City’s Increased Repression of Oscar Grant Plaza Vigils Producing Ironic Results

Categories: In Other Media, Open Mic

Re-posted from Hyphenated Republic, Jaime Omar Yassin. January 3, 2012
Shortly after police raided Oscar Grant Plaza for the second time, an intrepid, but disparate group of campers began to organize themselves autonomously to maintain a presence in Oscar Grant Plaza. On the night of the raid itself, some OGP campers scaled a tree and—over the next week or so—erected a series of platforms that allowed one or more people to continue to occupy the plaza out of the reach, literally, of the police. A small group of former campers also coalesced in the area around the tree as support and protection for the tree sitters—some began to stay day and night.

At the same time, the group of lay and ordained faith practitioners that had come to constitute the Interfaith tent submit themselves for arrest on the morning of the raid in an act of civil disobedience. Soon after they made a commitment to continue the occupation symbolically with a 12-6pm presence—they would do so with a canopy in the plaza, a sort of interfaith tent in exile. Similarly, shortly after the raid and dispersal of the 18th and Linden camp in West Oakland, a series of vigils that soon became permanent, began at the camp—including a daily info table maintained by the members of TAC that had recently been expelled from the 18th and Linden property. Eventually these anchored themselves to a permitted religious expression vigil, designed to create a toe hold in the plaza. Despite the fact that they enjoy the least protection from the wider supporters of Occupy, those carrying out the vigils have been the most vulnerable members of society; they are the poor and the homeless and many of them are people of color.

Needless to say, all of these tenuously connected and concurrent iterations of occupation caused some level of consternation to the OPD and city; minions of the city administrator were sent into the plaza on a near daily basis to pick at and harass the disparate vigilers. This was never more than a minor Shakespearean set of scenes, in the form of citations mostly of the interfaith tent, forcing the removal of their canopy, citing a fictional precedent that no canopy had ever been allowed in the plaza. The Interfaithers replaced the canopy with a large umbrella. The umbrella too—an obvious threat to the city’s authority, made more dangerous by thesheer absurd cascade of city actions that it seemed poised to trigger–would soon be targeted by the police and city, but it has remained in daylight hours, despite continued citation. A police force and city still reeling from widespread criticism of their brutal tactics in previous raids, seemed somewhat hesitant to remind the residents of the city of their capacity for brutality.

No longer. Police began ramping up their harassment of the vigilers soon after the Port Shutdown Action of December 12, beginning with an early morning raid and destruction of the tree sit that ended in its destruction. In the aftermath, police began to put pressure on the interfaith group’s umbrella—in which the now somewhat infamous reading of biblical city ordinance 9.16.010 was used to apparently outlaw the free use of umbrellas in the plaza. Concurrently, OPD soon began to put more pressure on over-night vigilers. Soon after police began enforcing their new umbrella law, they told over night vigilers that their belongings would be seized if they were not picked up off the pavement by a certain hour—those picking them up at that hour would be cited. The novel idea that anything placed on the grounds of the plaza was either a structure or a potential lodging violation became the police mantra for any question about the legality or consitutionality of police harrassment.

Three Ocupiers were arrested on December 20 for alleged crimes as dastardly as reclaiming items from a receptacle, and sitting on a blanket that had previously been identified as contraband. Those arrests terminated in inflated felony charges on one Occupy Oakland activist who remains in jail.

Nightly repression continued, police accosting the plaza often to remind people that bundling up in a sleeping bag, holding an umbrella or putting it on the ground, or laying down was illegal. The visits slowed in the week or so before Christmas. But in the aftermath of a 24 hour binge of police crackdowns on Mandela Parkway—and the resurrection of the tree sit soon after–police apparently received word that it was time to lower the hammer on the plaza. A police raid on the plaza on December 30 was more like a police riot, with made up charges, and aggressive and violent random targeting seemingly focused on people of color. It seems quite clear that police were sent in with an agenda to cause havoc, target individuals and make arbitrary arrests with inflated penalty charges measured now in years, not in hours, days or fines. Most charges appear likely to be dropped as of this writing—misdemeanor charges have already been dropped.

As disheartening as this increased repression seems, I think there’s at least two upshots. One, the key to occupying is occupation. Two, the city is on the run. Despite a lack of support from the public and even Occupy Oakland itself, the ongoing occupation has been key to maintaining the politicized space liberated by Occupy Oakland on October 10, 2011. That politicized space has been the site of continued struggles against the police, on one level. But more importantly, its been a method of representing as hollow the liberal protestations of city council and mayor that they support the Occupy movement and dissent in general. Forcing city administrative liberals to admit their penchant for brute force solutions to inconvenient expressions of freedom of speech has for the past months, forced more and more liberals off the couch and into the streets. That’s why, no matter how many times the death of Occupy Oakland is pronounced by concerned hyper-liberals hoping the movement will die before it forces them to admit they have no interest in substantive change, Oaklanders still come out for demonstrations against police repression of the movement.

Remaining visible, and occupying, even in lull times where there is little support, has been the key to keeping this tension with liberal hypocrites–and the subsequent dissent that it engenders–alive. The city’s attempts have scaled up as the occupation has revealed itself to be more vigorous and durable than the city can manage with conventional means, prompting citations, harassment and increasingly inventive juridical calculations that switch up trumped up misdemeanors racked in the defense of blankets to hysterical felonies perverted from the original intention during the Jim Crow era.

As occupiers have noted, each time OPD officials have descended on the plaza, they’ve claimed they have a directive to sweep whenever it appears to look like an encampment again. Each time they bring down their brutal weapon of repression and imprisonment, more activists come out to the plaza—those both reactivated and activated for the first time. Each time, their strength allows the plaza to look more like an encampment. The city, anchored to a hammer that sees everything as a nail, has no other response but inaction in the face of legitimate and constitutionally protected protest, an option it rarely chooses for long.

Despite the claim by some that the continuing and myriad occupations of the plaza don’t help the movement—and even hurt it—those very occupations are working in lock step with larger, coordinated actions to build a movement that remains at the vanguard of occupy by occupying. That is, after all, what this movement is supposed to be doing in the first place.


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