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Open Letter to Oakland elected officials

Dear Mayor Quan, Councilmember Kernighan and Councilmember Kaplan

I am a 9-year resident of City Council District 2. I am writing to express my deep concern over the actions of the Oakland Police Department toward Occupy Oakland protesters, and my disappointment at your apparent inability—or unwillingness—to demand any accountability from a police force which systematically fails to comply with its own policies.

I do not currently consider myself a member of Occupy Oakland. I participated in many of Occupy’s assemblies and protests in the first few months, but in recent weeks I have come to believe that Occupy Oakland may be setting back progress toward the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement by alienating large swaths of the “99 percent.” Frankly, I can understand why many city officials and Oakland residents disapprove of Occupy Oakland‘s disruptions, even if I don’t always share that disapproval, and I have often expressed my criticisms to occupiers both online or in person

This letter, however, is about something which you actually have authority over: the Oakland Police Department. Some instances of police excess have been so widely publicized that I hardly feel the need to mention them here, but in case you need two examples, please review the footage of an OPD officer breaking from his skirmish line in order to beat Kayvan Sabehgi with his baton in early November, while other officers forcefully block a videographer from capturing the assault on film. Or review the footage Scott Campbell took of his own shooting by an OPD officer the same night. I have seen video of you, Mayor Quan, and you, Councilmember Kaplan, being far more aggressive toward a police skirmish line during the Oscar Grant protests than either of those two men were, and indeed more aggressive toward the skirmish line than 99% of Occupy protesters have ever been. Should OPD have teargassed, beaten, or shot you with rubber bullets on that occasion?

I’ll dwell at more length on some recent examples, which have not been as widely publicized. First is the arrest of Adam Katz, an Oakland resident, Occupy Oakland activist, and photographer. Katz was known to police at the plaza because he frequently took photographs or video of officers, and would ask them questions. When Katz heard that police had entered the plaza to clear the vigil and teepee on January 4th, he rushed to the scene with cameras. After getting too close to officers for their taste and taking one photograph, he was ordered to back up. Videos recorded by a TV crew and Katz himself show the rest: Katz backs up and repeatedly asks police where they want him to stand, and the police march toward him giving him unhelpful answers. Finally he is told he has to go across the street, but when he tries to obey that order, he is rushed by two officers and arrested. He was held overnight at Santa Rita jail until being released on $5000 bail (!), and still cannot see a copy of his arrest report because it is part of an “ongoing investigation.“ You can watch his arrest here:

Or consider last Saturday‘s events. YouTube is awash with video of OPD beating nonviolent protesters indiscriminately (clear violations of OPD policy), but I‘ll focus on two incidents which suggest that violations are not isolated cases occurring in the heat of tense moments, but systematic failures of command and flagrant disrespect for departmental policies. Police trapped a large group of marchers in the park at 19th and William Streets (right where the statues of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and others were erected last year). OPD gave orders to disperse, but blocked every possible path out of the area, leaving protesters to frantically move from police line to police line with no way to leave. Then police teargassed the understandably agitated crowd. A remarkable 8-minute video from a neighboring apartment captured the entire scene, and many protesters have compelling video footage of their own. There appears to have been, at the very least, a breakdown of communication and organization on the part of OPD, resulting in hundreds of innocent people being teargassed because they were unable to disperse while being ordered to do so.

After protesters finally did disperse by flattening a fence and crossing the vacant lot at 19th and Telegraph, some of them went home, others kept marching, and some new people joined the protest. After a looping path up Telegraph and down Broadway, protesters were again trapped by police on Broadway in front of the YMCA. This time, OPD did not even bother giving a dispersal order (or if they did give one, NO protesters or journalists on the scene seem to have heard it). Instead, they placed the entire crowd of more than 300 under arrest, in violation of OPD policy which requires an unlawful assembly to be declared at each new location, with peaceful protesters being given an opportunity to leave before being placed under arrest. Also in clear violation of department policy and showing frightening disdain for the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, six professional journalists (including Susie Cagle, who had been wrongly arrested and jailed by OPD in early November) were arrested and held for varying periods of time in plastic handcuffs even though they clearly identified themselves as journalists. Two of the journalists were transported to Santa Rita jail along with protesters, where one was held for several hours and another was held overnight.

These are just two incidents in a long day of protest and confrontation. I encourage you to spend an hour or two perusing videos of protesters being beaten, shot with non-lethal “beanbags“ (how quaint that sounds!), or teargassed, and consider whether that level of sustained violence was needed to prevent an overwhelmingly peaceful crowd from gaining entry to a well-defended building, and to deal with a small number of agitators throwing objects at the helmeted police. I am not surprised that the Alameda County DA is currently only charging a dozen of the 400 or so people arrested on Saturday. Nor will I be surprised if the city ends up paying many millions of dollars to settle a class action suit brought by people swept up in the mass arrests at the YMCA.

It did not escape my notice that Howard Jordan’s position as police chief was made permanent today, four days after the department he commands showed itself to be unable, or unwilling, to follow its own crowd control and use-of-force policies. Almost four months after Chief Jordan was made interim chief, OPD is closer than ever to being ordered into Federal receivership because of failure to meet the basic professional and procedural standards required by the Negotiated Settlement Agreement it signed 9 years ago. We are frequently told that incidents are “under investigation” by the department itself or by an independent commission, but removing “interim” from the Police Chief’s title four days after Saturday’s events tells me everything I need to know about how seriously Oakland officials take accountability for the police department. I am astounded that more than three months after Scott Olsen suffered a traumatic brain injury as citizens of Oakland were indiscriminately assaulted by police, no police brass or top city officials have been held accountable by getting fired or being asked to resign.

When pressed, many elected officials concede that mistakes have been made, but the conversation is quickly redirected toward disrespectful, disruptive, or destructive protesters who broke a window or threw a bottle or burned an American flag. One has to wonder: do you hold the city’s professionally trained police officers, who are sworn to uphold the laws and constitution, to a lower standard of behavior than you demand from a disorganized bunch of protesters? It certainly seems that way.

As I said above, I am not writing in order to defend the behavior of Occupy Oakland, some of which I strongly disapprove of. And my personal interactions with individual OPD officers have always been professional; I have little reason to doubt that most are decent men and women just trying to do their jobs. It distresses me that so many Oakland residents see the police as their enemy, and I appreciate the steps OPD has taken in recent years to be more open and accountable to residents. That said, the brazen disrespect for policies, laws, and the constitution shown by some officers sworn to uphold them is disturbing evidence that deep systemic problems remain, and the absence of leadership on this issue from top OPD and city officials is truly dismaying.

I appreciate your time and attention. I will also be posting this letter online as an open letter. Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of this further.