Upping the Ante for Occupy Oakland: A Tense Standoff in the Park

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Peter DaSilva / EPA

An estimated 3,000 protesters gather at Frank Ogawa Plaza for an Occupy Oakland event on Oct. 26, 2011, in Oakland, Calif.

Correction Appended: November 4, 2011

The downtown area felt vacant as usual on Wednesday afternoon, with scant evidence of the overnight clashes between Occupy Oakland protesters and riot police. Municipal workers mowed the empty grass in front of city hall and officers stood with crossed arms behind a line of barricades, parted to allow employees out for their lunch break. The scores of protesters who had lived on-site for more than two weeks were gone. But a handful of stalwarts — showing off tear-gas canisters and beanbag rounds — stuck around to remind media and passersby that while the proverbial battle may have been lost, the confrontation was just under way. "Yeah, look away, you pig," Mike, 24, a contractor who took off work, shouted at an officer. "Think you can shoot at us and that's it? We're f---ing coming back." An "emergency reconvergence" had been scheduled for 6 p.m., with a pledge to retake the square.

The ante has been upped in Oakland, Calif. And while there is some dispute over who was responsible for the Tuesday melee, the escalation is poised to cast the avowedly nonviolent movement against corporate greed and economic inequality in a different light. Early Tuesday morning, police officers drawn from 18 area law-enforcement agencies dismantled an encampment that had sprawled out across the square and a second, smaller camp. Close to a hundred people were arrested. When protesters attempted to reoccupy the area after nightfall, scuffles broke out, and some police officers were doused with paint before a warning was issued that "chemical agents" would be used, according to city officials. Over the next three hours, police fired multiple volleys of tear-gas rounds and are accused of using flash-bang grenades to clear the square. Protesters fought back with bottles and rocks. Several were injured, including an Iraq veteran turned antiwar activist, who suffered a skull fracture from a police projectile that left him in critical condition.

When the smoke settled, interim Oakland police chief Howard Jordan said in a press conference that authorities had no choice but to respond with tear gas after the agitated crowd had swelled to more than 1,000 and several officers were wounded by the paint thrown at them. He maintained that his men did not use flash-bang grenades, as many witnesses have alleged, but would not rule out the possibility that other agencies involved had used them, vowing to carry out an investigation.

Protesters dismiss the claims as absurd. "They were trying to bait us. These are riot police in full gear — they didn't come to talk. And then when they had the slightest excuse, of course they all move in and drop the hammer," says Vale, 26, an unemployed Oakland resident. Although some fringe elements may have acted out of line by throwing bottles, he added, the reaction was "grossly disproportionate" and "What do you expect when people are coming under heavy attack like that?" Still, there was nascent concern among members of the Occupy group that some "occu-poseurs" are trying to take advantage of the volatile situation, showing up to stir trouble and then leave. "There are some anarchists out there, and I'm not sure if they are planted or just here to mess this up," says one protester, who asked not to be named.

The original version of this story incorrectly stated on page 2 that Grant was shot by a city police officer. He was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer.

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