaza, only to find that the people working inside who would not let them in.
The protest came to an end at the YMCA on Broadway, which police surrounded as hundreds of Occupiers made their way into the building. Officers made approximately 400 arrests, including detaining a half dozen local journalists. Later in the night, a small group of protesters broke into the lobby of city hall, where one person burned an American flag and protesters broke a historic model of the building.
The most recent confrontation between police and protesters flared up on May 1, or May Day. Occupy Oakland had initially planned to take part in a shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge, envisioned as part of a general strike similar to the one carried out on November 2. But Occupy canceled the bridge shutdown at the request of the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Union. Instead, protesters marched through Oakland’s downtown. After night fell, protesters and police faced off at 14th and Broadway, where protesters set up metal barricades and threw glass bottles and paint bombs at officers. Police dismantled the barricades and made 23 arrests.
In June, the Occupy Lakeview encampment at Lakeview Elementary proved a more narrowly defined protest—it was meant to pressure the Oakland school district to re-open the five campuses it closed this year. Organizer Joel Velasquez, along with about 30 parents, teachers, and children, occupied the elementary school from June 15 – July 4. The protest’s centerpiece was “The People’s School for Public Education,” a volunteers-staffed summer day school program. About 70 kids attended it over the course of several weeks.
While the Lakeview protest was not directly initiated by Occupy, Valasquez says he relied on Occupy contacts to set up his “live-in” protest.. He insisted on no police confrontation, and no vandalism., and he says. School district police officers ultimately evicted the group, on July 3, without arrests. The protest group later rallied for a peaceful march to OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith’s house, but the school board did not reverse its decision to close the five schools.
Now that a year has gone by since the first raid on the encampment, the anniversary has given many of those involved, as well as observers, an opportunity to look back on what Occupy meant, and how it has changed.
For some, Occupy was an expression only of local angst, not closely in spirit with the national protest. “I never understood why there was an Occupy Oakland,” says Frank Castro. “On Wall Street, it sprung up in reaction to the banks. In Oakland, people decided, ‘Well, we’re just going to protest the city.’”
And to some business interests, it had a profoundly negative effect. “Protests would block traffic, some would block stores and made people feel afraid to enter or exit a building,” says Paul Junge, Vice President of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “Their activities were hurtful to business. Not just vandalism, broken windows and graffiti, but businesses were also having customers scared away.”
The protests ended up costing millions to the city itself. Quan said the city budgeted $6 million from the General Fund to pay for the quickly accumulating costs associated with Occupy. That included funds for police department overtime pay for both Oakland officers and those brought in from other cities; along with funding for overtime pay for employees in other departments, including the Public Works Department, the Department of Information Technology, the Community and Economic Development Agency, and the city’s television station. Those funds were also used to pay for supplies like portable toilets, the hiring of outside security firms, food and refreshments, and replacing broken windows.
By the end of July, 2012, spending had totalled $4.7 million, according to a memo from City Administrator Deanna Santana.
“You have to keep people safe,” Quan says. “And this was something we couldn’t control. But she points out that the money the city had to use for Occupy-related expenses could have better served other city programs. “I’ll give you some examples of what that money could have funded,” she says. “My whole senior program costs $2 million, so I could have doubled my senior program. A good after-school program is about a half million dollars, so that could have been 12 after-school programs.”
The Occupy-related confrontations also raised some enduring questions about OPD crowd control tactics. In December, city officials requested an independent investigation of the OPD’s actions at Occupy events. A four-person team of ex-law enforcement officials, led by former Baltimore Police commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, conducted a review of the tactics and behavior of the OPD in its interactions with Occupy and concluded that significant changes needed to be made within the department.
“In the wake of these events, serious concerns were raised by both city officials and by the community at large concerning the use of unreasonable force, overall police performance and the OPD’s ability to manage future events in an acceptable manner,” the team’s resulting 100-page report stated. “The ability of OPD to effectively and impartially investigate the widely reported allegations of police use of force and other misconduct were also questioned.”
The report recommended 68 changes to the police department, including revising its crowd control policy, revising its use-of-force policy, revising the use of aid from outside police departments, and changing the way the police handles large crowds after a dispersal order is given.
“There’s been months of changes in police procedures and practices,” Quan says. “You can see that in how we handle our other big events—how they’re much more integrated, on their bikes, in the crowds, walking in pairs within the crowd. They’re much more relaxed.”
Quan pointed to one of the recommendations, which said Oakland officers shouldn’t be mixed in with those from outside departments. That’s already been implemented, she said. “We’ve learned that when we do get help from outside, that they do all of the support stuff—they’re not necessarily right out in front of the community,” Quan says. “What they’ve learned too, is to try to keep the majority of peaceful protesters safe and that’s been a lot of retraining. The police force now is very different.”
Sgt. Christopher Bolton, one of Oakland Police Department’s public information officers, says implementing the report’s actions is an ongoing process. “We’ve done a large percentage of those recommendations and it’s a constantly evolving process,” he says. “It’s a learning process.”
An Internal Affairs Division report released two weeks ago, on the heels of the Frazier report recommendations, also looked into police officer misconduct. According to the report, Occupy Oakland led to 1,127 complaints of police misconduct, including inappropriate comments, excessive use of force, and lack of truthfulness in reporting incidents. And although police have declined to say how much of their current displinary action is directly Occupy-related, Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan said this month that 44 officers are being investigated for misconduct, including two who are at risk of being fired.
As for Occupy itself, the protest has continued to diversify since last fall, with many offshoots concentrating on smaller targets: Occupy the Farm, for example, a live-in attempt to protest a deal to develop agricultural land owned by the University of California; and a foreclosed-homes occupation in West Oakland by Causa Justa, a Bay Area tenants’ rights organization.
Jaime Omar Yassin says Occupy will continue to change. Occupy spinoffs “took the tactic of occupation and had some real specific victories,” he says. “A lot of these people have been activated by Occupy, even if they didn’t agree,” Yassin says.
And many of Occupy’s early supporters continue to insist that the series of protests had a positive effect on the city, despite the frustration some city residents expressed at their disruption and public cost, because they reinvigorated public faith in protest and social justice. “It cured people’s despair,” says Rita Nakashima Brock. “Occupy woke them up, and showed them that there was this support system.”
As the Oakland camp’s anniversary approaches, says Firestein, among the city’s initial Occupiers, “There’s a lot of people right now talking about nostalgia.” But, he says, a continued spirit of protest is more important than the Occupy name itself. “I don’t need this banner,” he says. “If somebody were to declare it dead tomorrow I wouldn’t cry. I’m gonna keep doing what I do.”