As Oakland prepares for a massive, all-day demonstration Wednesday, the city’s police and many of its business owners fear violent confrontations with Occupy Oakland protesters. Both the city’s police union and the Chamber of Commerce blame Mayor Jean Quan’s indecisiveness for putting them and the city at risk.
Both the union and the chamber issued letters Tuesday questioning Quan’s leadership.
“As your police officers, we are confused,” the Oakland Police Officer's Association wrote in an "open letter to the citizens of Oakland.” The document states that police are part of the "99 percent."
The letter from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce president Joseph Haraburda was even more direct: “Your lack of clarity is putting our shared future in Oakland at risk. We want to be clear, should Wednesday’s planned protests go awry, someone will need to be held accountable.”
The chamber also calls on the mayor to “end camping at Frank Ogawa Plaza,” which it describes as a “visible manifestation” of Quan’s “lack of … leadership.”
The police union’s letter reflects officers’ concerns that the mayor’s "confusing" decision making could lead to potentially violent confrontation between police and protesters Wednesday during Occupy Oakland’s planned general strike, when thousands of people are expected to flood downtown Oakland Wednesday and march to shut down the Port of Oakland.
Last Tuesday night, after Quan authorized police to evict Occupy Oakland's encampment in the plaza in front of City Hall, confrontations between police and protesters resulted in officers' firing tear gas into crowds. One demonstrator, 24-year-old Scott Olsen, who survived two tours of duty in Iraq, was seriously injured during the demonstration.
The next day, Quan told officers to reopen Frank H. Ogawa plaza. Occupy Oakland immediately began rebuilding its encampment.
The Oakland Police Department is investigating how Olsen was injured. The police response to the protests has made the department the subject of scrutiny worldwide.
“We’ve been taking all the heat for all of this,” said OPOA President Dom Arotzarena, as he explained his group's reason for sending the letter. “We wanted to point out, we’re just taking orders. We don’t want to be treated like the bad guys. We’re just doing our job.”
While the mayor’s office has given permission to city workers to participate in Wednesday's strike, all of the departments officers — about 645 men and women — have been ordered to suit up for the day of demonstrations. Interim police Chief Howard Jordan, after meeting with the mayor Tuesday afternoon, said the city is not calling for mutual aid.
“We have sufficient resources to handle this,” Jordan said.
“We’re expecting it to be peaceful,” spokeswoman Karen Boyd said, while the mayor briefed City Council members.
But the police union fears the mayor’s expectations are naïve and put officers in a no-win situation.
“Is it the City’s intention to have City employees on both sides of a skirmish line?” the OPOA letter asks.
The city has already spent over $1 million on police response and cleanup after Occupy Oakland's eviction last week, according to estimates from city finance officials. The Oakland Unified School District plans to pay about $40,000 for at least 270 substitute teachers to cover classes for those joining Wednesday’s strike. The Oakland Education Association is one of several large labor unions joining the strike.
BART and other transit agencies are expecting a heavy influx of riders heading to the city for the day’s events. Hector Baiza, spokesman for California Highway Patrol, said the agency would be monitoring traffic and working regular shifts, ready to jump in if needed. Officials said regional and federal agencies would also help ensure security at the Port.
“We are all emphasizing the need for a peaceful and respectful assembly and expression of free speech,” said Port president Pamela Calloway.
Occupy Oakland has planned protests and events throughout the day Wednesday, culminating in strategically timed marches to the Port, the first beginning at 4 p.m. and the second at 5 p.m. A critical mass bike ride is also planned for 4 p.m.
Officers, who have already received thousands of dollars in overtime pay, are expected to respond to regular patrol calls and wait on standby as unions, city workers, teachers, activists and even business owners rally in front of City Hall before marching to shut down the Port of Oakland, to protest corporate greed. Some protesters have estimated the crowd will grow to as many as 10,000 people.
Despite the preparations, many said they are concerned that police are ill-equipped to respond to violent protesters, or any emergencies that might occur among the masses of people flooding into the city. The mayor urged downtown businesses to stay open on Tuesday, but advised, among other tips, that owners leave cash drawers empty and open when going home for the night.
Officers said Quan seemed “deluded” about the vulnerability of those businesses.
“If I were a business owner downtown, what would I do?” one officer asked. “I would board up my business,” he said.
While the majority of protesters have called for nonviolence, others have said they are interested in reacting to the police presence with force. Earlier this week, a group called the “Oakland Liberation Front” distributed fliers condemning peaceful protest.
"Are you a pacifist?" one flier reads. "How dare you even ask for nonviolence, when violence has already been used by the police?"
As a result, officers expect Quan to order them to keep their distance during the strike, but they are still concerned about a possible showdown with protesters.
"I am working with the police chief to make sure that the pro-99% activists – whose cause I support – will have the freedom to get their message across without the conflict that marred last week’s events," Quan said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. "Although getting the balance right is never an easy task, in Oakland we are committed to honoring free speech and protecting public safety."
The ability of Occupy Oakland protesters to shut down the Port will hinge on the participation of Bay Area unions, many of whom have endorsed the “day of action.” The strike has infused many labor organizers with optimism about the potential of the Occupy movement, but there is division among their ranks, as well.
The Alameda Labor Council, which represents 100,000 workers in the county and has strong ties to the mayor’s administration, has decided to provide dinner for about 1,000 on Wednesday night at 5 p.m., instead of participating in the march.
The timing of the council dinner was a topic of anger and debate at a meeting Monday night of labor groups at Occupy Oakland.
“This is a diversionary political act to disrupt and destroy the movement,” one organizer said.
Garry Horrocks, a representative of the Machinists Automotive Trades, district lodge 190, told the group about the council’s plan and urged groups to assign members to monitor the crowd and ensure peace.
“My belief is that if there is violence, this is going to give labor a black eye,” Horrocks said.
Another organizer agreed. “Otherwise it’ll reflect badly on labor and the movement,” he said. “That’s what Wall Street is waiting for, and it’ll backfire on the movement.”
Whether or not protesters become violent, some officers are simply concerned about being able to respond in case of an emergency.
“When this first started, it was protesters versus Wall Street. Now it’s suddenly protesters versus cops.”