In the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 25th, police raided the encampment of Occupy Oakland. We'd gotten word that it was likely to occur this night, and, as I headed out to join my companions at the Plaza, I was thinking of an incident from local history--the police attack in the Port of Oakland on the morning of April 7, 2003.
On that day antiwar demonstrators were picketing at the docks, peacefully protesting war profiteering by shipping companies, when police attacked. It was pretty brutal. Fifty-nine persons, including protesters, dock workers, and journalists were injured. Presumably the attack was intended as a message, something like: "Don't ever enter this port again! Don't even think of it!"
Exactly five weeks later, on May 12th 2003, several hundred protesters marched back into the Port, with banners flying and band playing. We successfully shut it down.
And that wasn't the end of it. The following year (2004), protesters commemorated the anniversary of the infamous attack by again returning to the Port, again shutting it down. Since then the Port has been picketed and shut down on several occasions, most recently in June 2010, to protest the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
Some people do learn from history. But what about Mayor Jean Quan? --former Maoist, veteran of the student movement of the 1960's, and now, a liberal Democrat. With her experience as a former radical activist, she should've understood the dynamics. It seems that she did not.
For our part, at the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland, we'd decided by consensus vote that we'd defend our camp as best we could. If driven out and scattered, we'd reassemble the next afternoon at 4 p.m. in front of the library. That was the plan. Sentries were posted at each corner of the Plaza. I shared a post with two others of the security team, and it was on our watch that the raid began. We first sighted the police at 2:20 a.m. After determining that they were staging for a raid, we sounded the alarm and woke the camp. "Everybody up! Everybody up!"
More than two hours passed before the police actually made their move. Hundreds of them suddenly dashed out of the shadows, surrounded our camp, then halted. I glanced up at the clock on the Tribune Tower; it was 4:40 a.m. Police from 17 agencies. They just stood there for what seemed like a very long time, motionless, not moving, their Darth Vader helmets glittering ominously in the dim light. The very sight of such overwhelming numbers was absolutely terrifying. Shock and Awe.
We scattered among the tents. Finally regaining our composure, we returned to the perimeter, linked arms, and began chanting, "Cops go home! Cops go home!" The riot police just stood there, still not moving. And we stood where we were, also not moving. I glanced at the people around me, nearly all were young, excepting myself and two or three others. About half of us were women. Twenty minutes passed.
Eventually a loudspeaker crackled; the police were telling us to leave the Plaza. A few minutes later there was a loud explosion and a bright flash of light--a "flash bang," and the helmeted police advanced towards us, tearing down our barricade as they approached.
This time our line didn't waver. We chanted to the police, "You are also the 99%!" and "We are fighting for you!"
They pulled us apart, one by one. 105 were arrested, according to the police. Despite the scariness of it all, the police mostly acted with restraint. I wasn't hurt, nor were most of the people around me. As repression goes, it was gentle--if you discount a few injuries and the fact that they razed our tent city, destroying our equipment. Not to mention the sheer terror of the experience.
While waiting to be hauled off to jail, we talked with our captors, and found that they didn't like Wall Street either. "We're following orders," they told us. We overheard one officer saying to another, "Why are we arresting these people? Haven't we got something better to be doing?"
They kept us in jail for about fifteen hours. Some were held longer. Jail food was awful. Meanwhile, over a thousand people met at the library at 4 p.m., then marched to the jail where we were being detained and held a vigil, a very loud one. From inside the jail we could hear them, and it felt really great. From there they continued on to the Plaza which had been the site of our camp. That's when police got really violent. Tear gas in the streets, people clubbed, an Iraqi war veteran critically injured.
The next evening, Wednesday October 26, we returned to the Plaza and held a General Assembly attended by upwards of three thousand people. Many left to defend Occupy SF, where a raid was reportedly about to begin (At the last minute it was called off). Those of us remaining at the Plaza voted (1,442 in favor, 34 opposed, and 73 abstaining) to call for a general strike on November 2nd. As we did so, I kept thinking of an aphorism from the French May '68 rebellion: "Be realistic--demand the impossible." Meanwhile, greetings were coming in from occupations around the country including Occupy Wall Street and even from Tahrir Square, the mother of all occupations. The world was watching us, and we knew it.
"Oakland! Oakland!" we chanted, "The world is watching Oakland!"
The response to the attack at the Port of Oakland back in 2003 had seemed really big at the time, but it was small compared to this.
Our eviction from the Plaza, a project on which city officials must've spent a huge amount of taxpayer money, had lasted about thirty-six hours.
Tents began to reappear. First one, eight or nine more the next day. Soon there were twenty, and by the end of the week most of the Plaza had been re-tented. All our tents, sleeping bags and other gear were destroyed by the raiders, but we're rebuilding. The Plaza is our base of operations, our citadel, our symbol of hope. But this is not classical warfare where survival ultimately depends on holding a key position, however important. If driven from the Plaza again, we will again regroup and reoccupy.
--- --- --- DANIEL BORGSTRÖM was at the Port of Oakland on April 7, 2003 and has taken part in several Port actions since, most recently on Nov 2nd. He writes on progressive topics and his website is at: http://danielborgstrom.blogspot.com/