As I read eyewitness accounts and watched videos of the police crackdown on the Occupy Oakland protest the other day, I was flooded with emotions ranging from disgust to disappointment. However, once the initial shock wore off I was left wondering: What was the Oakland Police Department thinking? Don’t they realize that these kind of aggressive tactics only strengthen the movement they’re trying to destroy?
The footage of crowds of people running from tear gas and of some kind of "less lethal" device exploding as a group of people come to the aid of a wounded (Iraq War veteran) protester reminded me of something I heard from a facilitator at a civil disobedience training back in April. “Civil disobedience has become a pretty ineffective tactic in the past few decades,” she said, “because police have come to understand its dynamic better than most protesters do. They understand that it is a better idea to let an action run its course than it is to give it unnecessary media attention by acting in an aggressive manner.”
And if you think about it, this point makes a lot of sense. How far would the civil rights movement have gone if TV screens across America hadn’t been flooded with images of dogs being loosed on peaceful protesters and police officers beating up innocent people? Would anyone even remember something like the 1999 Seattle WTO protests if the police hadn’t been so aggressive? Would Occupy Wall Street have gone much further than Day 1 if those videos of girls being maced hadn’t blown up all over the internet? Recent history is full of reasons why it’s in the best interest of police to just let these things run their course, or to at least make it seem as though absolutely all alternatives have been exhausted before resorting to heavy-handed tactics like those used in the video below.
What did the Oakland Police Department think was going to happen? Did they think these protesters would just go home and forget the movement to which they had dedicated so much time? Law enforcement in Oakland has enough of an image problem as it is. Why would they do something that fits perfectly into an already existing narrative of excessive force and unnecessary police violence? The cops claim that they had to respond with force because they were being pelted with bottles and other objects, but so far I’ve yet to see any videos of such things (though if you are aware of any, please post them in the comments section). These same cops also denied using rubber bullets, but there’s no lack of evidence with which to counter that claim, and it’s not like police have never been known to lie.
Much to no one's surprise, the use of excessive force in Oakland has already led to a blowback. More people are more committed to the protest than ever before, and the mayor, under pressure from outraged citizens and city officials, has now said that the occupiers can return to the plaza they were camping in. Perhaps the OPD could learn a lesson from their counter-parts in Albany, NY, where the police refused orders to force the dispersal of Occupy protesters because they knew it would be counterproductive.
As an American I am disgusted by the use of excessive force to deny people their constitutionally protected right to freedom of assembly. Yet as a supporter of Occupy Wall Street, I’m also forced to acknowledge that few things have helped this movement grow more than the apparent willingness of the police to so quickly resort to violence. Perhaps the cops don’t understand the dynamic of civil disobedience as well as we thought.