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Crossing the Line: The Oakland Police Department Versus the Crowd 

Wednesday, Aug 7 2013

Photo by JP Dobrin


Sri Louise Coles was determined to hold the picket line. She remembered seeing a picket outside the A&P as a kid, so she understood what she had to do: walk a loop in front of one of the many entrance gates in the Port of Oakland, keep moving, and shout slogans with the other protesters. A brass band played and demonstrators joined in with shakers. It reminded her of a parade.

It was April 7, 2003, and the assembly was in protest of American President Lines, a shipping company believed to transport military supplies to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. By blocking the shipping terminal gates, demonstrators hoped to temporarily disrupt American President Lines' operations.

Word traveled through Coles' group that police officers were at other gates in the port, firing rubber bullets at picketers. Never having seen a rubber bullet before, she imagined a small plastic BB — nothing too harmful.

Oakland police officers in riot helmets arrived at Coles' gate and ordered the demonstrators to disperse. Coles, unwilling to be arrested, complied. She stepped out into the street, joining a larger crowd of demonstrators whom police had already cleared from other gates.

Suddenly, she heard explosions. What seemed like debris fell around her and ricocheted up off the road. Other demonstrators began to run, but, fearing for the safety of her eyes, Coles and a friend crouched down behind a car. An officer approached the pair and ordered them back into the street. As they stepped out from their makeshift shelter, several police on motorcycles revved their engines and charged, striking them. Shocked and terrified, Coles tried once again to take shelter, but the officer screamed at her again, telling her she had to go.

She sprinted diagonally across the street, trying to avoid being hit by the motorcycles. A woman with a large camera dangling from her neck was screaming hysterically. "Are you getting this?" Coles asked her. The woman was incapable of responding.

Coles turned away to continue down the side of the road, away from the police. As she turned, something struck the side of her face. She ducked, eyes clenched shut. When she opened her eyes, she could see her jaw swelling into her line of sight. "I've been hit," she told her friend. She hadn't broken the law or violated police orders, but the police were treating the crowd itself as a threat. Her participation in the protest had earned her a beanbag round to the face.

That 2003 protest was but one incident in the Oakland Police Department's lengthy, routinely brutal struggle with the city's activist community. Oakland protests frequently turn violent — often, as in 2003, because officers attack peaceful demonstrators, and sometimes, as at a recent protest over the George Zimmerman verdict, when demonstrators attack bystanders, journalists, or the police. Protests are a particular challenge for the already-troubled department: Police are charged with protecting a crowd's First Amendment rights in addition to their typical law enforcement duties. It's a challenge OPD has yet to master.

The department's handling of crowds is problematic, and has been for many years. The rights afforded to protest participants — both by OPD's own crowd-control policy and the Constitution — have not been consistently upheld. Officers' haphazard use of force against crowds suggests that policy and law have been downright ignored. The names of protesters injured by OPD over the past decade change, but the police are always facing the same enemy: the crowd.

The year 2003 had already been a rocky year for the OPD. A few months before the port protest, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson approved a negotiated settlement agreement in Allen v. City of Oakland, better known as the Riders case, a civil rights lawsuit alleging police misconduct within OPD. The settlement included a $10.9 million payment to 119 plaintiffs and the appointment of an independent monitoring team to oversee police reforms in Oakland.

The court-ordered reforms made the Oakland community hopeful for change, explains Rachel Lederman, a lead attorney with the National Lawyers Guild. But the injuries sustained by Coles and at least 57 others during the port protest shocked the city. "It was very distressing for the civil rights community that this happened at that time [of the Rider's settlement]," Lederman says. The brutal reaction to the protest sent a message that Oakland police weren't ready to reform.

In response, the NLG joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and the lead attorneys in the Riders case, Jim Chanin and John Burris, to sue OPD. Their suit led to the creation of OPD's first official crowd-control policy. Negotiated in 2004 among OPD, the ACLU, and the NLG, the policy was intended to give OPD guidelines for managing crowds without inflicting widespread injuries or otherwise violating demonstrators' constitutional rights. OPD issued the policy to all officers in a training bulletin dated Oct. 28, 2005.

The policy forbade officers from using several of the dispersal tactics OPD used at the port protest: It prohibited the wooden dowel rounds and stinger grenades, as well as the use of motorcycles as weapons. The policy also provided clear instructions for declaring unlawful assemblies and making mass arrests.

However, the policy did not prohibit other less-lethal munitions, such as the beanbag rounds that struck Coles in the jaw and neck. These munitions, which are fired from a standard 12-gauge shotgun, are small pouches of lead shot that fly through the air at nearly 200 miles an hour. Bean bag rounds are potentially lethal if fired at the head, neck, or other vital areas, so targeting these areas is forbidden. These rounds may not be fired indiscriminately into a crowd as they were in the port; rather, they can only be used to target specific individuals who pose an immediate threat.

Although it represented progress, says Lederman, "The policy itself is not a law. It's a policy that's binding within the police department. But the overarching principle of the crowd-control policy is that the police will respond to crowd events, particularly First Amendment political activity, with the minimum reliance on force."

About The Author

Kate Conger

Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.


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