Reflections on #J28: Complicit Government

Posted on 31 January 2012 by Martha Bacon

Following the events of January 28, Mayor Jean Quan released a statement asking Occupy to ‘stop using Oakland as its playground.’ Well, I can assure Mayor Quan that none of us think we are playing a game. This has been very real for all of us for a long time. It got a little more real on Saturday and the violent tactics of the police, as endorsed by city hall, continue to escalate at a terrifying rate. People, our friends, are really being beaten and tear-gassed, profiled and targeted, snatched off the streets and mass arrested by the hundreds.

Scott Olsen really had his skull fractured by a tear gas canister, Keyvan Sabeghi really had his spleen ruptured, Kali Johnson is really facing life in prison. This is happening to us, right now. This is our reality.

It is clear that OPD are not bound by law or morality. They will break their own crowd control policies without hesitation. They will mercilessly attack and brutalize innocent people, and many of them will relish the opportunity. We should not be surprised; they are only doing what they have always done best–waging war on the people of Oakland. They are seemingly omnipresent and predictably ruthless, but they are far from our only problem.

After the police attack us, they will blatantly lie and falsify evidence, and their version of the story will be regurgitated by all the major news sources around the country. No matter what happens, Mayor Quan and the ostensibly progressive members of city council will release statements declaring how proud they are of their police force, making sure to highlight how violent we are. They might even call us ‘economic terrorists,’ intentionally linking Occupy with terrorism in the minds of the American public and setting the stage for our rights to be taken away even more dramatically. They are worse than complacent bystanders are; they are active participants in the harm and oppression visited on us.

It is increasingly obvious that our local government has no interest in defending our rights and freedoms. I think it would be naive to assume that federal receivership of OPD will solve the problem, and equally naive to think that Barrack Obama, or Ron Paul or any other president might save us. The government is never going to step in to protect us. It is ultimately up to us to protect each other, and this includes protecting those we don’t always agree with.

I personally happen to be in agreement with the contingent of Occupy Oakland that sees nonviolence as our most effective tool. However, we all know that the police are not attacking us because we represent a physical threat to them or anyone else. A bottle thrown from the crowd may give the cops a convenient excuse to justify their excessive force, but I doubt they can even feel it through their riot gear. Their tactics do not discriminate between violent and nonviolent protesters any more than they discriminate between children and adults, women and men, the elderly or the disabled. People have been beaten and arrested for doing nothing more than standing on the sidewalk, and it has happened in situations when there was not even the flimsiest pretense of perceived aggression on the part of protesters.

Yes, we could all peacefully submit to arrest and abuse when faced with the all-too-familiar wall of riot cops, and that might be the wisest choice. It probably wouldn’t stop them from beating us but it would undoubtedly help our public image, and it would most likely gain us some support from those on the fence. But is it fair to expect others to be martyrs for the sake of a PR battle that will always be skewed against us? Does anyone have the moral authority to demand that people stay passive and peaceful in the face of a police force that has been systematically violent and oppressive to them for generations, long before the Occupy movement existed?

The police force and the law, which we have always been told are there to protect us, are being used as weapons against us. For many of us, this realization is paradigm shifting and hard to come to grips with. For some of us, it is simply the way things have always been.

We need to move beyond the victim-blaming and the false dichotomies that the mainstream media so love, and recognize that we are all in this together and that we need each other badly right now. A burning flag or a broken window means nothing when weighed against the broken bones and teeth, cracked skulls, and crushed spirits of our fellow people. The ideology that holds property as more important than human life is our true enemy, more dangerous than the OPD could ever dream of being.

Fortunately, I feel like I am preaching to the choir at this point. Coming back to the plaza on January 29, I saw very little infighting or criticism of tactics. What I saw was strong support and solidarity, friends and strangers hugging and comforting one another. Much like after the autumn raids, regrouping with Occupy after a night of traumatic violence was healing. I think we all realize what is at stake here, and that this is bigger than our personal politics.

But what will it take for the rest of America to realize, to move past their blind loyalty to the status quo and the powers that be? Reading the news on January 29 was literally a sickening experience for me. It is sickening to still hear friends and family members say that protesters deserve whatever happens to them, when they well know that ‘protesters’ means you, and ‘whatever happens to them’ means being brutally beaten, arrested on false charges, and stripped of your rights. It seems that people have already become used to activists being gassed and beaten, which is absurd and scary to me.

No matter how often I have witnessed it by now, I don’t think I will ever become used to seeing a woman on the ground with multiple large men beating her with all their might, or seeing the streets of downtown Oakland filled with tear gas and patrolled by unfeeling, heavily armored riot cops. On Saturday, 400 people were corralled, abused, and mass arrested for exercising their right to free speech, and the public didn’t seem to bat an eye. Will it take an actual death? Will it take their own police forces becoming as militarized as the OPD, and their own liberal mayors exposing their hypocrisy? I don’t think people understand that that this is not just an Oakland problem, that this can and will happen everywhere if we don’t all take a strong stance against it now.

They don’t yet realize that if this is our reality, then it is theirs too.

We might all do well to remember this quote by Martin Niemöller, an outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”