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Arriving at 7AM at the Oakland docks on the morning of April 7, I scanned a lively circle of several hundred protestors, including many Palestine solidarity activists, marching in a circular picket and demanding an end to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The corporate targets for the day’s protests (organized by Direct Action to Stop the War) of the Bush imperial war machine were APL (formerly American President Lines), a cargo carrier that has contracts with the Defense Department to ship military cargo to Baghdad, and the Stevedoring Services of America (SSA), which was recently awarded a $4.8 million contract to manage the Umm Qasr seaport in Iraq. As I heard what I took to be tear gas canisters explode further down the docks near another entrance targeted by activists, I grew concerned that my housemates might be trapped in a dicey situation and felt like a cad for showing up an hour later than they had. I harbored no illusions that I could actually do much in response to any Oakland police overreaction aside from blurting out an ineffectual “easy!” or, as I’d done to a cop the week before at the Federal Building in San Francisco who trained a teargas gun at my head while his colleagues put two of my roommates into pain holds, making the sign of the cross as if I was in a vampire flick.
But given that I was joining hundreds of Bay Area activists to act in solidarity with Iraqis under siege by my country’s war machine, an advance into potentially teargas-laden airspace seemed the least I could do.
As I began walking down the train tracks that border the road alongside targeted dock entrances, the police approached me and a handful of other peaceniks and told us not to get behind them, then moved around us in what I can only describe as a paramilitary trot and forced us into the mass of protestors they were driving away from dock entrances. At least now I was not faced with getting arrested in isolation, I thought to myself as my pal June yelled from inside a paddywagon to call her job and tell them she’d be missing work that day.
Soon a line of cops was advancing and making some noises I couldn’t decipher, then firing what looked to be concussion, or flash, grenades not that far above our heads. They also fired bean bags (innocuous looking when recovered later, they obviously stung like hell from the looks on faces they made contact with) and wooden plugs (or blocks, as a friend who works with prisoners who have been fired upon by similar ordnance calls them) big enough to take out an eye. It was the first time I’d made plans with friends for future anti-war projects in an atmosphere that somewhat resembled what people in Jakarta describe going through on a fairly regular basis (admittedly, without a sense of possible torture or random execution). I can’t say it was a treat exactly, especially when I saw a woman who had been hit point blank by either a grenade or one of the wooden projectiles, which had raised a tennis ball-sized bloody lump on her jaw. I quickly grabbed a bunch of well groomed professional types with fancy cameras and dragged them to where she was being comforted by a friend ; a caption that later appeared with her photo said she refused to give her name, but the young woman, called Sre, told me that none of the shutterbugs photographing her wounded face had bothered to ask for it. Sre described bending down in front of a truck to avoid the police onslaught, where a cop ordered her to get up. When she did she was trapped between two cops on motorcycles, who drove her to the gravel bed of train train tracks that I had just been on, then the next thing she knew she was shot. Given that she works with a pacifist affinity group devoted to yoga as a corollary to peaceful protest, it’s a bit difficult to see what threat she posed to the cops.
The official explanation for the extreme police actions is that random ruffians made the mistake of provoking security forces by, according to Deputy Police Chief Patrick Haw, throwing “rocks and big iron bolts at officers.” But Joel Tena, the constituent liason for Oakland Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel, said “I was there from 5a.m. on, and the only violence that I saw was from the police.”
Jeff Grubler, main conspirator behind the notorious insanereagan.com website and its associated series of outrageous political actions, was also on the scene by 5a.m. “I was at the gate where the police first opened fire and no protestor threw anything at any of the cops before they advanced, gave a cursory dispersal order, and opened fire without giving the assembled demonstrators enough time to leave. They continued firing concussion grenades and other projectiles directly at us as we walked or ran away. In fact hundreds of us were forced onto the railroad bed, which is loaded with small stones perfect for throwing back at someone firing on you, but no one responded by doing so, they just kept screaming ‘stop shooting.’ There may have been one kid who eventually did respond by chucking back a stone , but if that did happen it was only after three cycles of police advancing and then firing on us for no apparent reason that anyone could discern.”
Even if there had been a hothead or agent provocateur throwing something, it’s had to imagine such an isolated action justifying opening fire on hundreds of protestors. As Oakland officer Danielle Ashford told the San Jose Mercury News, “There were a few agitators in the crowd. The majority of them were peaceful”; in the same breath Ashford blandly recounted that the cops nonetheless “fired non-lethal munitions.”
The question of how to maintain a respectful yet militant picket without alienating longshoremen not yet won over to the anti-war position was largely solved by the outrageous behavior of the police. Trent Willis, a business agent for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, responded to cops opening fire on his fellow longshore workers by declaring that they would walk off the job.
“They shot my guys. We’re not going to work today,” Willis said. “The cops had no reason to open up on them.” Seven longshore workers went to the hospital for wounds from police fire.
San Francisco activist Don Paul spent the morning talking to longshore workers and said he encountered 100% support for anti-war protestors. “One guy told me, ‘the fucking Oakland police are out of control they should have known better than to piss off longshoremen.’ They’re clearly mad enough to stand up to the war profiteers.”
Repeatedly firing on retreating demonstrators (most activists were hit on their backs or the backs of their legs) was also probably not the most brilliant way to dissuade activists from protesting in Oakland. As a Richmond resident named Scott said of his wounds (shot three times in the back and once in the leg), “this was clearly meant to keep me from coming back to Oakland. But if my country’s military continues to slaughter Iraqi civilians, as it appears it will, I’ll be back. This crap has only strengthened my resolve to stand up and say no to this insane war.”
As Jeff Grubler rightly points out, “the story the media puts out shouldn’t be about demonstrators being shot at, it should be about why we’re out here being subjected to this nonsense: to stand up for people that are being slaughtered in our names. What we went through with these concussion grenades is nothing compared to what Iraqi civilians have been subjected to we’re not dealing with cluster bombs that send shrapnel slicing through people at hundreds of miles an hour. We did an action last week where we told print, TV and radio journalists that we’d be smashing windows in downtown San Francisco. When they arrived and finally figured out, after we subjected them to plenty of carefully worked out anti-war satire describing the civilian casualties in Iraq that they’re normally so bored by, that we were actually going to smash Windows software, which we happily did, they weren’t all that thrilled. But they filmed, photographed and wrote about it anyway and we got our message out. That’s the kind of thing we have to keep on doing, locally, nationally and internationally, until we turn this thing around and help save the Iraqi people from liberation by mass murder.”
BEN TERRALL lives in Oakland. He can be reached at: email@example.com