Only real change can avert more conflict

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This week's May Day events brought together immigrant groups, labor unions, and activists with the Occupy movement to confront gross inequities in our economic and political systems. That's a healthy democratic exercise, even if it sometimes provokes tense standoffs with police and property interests. But the day was marred by violence that didn't need to happen, and that's a dangerous situation that could only get worse.

The Oakland Police Department debuted new crowd control policies to manage marches of several thousand people, and there were some improvements over its previous “military-type responses” that have placed the OPD under the oversight of federal courts. For example, when the decision was made to clear Frank Ogawa Plaza around 8:30 p.m., police allowed escape routes (instead of using dangerous kettle-and-arrest tactics), clearly visible public information officers were available to answer questions, and people were allowed to return shortly thereafter.

“We're not attempting to permanently clear the plaza, we just want things to settle down,” OPD spokesperson Robyn Clark told me at the scene.

But the OPD continues to provoke conflicts and mistrust with its confrontational tactics, even as it argues that such tactics are actually intended to improve its approach to handling large demonstrations. “Today’s strategy focused on swiftly addressing any criminal behavior that would damage property or jeopardize public or officer safety. Officers were able to identify specific individuals in the crowd committing unlawful acts and quickly arrest them so the demonstration could continue peacefully,” OPD wrote in press release late Tuesday night.

That sounds nice, but it's only partially true, and the entire situation is a lot more complicated and volatile than that. Clark and witnesses told me at the scene that the dispersal order came after police charged into a crowd of several hundred, perhaps more than 1,000, to arrest someone with a stay-away order and were met with an angry reaction from the crowd.

What did they expect? The city decided to seek stay-away orders against many Occupy Oakland protesters – a barely constitutional act that only fans divisions between the city and protesters – and then to execute them at a time when elements of both sides were itching for a fight anyway. Perceptions become reality in a scene like that, which can quickly escalate out of control (which is what happened – almost all the property damage in Oakland occurred after the plaza was cleared by police).

“These pigs can't wait to come in here and bust us up,” speaker Robbie Donohoe told the crowd shortly before the sound permit ended at 8 pm, warning people to leave soon is they didn't want to assume the risk of a violent confrontation with police.

It wasn't an unreasonable expectation after watching police decked out in riot gear, loaded down with tear gas canisters, and gathered around an armored vehicle with military-style LRAD sound weapon since mid-afternoon. Donohoe wasn't advocating violence, but an important revolutionary and constitutional principle: the right to assemble and seek redress of our grievances.

“They didn't have a permit in Egypt, they didn't have a permit in Tunisia, and we don't need a permit here! If you want to stay, you stay!” he said.

Many Americans share that viewpoint, and they're frustrated that political corruption and economic exploitation have continued unabated since the Occupy Wall Street movement began almost eight months ago. And many young people – particularly the Black Bloc kids who show up with shields and weapons, ready to fight – are prepared to take those frustrations out in aggressive ways, as we saw Monday night during their rampage through the Mission District.

Witnesses and victims of that car- and storefront-smashing spree are understandably frustrated both with the perpetrators and the San Francisco Police Department, whose officers watched it happen and did nothing to stop it or apprehend those who did it. SFPD spokesperson Daryl Fong told us it just happened too quickly, with less than 20 officers on hand to deal with more than 150 vandals.

“Obviously, you have people with hammers, crowbars, and pipes engaged in this kind of act, with the number of officers involved, it was challenging and difficult to control,” he told us.

In both Oakland and San Francisco, the reasons for the escalation of violence were the same: police officer safety. That's why OPD asserts the right to use overwhelming force against even the slightest provocation, and it's why the SFPD says they could do nothing even when the Mission Police Station came under attack.

Now, I'm not going to second-guess these decisions by police, even though we should theoretically have more control over their actions than any of us do those of angry Black Bloc kids, although I do think both of these sides are looking for trouble and invested in the paradigm of violent conflict.

Rather, I think it's time for our elected leaders, from Mayor Ed Lee to President Barack Obama, to stop giving lip service to supporting the goals and ideals of the Occupy movement and start taking concrete actions that will benefit the 99 percent and diffuse some of these tensions. This is dangerous game we're all planning, and we're teetering on the edge of real chaos that will be difficult to reel back in once it begins.

“We are not criminals. We are workers, we pay rent, we own homes,” Alicia Stanio, an immigrant and labor organizer for the Pacific Steel Casting Company, told a crowd of thousands that had gathered in San Antonio Park in Oakland, where three marches converged on their way to City Hall, carefully monitored by a phalanx of cops.

She and thousands like her didn't march or speak or risk violence on May Day just because they like being in the streets. They're desperate for change, real change, and it's time that our leaders begin to deliver it before things really get out of hand in this country.

 

Shawn Gaynor contributed to this report.