by Andrew Lichterman

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Oscar Grant Plaza, Occupy Oakland

Early Tuesday morning, hundreds of police officers descended on the Occupy Oakland encampment, driving campers from their beds. The police arrested those who stayed, gassing some and shooting others with “non-lethal” projectiles. Their property was confiscated, the small temporary village, with its kitchen and library, medical tent and children’s area, was destroyed.

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Children’s play zone and medical tent, the kind of threats to public order that required hundreds of heavily armed police to subdue.

But that was just the beginning. When Occupy Oakland residents and supporters attempted to reclaim the plaza– with a march that from most reports appeared, with the exception of scattered incidents, to be nonviolent on the part of the protesters– police responded with overwhelming force. It is clear that large quantities of tear gas and various “nonlethal” rounds were fired at unarmed civilians. I was not there Tuesday night. But I would note that I have been present at many, many demonstrations, including a number that involved objects thrown at police in which the police response was considerably more restrained. I find it difficult to believe in this case that police officers, present in very large numbers, armed and in full riot gear, ever were in significant danger from the demonstrators. It seems more likely that those who decided to deploy the kind of force we saw Tuesday wanted to send a strong message, and perhaps one that would be heard beyond Oakland.

The militarized U.S. police forces of the 21st century also seem to have absorbed the attitudes and approach of the U.S. armed forces: deploy maximum force to overawe all adversaries. If any resistance is encountered, protecting the armed forces of the State takes priority over everything else: civilian lives in U.S. wars of occupation abroad, and Constitutional rights and the last shreds of democracy at home. And perhaps our elites also consider civilian lives a regrettable but necessary cost in what what looked on Tuesday like a war against the expansion of democracy: one demonstrator, a Marine veteran who survived two tours in Iraq without harm, lies in the hospital critically injured, shot in the head with one or another kind of allegedly “non-lethal” projectile.

One might wonder whether if Oakland had suffered a large earthquake and its residents had self-organized to feed and house themselves in its parks and open spaces if local authorities would have felt it appropriate to fly-speck those encampments for health and safety violations, and to destroy and disperse them if they were not up to code. This country has suffered an economic and social catastrophe, and its authorities–local, state and Federal– have proven incapable of responding with measures that can provide for the welfare of all of its people. More and more people, feeling abandoned by governments who respond only to the concentrated economic power of corporations and the wealthiest individuals, are attempting to organize together both for mutual support and to find a way forward that works for the rest of us. The response from the “authorities” is to find ways to declare such activities to be crimes. But the truly “unlawful assemblies” today are occurring inside the halls of government, where every voice and vote is for sale to the highest bidder, not on streets and plazas where people are trying to create ways of living together where basic human needs are met, and where every voice is heard and respected.

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Occupy Oakland by night