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Remarks to the Oakland City Council.
My name is SCOTT FLEMING. I am an Oakland resident and an attorney. On April 7, the Oakland Police Department shot me five times with wooden bullets, four times in the back, as I ran away from them during a completely peaceful protest at the Port of Oakland. I am speaking here today on behalf of all of the anti-war protesters who were attacked and injured by the Oakland Police Department.
On the morning of April 7, a number of protesters gathered at the port and set up peaceful pickets in front of a handful of shipping lines. The protesters were doing nothing more than carrying signs and walking in circles. There was a brass band there which helped create what can only be described as a festive atmosphere. There were a number of middle-aged and senior citizens in the crowd. There was nothing about the tone of the protest or the actions of the protesters that could have led the Oakland Police Department to fear violence or confrontation.
Nevertheless, when the police arrived on the scene, all of them were wearing gas masks, and a number of them were armed with what we later learned were wooden bullets, beanbag-firing shotguns, and grenades. I have been to countless demonstrations over the years, and I cannot recall a single instance in which any Bay Area police agency has displayed these kinds of weapons or worn gas masks to a political demonstration. I can only surmise that the Oakland Police Department would not have arrived at the demonstration with this type of weaponry unless they had a pre-planned intent to use it.
The officers lined up on Middle Harbor Road in front of the entrance to American Presidents Line. When they ordered the demonstrators to clear the intersection, the demonstrators complied and the entrance was cleared. Unfortunately, there was nowhere for the demonstrators to go after they cleared the intersection. By blocking Middle Harbor Road, the police denied the demonstrators the nearest and most direct route to leave the port.
As the crowd milled about, it seemed that nobody knew what to do or where to go. Many of the protesters, including myself, had never been to the port before and were unfamiliar with the geography there. After a few minutes, and for no obvious or apparent reason, the morning quiet was pierced by explosions as the Oakland Police Department opened fire on the crowd. Neither I nor anyone else I have spoken to is aware of any act on the part of any demonstrator that could have provoked this violence.
From this point on, the Oakland Police Department swept down Middle Harbor Road and Maritime Street firing repeated barrages, over and over again, into the crowd. They fired on the crowd for approximately an hour and a half to two hours as they pursued us for more than a mile. For much of this time, the Oakland Police Department repeatedly drove a line of large police motorcycles into the crowd. It is my understanding that a number of those who were injured by the motorcycles were terrified young women who were run over as they pleaded with the officers to allow them to escape from the violence.
The munitions used upon us, especially the wooden and beanbag bullets, are extremely dangerous weapons, which was evidenced by the severity of the injuries that day. As we continued down the road, more and more people in the crowd were bleeding and bruised. A law student who was clearly identified as a legal observer by a bright green armband was shot in the head and had blood pouring down his face. A man who works as an environmental engineer for a federal agency was shot in the face and looked to me as if part of his nose was missing. I am told that one young woman had tire tracks up her leg after being run down by a motorcycle officer. And I think we have all seen the sickening and grotesque photograph of Sri Louise, the woman who was shot in the jaw and neck.
I want to make clear that the use of these types of weapons against peaceful protesters is unacceptable under any circumstances. However, it is also clear that the severity of the injuries we saw that day was significantly increased because the Oakland Police Department disregarded the manufacturers1 safety warnings and misused these weapons. For example, we recovered a shell casing used to fire wooden bullets. The casing indicated that it was manufactured by Federal Laboratories in Casper, Wyoming, and fires 264W wooden baton rounds. The casing includes a very clear warning, which states: 3Do not fire directly at persons or serious injury or death may result.2 The warning then admonishes officers to fire the weapons at the ground, from which they are intended to ricochet into peoples1 legs. The fact that so many people that day received injuries to their heads, arms, and torsos strongly indicates that the officers were not firing these weapons as the manufacturers intended. The fact that so many people, like myself, were shot in the back, underscores the fact that the Oakland Police Department was firing on people who were running away.
