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Crossing the Line: The Oakland Police Department Versus the Crowd 

Wednesday, Aug 7 2013
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Among those injured was Scott Campbell, who was shot in the upper thigh with a beanbag round while filming a police line on the night of Nov. 2, 2011. His shooter, Officer Victor Garcia, was under instruction from Capt. Ersie Joyner to shoot anyone who crossed a line demarcated by a scrap of toilet paper on the ground in front of the police. This boundary was never announced to Campbell; still, he did not cross over the paper toward the police but rather moved parallel to the line. Garcia's shot was captured on his own Personal Digital Recording Device (a small video camera worn by officers and activated during contact with civilians), as well as Campbell's camera. On Garcia's PDRD, we see the officer tracking Campbell as he moved along the line. Despite taking careful aim at Campbell and having ample time to line up his shot, Garcia still hit Campbell in an area of the body that is not to be targeted unless lethal force is warranted.

"I was filming because we had seen before how useful video could be in cases of police violence," Campbell says. "I decided to film the police lines in case they did something later in the evening, so we could identify who they were."

Other peaceful demonstrators who were severely injured were Sukay Sow, Max Stiers, and Suzi Spangenberg. Sow's foot was hit by a grenade and severely burned as she fled a cloud of tear gas. Stiers was shot in the elbow with a beanbag round as he went to the aid of a woman in a wheelchair who had been tear-gassed; he suffered a crushed tendon. Two grenades deployed at Spangenberg's feet left her with partial hearing loss and permanent tinnitus, a condition that causes a constant, high-pitched ringing sound in her ears. "The intended effect of such a heavy, armed response was to spook people and that's what it did," says Stiers.

Labor organizers Brooke Anderson, Kevin Christensen, and Max Alper were all unlawfully arrested as they prepared to leave a peaceful protest. During their arrests, Officer Cesar Garcia entered the crowd, clubbed several people with his baton, and then stood back, not involving himself in the arrests. Garcia was later captured in PDRD video asking if he had to include the use of force in his report, laughing, "I jabbed one of them fat things friendly."

OPD's interactions with Occupy protesters once again made clear that the department had no intention of following its own crowd-control policy. The policy requires that less-lethal munitions be targeted against specific individuals. But throughout the Occupy movement's tenure in Oakland, police indiscriminately used tear gas, beanbag rounds, and grenades against large crowds of peaceful protesters. Uses of force are intended to enable arrests, but, with the exception of Anderson, Christensen, and Alper, none of the injured demonstrators mentioned above were ever arrested.

The NLG again filed suit on behalf of the individuals listed above, citing OPD's non-compliance with its crowd-control policy. The City of Oakland settled on July 3, 2013 for $1.17 million. As part of the settlement, the crowd-control policy was placed back under federal court supervision for an additional four-year period, which can be extended up to seven years if further violations occur.

Several other cases involving OPD's most egregious actions against demonstrators are still making their way through the courts. Military veterans Scott Olsen, who suffered a fractured skull from a beanbag round, and Kayvan Sabehgi, whose spleen was ruptured during an unprovoked beating, are suing the department.

And on Jan. 28, 2012, OPD re-enacted the same tactic it used against Oscar Grant demonstrators in 2010, surrounding a march and conducting a mass arrest, without giving a dispersal order. This time, they arrested more than 400 people, including Coles. None were ever charged with a crime, but many spent more than two days in jail as officers struggled to process the backlog of arrests. A lawsuit over this incident is ongoing.


Although Coles is aware that the First Amendment guarantees her right to peacefully protest, she says it feels like that right is under threat in Oakland. "If you have an understanding, particularly a first-hand understanding, of the OPD, paranoia is par for the course," she explains. In the days after she filed her lawsuit against the police in 2003, Coles says she received several threatening voicemails from anonymous callers, until finally she changed her phone number. She had nightmares about being attacked in her home.

Coles also became more cautious when attending protests — always riding her bike, staying a little away from the crowd, and constantly scanning for escape routes. These tactics weren't enough to prevent her from being swept up in the Jan. 28 arrests. "The only conclusion I could surmise after that," she says, "was that it was the intention of the police department, sanctioned by the City of Oakland, to intimidate Oakland residents from participating in any kind of political dissent, any kind of mass demonstration."

Anderson and Christensen, both of whom were unlawfully arrested on Oct. 25, 2011, are seasoned labor activists. Christensen also attended the anti-war protest in the port in 2003, where he was tear-gassed while walking in a picket line. Both he and Anderson also attended several protests against the slaying of Oscar Grant. Over the years, Anderson says, "We've seen the pattern where OPD had used violent tactics, to be honest, to telegraph a message to the community that dissent won't be tolerated."

"They would rather do something they know is wrong and wait to see if someone is going to file a lawsuit," Christensen adds, "than to not do it."

Despite their experience, both Anderson and Christensen say they would attend demonstrations in Oakland in the future. Having a strong community of fellow activists who supported them throughout the experience made them feel less intimidated.

About The Author

Kate Conger

Bio:
Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.

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