Strangely, as I stared at the back of my left hand, scorched and black after a tear gas canister fired by police hit me in the stomach and exploded, I didn’t want it to be news.
People were crowding around me in Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, taking my picture with cameras and cell phones. Protesters, including self-deputized medics with red crosses taped to their backs, asked me if I was okay and offered me treatment. But all I could think of was how I didn’t want to end up on the Web or in the newspaper, misidentified as an Occupy Oakland demonstrator injured in another night of violence.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m a journalist.”
“You’re a fighter, my brother,” said one of my new comrades. “No justice, no peace.”
The truth was I had just dropped in.
It was about 1:30 a.m. Thursday, the end of a very long day of almost uniformly peaceful protests involving thousands of peaceful people. I had spent the entire day at the office while six Bay Citizen reporters and photographers pounded the pavement, gathering information for a stream of continuous coverage that had begun 16 hours earlier.
But in the semi-darkness around Oakland’s City Hall, a group of 200 militant protesters was now confronting – in some cases, provoking -- the police. I quickly drove to downtown Oakland to join Bay Citizen crime reporter Shoshana Walter, our only remaining reporter on the streets.
When I arrived, Shoshana, her gas mask wrapped around her neck and dark curly hair, stood near a kind of makeshift barricade the protesters had formed between the plaza and 15th Street. Some held six-foot wooden shields, handcrafted and painted black. Shouts came out of crowd:
“What will you tell your children?”
“Disobey your orders!”
The shouts rained down on the police, some 300-strong, gathered at 15th Street in riot gear. The street lights reflected off their helmets and plastic visors, and you could see the dark silhouettes of their truncheons.
As the standoff continued, half the officers suddenly peeled off and double-timed it up 15th Street, heading northwest toward Clay. About half of the protesters peeled off as well, racing up the promenade adjacent to City Hall and the Occupy Oakland tent city. The protesters planned to circle around and confront the police where the promenade intersects with Clay.
Shoshana and I stayed with the original group, waiting to see what happened next.
It didn’t take long.
Within three minutes, the sound of explosions erupted from Clay Street and protesters flooded back into the plaza. They were trailed by tear gas canisters, popping as they hit the ground. Bracing toxic smoke wafted through the cool night air, filling your nostrils with unbearable gasoline smells.
Then came the police, racing into the plaza in a perfect flanking maneuver designed to squeeze the 50-to-75 protesters till staring down their adversaries near 15th. Shoshana and I ran to avoid being swept up in the mass arrests. The police, in an intimidating clomp and rattling of gear, surged in behind us and began making arrests.
I turned back to get a closer look. I was inching forward when there was a bright flash and another loud explosion. A fraction of a second later, I felt an object hit me in the stomach on my right side, not very hard, almost a tap, followed by a pop and another flash. Then searing heat on my left hand, then numbness.
I looked down and my hand was black, my four fingers covered in toxic chemicals. I couldn’t feel my hand much but could clench it and unclench it and assumed I was okay. My blue flannel shirt also was black, stained where the canister had struck me and discharged. I was soaked in tear gas, but for some reason it was having less of an effect than the burning on my hand.
Another strange but not entirely unexpected thought popped into my head: 6 inches lower and it would have hit me in the crotch.
The next few moments were a blur. I called the Bay Citizen and reported details of the operation, still somehow imagining that I was not one of those details. Shoshana and I had been separated as we ran, and I recounted what had happened; she was now wearing her gas mask but that also didn’t seem to register. People came up and asked me if I was hurt, if I was bleeding, if I need help. I waved them off.
Later, Shoshana asked me if I thought the police had acted excessively. That was one thought that had not occurred to me. I figured I had been standing in the middle of a police action, trying to get closer to a chaotic situation. I was standing about 25 yards from police and clearly wasn’t a threat. I can’t imagine someone was aiming at me; if so, it was the best shot in the history of tear gas marksmanship.
But moments later, near where I was standing, an elderly man who did not seem to be part of the instigators was struck in the knee by an object also apparently fired by police. He was carried away by the protesters.
It's probably also worth noting that two people who spent significant time in Iraq have been struck by projectiles fired by police on the streets of Oakland in the past week.
I spent another couple hours watching the cat-and-mouse game between the police and the protesters. As it gravitated to Broadway, it became even clearer what an unfortunate sideshow it all was. Young men, many itching for a fight, continued to scream. Some were drinking. In the middle of it all a man shouted at the line of officers: “Do something! I’m bored!”
He was joking, but one of the protesters took offense and charged him, and they had to be separated in the middle of Broadway.
As I drove home my hand began to throb, and I realized I should probably get it checked out. I stopped at the emergency room at Children’s Hospital on Martin Luther King. The admitting nurse couldn’t sit near me long enough to take my vital signs; she sneezed and recoiled as waves of tear gas fumes rolled off of me. Donning a surgical mask, she guided me to a room, handed me a surgical gown and asked me to double-bag my clothes after I stripped.
Word apparently spread about my predicament, and nurses and doctors ducked their heads into the room. It was 3:30 in the morning, the end of another curious night of the occupation.