It has been a strange couple of days. I woke up on Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. to finish some writing. It was still dark, but I heard several helicopters buzzing near my house. I checked Twitter and discovered several hundred police officers were clearing out the Occupy Oakland tent city a few miles away.
Well, I wasn’t expecting the morning’s eviction to turn into a national media s**t storm. By Tuesday evening, somewhere around 500 people were marching through downtown Oakland. Police told them to go home, but they didn’t. People started throwing things at police. Police launched tear gas. By the time things wound down at around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, police had fired several rounds of tear gas and beanbags at protesters, and there were various semi-confirmed reports of rubber bullets, flash grenades, and even a sound cannon.
Why do you care? Well, it turns out these protesters are not just deadbeats and drug addicts. There were several lawyers in the crowd, too. We spoke with a few of them, starting with Shahid Buttar. He is a Stanford Law School grad and the Executive Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. He spent Tuesday afternoon lecturing on privacy in a UC Berkeley journalism class, then spent the night getting tear gassed in downtown Oakland….
Buttar says his organization works to help communities restore civil rights in the wake of “the war on terror, the war on drugs, and the war on immigrants.” He spends a lot of time on the road at speaking engagements. During his travels, he has visited OWS protests in several cities, including Philadelphia and Boston.
After speaking in Berkeley, he heard about the fracas in Oakland. So he felt compelled to see what was going on. When he arrived, he said there was a sizable contingent of “professionally successful” people in addition to hippies.
“Last night I saw lawyers raising their voices, chanting,” Buttar said. “Putting aside [their] professional detachment.”
Say what? No way. Unless you’re this guy. Has Buttar seen many attorneys at other Occupy protests?
“Absolutely not,” he said.
What made the craziness in Oakland different? Buttar said he thinks the police response significantly changed the scope of who came out. He ran into Dan Roth, a Boston College law grad and criminal defense attorney in Berkeley (he asked me not to mention his firm’s name, but just Google it if you care), and the Berkeley lecturer Buttar visited, Stanford Law graduate and photographer Geoffrey King.
I spoke to Roth and King briefly. They both said they saw the police violence as vastly disproportionate to the relatively unaggressive, small number of protesters. “By far the most violence I’ve seen on behalf of the police,” King said. He has photographed protests across the country since the Iraq war began.
Roth heard how ugly it had become and wanted to witness it for himself. I can relate. No matter what your general opinion about OWS, it’s hard to stay apathetic when this happens in your backyard.
In a way, Buttar sees his interest in Oakland as similar to the way the legal profession got involved in the Guantánamo scandal a few years ago:
“It’s an obligation I think is incumbent on all lawyers and law students — to defend the rights of dissent in an age of state repression,” he said.
The violence has been covered elsewhere. In sum, Oakland police officers and law enforcement from 15 other jurisdictions around the Bay Area launched tear gas, beanbags, and allegedly flash bangs and rubber bullets (Oakland denies using those last items, but said other departments might have used them). Some reports say OPD had a sound cannon on hand, though no one has confirmed its use.
An Iraq veteran, Scott Olsen, was hit in the head with a beanbag or a tear gas canister. He spent Wednesday in critical condition and went into surgery in the evening.
Buttar, King, and Roth all said there was a rhythm to the chaos. A roguish protester would throw something, like an empty bottle or paint. Police would respond with tear gas. His take, which seems mostly consistent with media reports, was that the crowd was mostly non-violent and attempting to self-regulate. The tear gas sounded like bombs going off, he said, and it was very disorienting.
A Bay Citizen article quoted his colorful call to non-violence:
Despite the violence, many protesters encouraged others to stay peaceful, and there were no reports of the kind of looting that occurred last year when hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the same location after former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting of Oscar Grant.
A civil rights lawyer, Shahid B[u]ttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, told protesters: “Don’t throw s**t. Don’t throw s**t.”
The guys I spoke with are not the only attorneys on record supporting the protests. Dan Siegel, a local attorney whose civil disobedience history traces back to the 1960s and Students for a Democratic Society, told the East Bay Express Wednesday evening via Twitter:
“I will tell you that I strongly advised [Mayor Quan] to allow the camp to continue. I am part of this movement… The mayor does not always take my advice. I wish she did. We need to demand that Wall Street be turned into a garden.”
Postscript: It’s 1 a.m. West Coast time, Thursday morning. I just came back from the second evening of protests. There were significantly more people, upwards of 2,000 depending on who you ask. The police backed way off; they were present but almost entirely out of sight. There was a massive gathering in front of City Hall for several hours and then a destination-less march around Oakland until roughly midnight. At some point, the crowd thinned, leaving a smaller group to hang out, rebuild their tents, whatever.
It looks like the protesters won this round. The Oakland government backed down and allowed everyone to return to the park. For now. I’m just happy I didn’t yet tear gassed.
Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at [email protected]. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.