Scenes from Occupied Oakland

via Reuters, Stephen Lam

A street-eye view of the clashes between protesters and police

Keith Shannon was the picture of American pride and courage in his sailor’s whites. As plumes of tear gas and police projectiles streamed around him, he alone held the line, standing almost at attention, gripping a “Veterans for Peace” flag with his left hand while extending a copy of the U.S. Constitution—open to the First Amendment—with his right.

In this simple gesture Shannon distilled the sharp contradictions of a political establishment engaged in a decade-long war against increasingly nebulous threats from abroad and from a domestic populace made increasingly desperate by the protracted economic decline. Police had just fired a projectile, probably a beanbag filled with lead shot, into the face of Shannon’s comrade, Scott Olsen, also a veteran. As a dozen people rushed in to tend the fallen man, police lobbed a flash grenade into the huddle. Some scattered, but others carried Olsen’s limp body away from the front line, shielding him from further volleys with their bodies. Olsen, who returned unscathed from two tours of duty in Iraq, suffered a fractured skull and swelling in the brain. His injuries will require neurosurgery.

Whether the Oakland police’s initial denial of having deployed flash grenades and beanbag guns was an attempt at misinformation or just a consequence of institutional disarray—17 different Bay Area law-enforcement agencies were involved in the clashes of October 25—the official line carries increasingly little water in the era of YouTube. Over more than three hours, police repeatedly read the riot act from behind a barricade to those “unlawfully assembled” at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland—the gateway to what the occupiers had dubbed “Oscar Grant Plaza” in memory of the young, unarmed African-American man shot in the back by police on the West Oakland BART platform early on New Year’s Day in 2009. In response to minor provocations—a splash of paint is said to have injured two officers, and, later in the evening, a few bottles were hurled from the crowd—police opened fire. Protesters fled, only to reassemble a few blocks away, rinse tear gas from their eyes with milk of magnesia, and march back to the police line, a pattern that continued through the night.

Had Oakland become a war zone? Did the protesters’ marches up and down Broadway and Telegraph and their attempts to reoccupy the plaza constitute a riot? How easy is it to shift the line between what is peaceful and what is violent in what activists are just calling “the movement”? City government repeatedly warned the occupiers of Frank Ogawa Plaza about public-safety concerns during the week before their forcible eviction, citing an increase in public urination and defecation, a growing rat problem, and fire hazards from cooking. Above all, though, there was a risk from “sexual offenses, fighting, and public drunkenness.”

Americans have not been insensitive to the paradox of using stun grenades, rubber bullets, and chemical agents to preserve the health and safety of a mixed, peaceable crowd of all ages. No one, least of all Marines, likes to see police shoot at Marines. “Does anybody know where they took my buddy?” Shannon asked later, after protesters fled a second round of gas. He fixed his gaze upon a young woman who gave him the phone number for the National Lawyers Guild. His eyes reflected a steely calm, which I mistook for shell shock. After a quick phone call he turned to me and asked, “Do you know where Highland Hospital is?” I offered to look it up for him on my phone. “Those smartphones are great,” he said, as if he had never had the opportunity to use one.

A scruffy, long-haired, 30-something white man wandered around wide-eyed with tears and snot running down his face. “They got me four times with the gas,” he said. “I’ve been up for two nights straight since the raid.” Then, to no one in particular: “They took away my shoes.” An older white man with long wisps of white hair and beard framing his face performed his own Oscar Grant hokeypokey as he faced the line of riot police. “Right hand, taser. Left hand, gun. Right hand, taser. Left hand, gun. Right. Left. Taser. Gun. That’s what it’s all about folks!” His antics drew a peal of laughter from the crowd. Sensing that he had an audience, the man denounced someone he claimed was a known agent provocateur. “He’s the one throwing stuff at the pigs,” he said. “That’s how they took down the Panthers.” The crowd became nervous, unsure how to respond.

