Police have arrested more than 400 Occupy Oakland protesters, as well as a number of journalists, in one of the largest mass arrests since the nationwide Occupy protests began last year. When protesters attempted to convert a vacant building into a community center on Saturday, witnesses say police used tear gas, bean bag projectiles and flash grenades. Several hours later, police said some of the protesters broke into City Hall. However, demonstrators claim they found the door to City Hall already ajar. We play a video report from Oakland filed by John Hamilton of KPFA. We get a response from Occupy Oakland member, Maria Lewis, to Oakland City Council Member Ignacio De La Fuente’s accusation that the Occupy movement is engaging in "domestic terrorism." "They are more interested in protecting abandoned private property than they are the people. And the idea that opening up a social center is terrorism is very telling of the narrative of the police state," Lewis says. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Oakland, California, where police have arrested more than 400 Occupy Oakland protesters as well as a number of journalists. One of the largest mass arrests since the Occupy protests began took place on Saturday and early Sunday when people attempted to convert a vacant building into a community center. On Saturday, after the crowd reportedly refused to follow police orders to disperse from the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, witnesses say police used tear gas, bean bag projectiles and flash grenades. Several hours later, police said some of the protesters broke into City Hall. However, demonstrators claimed they found the door to City Hall already ajar.
The Associated Press quoted Oakland Mayor Jean Quan as saying people who broke into City Hall burned a flag they found inside, broke an electrical box, and damaged art displays. Mayor Quan, later directly addressing Occupy Oakland and its supporters.
MAYOR JEAN QUAN: Occupy Oakland has got to stop using Oakland as its playground, and that people in the community and people in the Occupy movement have to stop making excuses for this behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Occupy Oakland Media Committee group issued its statement, saying police officers had violated their department’s code of conduct for dealing with protesters, calling the mass arrests "illegal."
For more, we go now to a video report from Oakland filed by John Hamilton.
JOHN HAMILTON: Occupy Oakland billed Saturday as "Move-In Day," as their afternoon march set its sights on the sprawling Kaiser Convention Center near downtown.
POLICE OFFICER: I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly and, in the name of the people of the state of California, command all those assembled to immediately leave the area.
BOOTS RILEY: Occupy Oakland is marching to go occupy a building to have a home base. They’re kicking folks out of Oscar Grant Plaza, so we’re going to go take a building.
JOHN HAMILTON: A crowd of some 2,000 hoped to turn the vacant convention center into a community space, but Oakland’s police department had other ideas.
POLICE OFFICER: You may be arrested or subject to removal by force, if necessary, which may result in serious injury.
PROTESTER 1: This is not an unlawful assembly. This is a lawful assembly. We are not doing any vandalism.
JOHN HAMILTON: Thwarted in their attempt to claim a new space for Occupy Oakland, protesters soon found themselves face to face with scores of riot police. Stephanie Demos is an Occupy Oakland activist.
STEPHANIE DEMOS: Police began firebombing the crowd. They were shooting rubber bullets, they were shooting explosive devices, and they were shooting tear gas. And we were all gassed. I was gassed.
PROTESTER 2: I started tasting a little tear gas in the back of my mouth, and then I saw a shot, and it landed right where some people had these like corrugated metal sort of barricady things. And everybody started running. And then you could really kind of taste the tear gas.
JOHN HAMILTON: The extraordinary violence came as protesters sought to reestablish a permanent occupation, following police raids last November which cleared their encampment outside City Hall.
STEPHANIE DEMOS: For Move-In Day, the objective was to get a large building where we might be able to have our meetings indoors, especially during winters, and have a good kitchen where we could provide not only for ourselves as a movement, but provide for the homeless population in this town who do not have kitchens and do not have food half the time, have spaces for people, you know, to gather and have a library and every other kind of regular social function that a community space would have.
JOHN HAMILTON: Members of Occupy Oakland say their campaign to challenge corporate power was dealt a serious setback after city officials denied them a permanent public space. Marla Schmalle is an Oakland community activist.
MARLA SCHMALLE: When we had the encampment, people could come down every night. But people lived here all day, and they kept talking, and the consciousness began to build. So when the camp was taken away, and it was cold anyhow out here, I mean, we really need a place in order to develop our consciousness about what’s happening.
JOHN HAMILTON: In all, about 400 people were arrested throughout Saturday’s day of action, many of them kettled by police in an area outside a YMCA during a nighttime march through Oakland’s downtown. Again, Stephanie Demos.
STEPHANIE DEMOS: And as they were marching, they were waylaid by police again and kettled in to in front of the YMCA, where they were surrounded by police. And when they were given an order to disperse, they were not given a path to disperse.
PROTESTER 3: We want to go. We want to leave. Let us leave.
PROTESTER 4: We don’t want to be here. We want to go.
STEPHANIE DEMOS: They were completely surrounded and pushed into the building. So, there were people working inside the building who voluntarily opened the doors to the building to let people get in and escape out the back way.
