Chasing Romney Excerpt: Occupy
The first indication that something was amiss was the helicopters, which buzzed all day over Oakland. Between that and all the black riot uniforms, it reminded me vaguely like a photo of a police action in some middle eastern country that the U.S. should have pulled out of years ago.
People had been steadily gathering since the police took the Occupy Oakland member’s tents and evicted the Occupiers out of Oscar Grant Park earlier in the day, arresting anyone who resisted. The people that they chased out represented a large portion of the population, from homeless people looking for a free meal and free tent from the movement, to the Connecticut-born, soul-patched, beret-wearing, wealthy libertarian writing a screenplay earlier that day in a Starbucks with his Mac Book Pro that his parents tossed him for his PhD program.
The tensions were building along with the crowd, the memory of the shooting of a surrendered, face down Oscar Grant in the BART station by Oakland PD still fresh in the collective conscious of the crowd. It brought with it in that extra waft of fear, bitterness and sense of injustice that can quickly turn a crowd into a mob.
I joined the protest around Broadway and Twentieth late in the day. By the time I got there, the crowd was marching, and was large enough to completely fill all four of the Broadway’s lanes for blocks. The crowd had brought their bikes, dogs and cameras and waved their makeshift signs. The vanguard held banners saying “Oakland Commune” and “Oakland Teachers Say NO POLICE VIOLENCE” made out of yellow canvas. The letters were painted boldly in black, both signs large rectangles blocking an entire traffic lane. Although some of the signs that would come out after tonight would be beautiful works of art, these were bare bones, hastily assembled as a reaction to the unexpected crackdown earlier in the day.
As I rolled up to the banners, they were momentarily lit up by the beautiful sapphire floating in the sky, the police chopper with its search light that had been ominously stalking the crowd for the entire day, its stuttered song sung overhead like a buzzard.
We marched up and down Broadway, and made our way down to Broadway and Seventh. The Oakland Police Department was currently holding several arrestees taken from Occupy Oakland when they cleared out the park. The crowd chanted and sang at the station, but after the sentiment had been expressed, the great headless beast began to shamble and stumble and scream back up Broadway.
We walked until we reached Oscar Grant Park again at Broadway and Fourteenth. There were some police set up along the way behind barricades. They were set up in front of building columns, with the police lined up between the columns in full riot gear, their numbers steadily increasing.
The crowd was large enough that it would pass any one cop for several minutes while walking, spitting insults or, occasionally, someone stepping out of the crowd to tell the police they understand and don’t want to clash with law enforcement. For the police, it must have been a surreal experience, having the small parts of a giant crowd it was supposed to control stepping out to call them an asshole for several minutes, followed by silence as the fickle attention of a crowd drifts quickly.
When we reached the park again, the police were no longer merely lined up: they had established a roadblock between Oscar Grant Park and Broadway to prevent the crowd from retaking the park. The crowd was, for the most part, peaceful. There is, however, always a few nuts in any crowd. This particular protest’s nuts lit fires in garbage cans. Other protesters booed and quickly put out, and threw a few rocks and a bottle at the cops.
The more peaceful minded formed a human chain, and took unused barricades around them to make a second fence, essentially creating a no man’s land between the cops and the protesters that was respected by all at first, other than myself and a few other photographers, in addition to one man in full Navy uniform waving a VeteransForPeace.Org flag. One or two people walked up and down the police line frantically trying to communicate something futile judging from the military stone that the police appeared to be carved out of.
There was a woman in a motorized wheelchair that came into the middle with a few friends to hold hands and sing, perhaps believing that she could help shield the crowd from the police with hippy and handy-capability. The most ominous sign of things to come, it was when the more professional photographers arrived with gas masks. Eventually, the more ambitious of the protesters started to push the forward, and the no man’s land was beginning to fill a bit, with perhaps twenty or thirty protesters wandering up and down, and one super-hippy burning sage and flashing peace signs high into the air.
The police had been warning on a megaphone that they were going to use chemical weapons for about twenty minutes now, so long that it had begun to feel like an idle threat. I turned my back on the front between the cops and the protesters to get a few more shots from further away to give a better sense of the size of the crowd. As soon as I turned away from the no man’s land, there was a loud crack like a bottle rocket had gone off over my shoulder, leaving my ear ringing.
I looked over to see a small cloud in the middle of the protesters, and bright flashes from small explosions. There were yells and a stampede, the confusion of a herd in distress and the panic that accompanies the sudden screams of those in pain. Some of the screamers looked as though they were trying to put out the flames in their eyes with their bare palms, rubbing hard as they could. There were some who struggling to clear their eyes of the caustic chemicals that slowly spread like a fog rolling downhill since the police fired into the crowd. They weren’t sure if they should find water to flush their eyes or concentrate on outrunning the chemical cloud. The police were now leaving their tight formations with clubs.
Scott Olsen had already been carried off, bleeding with his skull split and conscious yet unable to speak, blinking dumbly up after his wits had been knocked out of him after taking a gas grenade to the face. By the time the crowd gathered its wits enough for people to be informed that the water they were pouring into peoples’ eye’s was only making the burning worse. The proper treatment of milk or vinegar to counteract the gas soon spread through the crowd. When Occupy Oakland marched the following night, the smell of vinegar permeated the area.
The police had fired well, effectively splitting the crowd in two, the halves confused but not willing to disband as they outran a gas cloud in opposite directions. The crowd had spread out; people running in whichever direction appeared to be the most direct route away from the gas cloud, falling over each other as they did. The next time I saw the woman in the motorized wheelchair was on a clip on The Daily Show, as a few people stayed behind in a completely futile act of solidarity as there was little they could do to help the woman and her machine move faster while their own eyes burned.
I was as confused about what to do as the next guy and, myself having the fleet feet of a coward, I quickly sprinted several blocks away. I was completely and eerily alone considering how, just a minute ago, it was standing room only.
I made my way back and soon stood across the street from the police line where a few others had returned. One was a young man, whose face was covered in a bandana, holding his side, fighting back tears in obvious pain as he pulled down his bandana and attempted to light a cigarette. He had been shot with a rubber bullet for whisking away Scott Olsen to the ambulance. He lifted his shirt up for my camera, revealing a dark red and blue mark slightly larger in circumference than a half dollar; his memento for aiding a young man in obvious and desperate need.
There was a large woman tending to his wounds, with the same familiar, friendly Red Cross on her arm that the medical tent had before the police raid. She gave him an icepack for his injury and some aspirin as he clenched his teeth on his cigarette. While the wounded explained how he had come to his injury, someone walked from our end of the sidewalk towards his bike in the middle of the street. As he grabbed his bike, a cop shot him with four or five beanbag bullets before he stopped trying to pick it up, let it go, threw up his hands in a gesture that said “fuck it, keep my bike” and ran away.
The two halves of the crowd had reconstituted themselves, and roamed about for around twenty or thirty minutes before they managed to find each other, the vanguard of each group running over and hugging the other excitedly, feeling the proof with a sense of pride and joy that the Occupy movement could not so easily be disbanded.