As reported by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the manufacturer1s training manual states that, when firing wooden bullets, 3areas such as the head, neck, spine, and groin . . . should be avoided unless it is the intent to deliver deadly force.2 Oakland Police Departmental General Order K-3, governing the use of force, similarly requires officers to avoid firing these weapons at these areas of the body. According to the Department1s use of force policy, beanbag (and presumably wooden) bullets are classified as the second most severe use of force in the police arsenal, second only to firearms. In fact, these weapons are classified as being more severe than a police canine bite. Therefore, according to the stated policy of the Oakland Police Department, if the police had been justified on April 7 in shooting us with wooden bullets, they would also have been justified in unleashing police dogs on the crowd. I think we all know exactly which images that evokes, and we all know exactly how wrong that would have been.
The actions of the Oakland Police Department on April 7 evidenced not only an enthusiastic desire to use grossly unreasonable force against peaceful protesters, but also contempt for the exercise of First Amendment rights. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Chief Word sought to justify the shootings by stating that, 3the police decided to fire because they feared that more protesters would arrive later in the day.2 To me, this amounts to an admission by the police chief that he approved the shooting of demonstrators because he hoped the shootings would deter other people from exercising their First Amendment rights. I hope we can all agree that this is unacceptable.
Word also told the Contra Costa Times that his decision to shoot at us was influenced by one of the shipping lines. According to the Times, Chief Word said that 3APL told us, 3You have to clear the property.2 This sounds frighteningly like Chief Word allowed American Presidents Line to assist him in deciding when to use force against the citizens of Oakland.
Those of us who were fired upon on April 7 demand that the Oakland City Council take immediate action by exercising the authority that you have over the Oakland Police Department. We support the idea of a truly independent investigation of the shootings, and believe that such an investigation should lead to terminations up to, and including the police chief, as well as a comprehensive reformulation of police crowd control and use of force policies. However, we also believe that the City Council should not wait for such an investigation before conducting its own inquiries. We demand that the City Council, at the very least, take the following three actions:
1. We want to know who made the decision to fire on us on April 7 and how that decision was made. It is obvious to those of us who were there that morning that the police were armed, wearing gas masks, and prepared to shoot and injure us from the moment they arrived. With only a few exceptions, the Oakland Police Department did not attempt to arrest us before they opened fire. These facts strongly suggest that the Oakland Police Department had decided sometime prior to April 7 to violently attack the port protest.
We know from press accounts that the Oakland Police Department conducted prior meetings with individuals from the Port of Oakland, several shipping lines, and the San Francisco Police Department. Mayor Jerry Brown has enthusiastically supported the shootings. We want to know what role these individuals and organizations played in this decision. We also want to know whether or not the Oakland Police Department had any discussions with state or federal authorities prior to making this decision.
2. We want the officers who fired on us that day to be suspended from the Oakland Police Department. The Oakland Police Departmental General Order governing the use of force states that, 3any member or employee whose use of force results in the . . . serious physical injury of any person shall be placed on paid administrative leave for a period of not less than two days, unless otherwise ordered by the Chief of Police.2 The officers who injured us that day should be suspended. If Chief Word has overridden this policy and prevented any suspensions from occurring, the City Council should be asking why.
3. The Oakland Police Department should immediately cease the use of so-called 3less-lethal2 weapons. On April 7, the police showed that they are incapable of determining when this level of force is appropriate and they are incapable of following clear warnings on the proper use of these weapons, even when those warnings are written right on the side of the ammunition. The City Council should demand that the Police Department enact guidelines that prohibit the use of these weapons against demonstrators.
If the Oakland Police Department is truly a democratically accountable institution, then all three of these demands can easily be met.
In closing, I would simply like to say that the City Council is in a better position than most to know that the Oakland Police Department has an ugly and intolerable history of abusing the citizens of this city. The ongoing Riders scandal showed that the department has a culture which tolerates the abuse and brutalization of citizens in Oakland1s poorer neighborhoods.
The jury verdicts in the Judi Bari lawsuit last year showed that the Department has manufactured evidence in order to discredit political activists. And the shootings of April 7 show that the Oakland Police Department is now willing to shoot and injure peaceful demonstrators for the apparent purpose of chilling and deterring First Amendment expression in the City of Oakland. The City Council must exercise its authority to get to the bottom of these abuses and bring them to an end.
SCOTT FLEMING, an attorney and peace activist, lives in Oakland.