JOHN HAMILTON: But the day’s actions and the arrests that would follow were not done. Pacifica Radio host Mitch Jeserich witnessed a further protest at Oakland City Hall.
MITCH JESERICH: I didn’t see anyone break into City Hall. The door was open. Some people went inside. A lot of people didn’t go inside. You could tell there was—a lot of people were hesitant to go inside. It seemed like a very major thing to do. The people who did go inside, they went into, I believe, the city council chamber, brought out the American flag that was in there, and then tried to burn it. They didn’t burn the whole thing, but they tried to burn it out here. Then the police showed up, fired some flash grenades, smoke bombs, and it dispersed.
JOHN HAMILTON: Though they endured the largest day of arrests in their young movement’s history, members of Occupy Oakland say they’re preparing to escalate their campaign.
PROTESTER 5: Occupy Oakland will join in enthusiastically with the call for a national and global general strike on May 1st, May Day, 2012. And we encourage all other Occupies, all other social movements in the world, in this country, to join on to that call, as well, and make May 1st a massive general strike across the world.
PROTESTER 6: With 200 exactly votes yes, a strike has passed. No stand-asides, zero no’s, to voted, 200.
JOHN HAMILTON: For Democracy Now!, I’m John Hamilton, with Brandon Jourdan, in Oakland, California.
AMY GOODMAN: And you are watching and listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Berkeley, California, to Maria Lewis. She’s a participant in the Occupy Oakland movement, an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, where she is broadcasting to us from.
Maria, explain what happened this weekend and what happened to you.
MARIA LEWIS: Hi. Yeah. So, this weekend, despite the brutal police repression that the people of Oakland faced, I think was a really beautiful weekend. What we saw was thousands of people taking to the streets to reclaim what this economic and political system in this country has systematically denied us, which is the right to basic food, basic shelter, basic medical care, the things that the Oakland Commune, Occupy Oakland, used to provide in its encampment and has been unable to since that encampment was brutally repressed by the Oakland police. There were thousands of people in the street who fought to reclaim a building, a vacant building, and one of the hundreds of vacant buildings in the city, and to open that space up for people as a social center, as a place where we can get basic—our basic needs met and meet them ourselves. And while we weren’t able to secure that building this weekend, I was really amazed at the spirit and the voracity of the Oakland residents who were fighting in the street this weekend.
I think one of the other things we saw this weekend was a brutal police repression that was really revealing about the priorities of the city. So, tear gas, flashbang grenades, rubber bullets, beanbag guns were all used against Oakland residents who were attempting to retake an abandoned building. All of this was used to protect abandoned private property, and I think that that’s really revealing about the city’s priorities, that it’s really more interested in protecting abandoned private property than it is in human beings.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria Lewis, what about some of the reports that said that the protesters were violent?
MARIA LEWIS: Absolutely. There was a lot of anger this weekend, and I think that the anger that the protesters showed in the streets this weekend and the fighting back that did take place was reflective of a larger anger in Oakland that is boiling over at the betrayal of the system. I think that people, day by day, are realizing, as the economy gets worse and worse, as unemployment gets worse and worse, as homelessness gets worse and worse, that the economic system, that capitalism in Oakland, is failing us. And people are really angry about that, and they’re beginning to fight back. And I think that that’s a really inspiring thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria, you were not personally arrested, but you have—I mean, this weekend, we saw one of the largest mass arrests in the last year. Seven hundred people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. Talk about your own choices in not being arrested, also being a student and your involvement with this movement, and how the arrests were conducted.
MARIA LEWIS: Yeah. So, what happened—there were several arrests that happened during the day, when we attempted to occupy the Kaiser center, but the majority of the arrests happened later that evening when we attempted to march to a backup location and to occupy a backup location. The police kettled the protesters twice. The first time we were kettled at 19th and Telegraph, we were surrounded on all sides and given no option to disperse and then tear-gassed while in the kettle. And it was only really through the scrappiness and resourcefulness of the protesters that we were able to escape that kettle by tearing down a fence and escaping. The protest was then kettled about 20 minutes later at another intersection. Some people were able to escape over a fence, and a few people were able to escape through the YMCA, which opened its doors to us once they realized what was going on. But many people did not escape, and I’ve heard estimates of up to 400 people arrested.
AMY GOODMAN: Oakland City Council Member Ignacio De La Fuente accused the Occupy movement of engaging in domestic terror.
CITY COUNCIL MEMBER IGNACIO DE LA FUENTE: It’s an escalation with our—I think that basically what, in my opinion, amounts to kind of a domestic terrorism, when these people start taking buildings, and they start costing the city incredible amount of resources.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria Lewis, your response?
MARIA LEWIS: Yeah. I think that that was—the idea that reclaiming vacant abandoned buildings is terrorism is very retelling of the city’s priorities and of what the city—what the Oakland Police Department serves and protects. They are more interested in protecting abandoned private property than they are the people. And the idea that opening up a social center is terrorism is very telling of the narrative of the police state.