As we retreated from another volley of gas and grenades, a young black man beside me shouted, “This right here is the muthafuckin’ revolution! It’s happening just like Huey Newton, King, and X said it would.” He approached me for a cigarette, milk of magnesia dribbling down his shirt, and then treated me to a freestyle about resistance and repression, painting the portrait of a broken system doing everything in its power to keep its populations distracted and amused, holding sham elections that were really just corporate advertising campaigns, bailing out banks and securing profits for the rich while jailing any person of color who couldn’t be deported. The police gave us the chance to run, he said, but Oscar Grant had no such luck. “Revolt the only answer,” he said, concluding the rap with a resounding “Fuck the police!” This was a political mythology of the street—a zero-sum struggle over public space between people and police as proxy for the struggle for freedom itself, an inside-out view of American history, of progress and oppression. Some of the white tech geeks around us nodded, his words burning with new clarity as tear gas burned in our throats.

If there is any ideological consistency to the movement, it is this streets’-eye-view of human freedom. A letter to the U.S. occupations from the occupiers of Tahrir Square articulates the global stakes:

We stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatized, and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios, and police ‘protection’. Hold on to these spaces, nurture them, and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labor made them real and livable? Why should it seem so natural that they should be withheld from us, policed and disciplined? Reclaiming these spaces and managing them justly and collectively is proof enough of our legitimacy.

An idea is catching on in a few neglected scraps of green space: Freedom is not merely one value among many enshrined in empty words in the founding documents of a nation. Freedom is manifested physically in occupations; it is demonstrated in public spaces. It is at stake each and every day, in the ordinary course of life, and it will be taken away if you remain asleep.

With distance, some things have become clear about the events of October 25. The state reacted to drum circles, meditation workshops, and informal talks about the failures of capitalism with chemical agents, flash grenades, and violent force. Occupiers and the people of Oakland demonstrated their determination in the face of what is now widely perceived as an illegitimate use of force.

For the first time since the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, America may watch a presidential election unfold against the backdrop of major police repression. This is a specter which surely haunts Barack Obama, who celebrated his election at the site of the Chicago riots, 40 years later, as if to turn the page for good on that chapter of history. This symbolic gesture may pale in the light of another, sharper image—the President sitting down to a $5,000-a-plate dinner at the San Francisco W Hotel, making polite but indifferent comments about the movement, while across the Bay cops in flak jackets gave the first order to disperse.

The injury of an Iraq War veteran was a public-relations disaster for Mayor Jean Quan and her police force. More than 1,100 people voted for a citywide general strike for November 2 at the evening general assembly on October 26. After police backed down, the plaza was reoccupied, and the fence erected around the grassy areas was taken apart (and neatly stacked). A planned raid on the sister occupation across the bay in San Francisco was called off because of the sheer number of people who came from Oakland and elsewhere to rally in Justin Herman Plaza. Five city supervisors (including some mayoral hopefuls) have thrown their support behind Occupy SF, giving speeches at 1:30 a.m. to the assembled crowd. A tense calm has settled in over the Bay Area occupations.

The consequences of the softer tactics observed on October 25 remain to be seen. Many in attendance came prepared for another confrontation; some expressed disappointment that the police showing was so weak. The adrenaline rush of violent confrontations is hard to deny. We battled for control of the streets and got it. Such freedom was hard-won but is not without its own set of paradoxes. An engine unstoked loses steam.

The scene the following night had an atmosphere of emancipatory celebration. City residents came out on their balconies and porches to flash peace signs and wave white flags. Crowds on the dance floors of local night clubs saluted the demonstration. DJs blew air kisses through plate glass windows. Car horns blared. Every song that blasted seemed like an anthem. All through the streets, cries of “Occupy everything” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” echoed against empty high-rises, vacant lots, offices for sale—the ruins left behind by the collapse of the real-estate bubble.

Christopher Chitty is a doctoral candidate in the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz. He lives in Oakland and blogs here.