Oakland officials assess damage to City Hall by Occupy protesters
Oakland officials surveyed damage Sunday from a volatile Occupy protest that resulted in hundreds of arrests the day before and left the historic City Hall vandalized after demonstrators broke into the building, smashed display cases, cut electrical wires and burned an American flag.
Two local jails were still processing arrests that a police spokeswoman said could number “in the 400s” from Saturday’s daylong protest -– the most contentious since authorities dismantled the Occupy Oakland encampment late last year.
Meanwhile, Mayor Jean Quan condemned the local movement’s tactics as “a constant provocation of the police with a lot of violence toward them,” and said the demonstrations were draining scarce resources from an already strapped city. Damage to the City Hall plaza alone has cost $2 million since October, she said, about as much as police overtime and mutual aid.
Oakland has logged five homicides since Friday, added Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Johnna Watson, "If we have to take our law enforcement officers to pay attention to Occupy Oakland, then we are not serving the city residents who need us most," Watson said.
News reports said that 200 calls for police service had not been promptly answered Saturday night, while officers were engaged in a cat and mouse chase with demonstrators.
Saturday’s Occupy action was publicized by the group as a planned takeover of a vacant building that would be "repurposed" as a "social center, convergence center and headquarters of the Occupy Oakland movement." In an open letter to Quan on Wednesday, the group warned that if police attempted to thwart the takeover, "indefinite occupation" of Oakland's airport, port and city hall could follow.
The takeover effort was unsuccessful.
Later in the night, marchers entered the downtown Oakland YMCA, where hundreds of arrests took place. The City Hall break-in occurred about the same time, officials said.
Throughout the action, some demonstrators threw bottles and other objects at officers. In a tactic that officials said they had not previously confronted, protesters also moved in on the police line carrying elaborate shields. One such shield, on display at City Hall on Sunday, was about 6 feet by 4 feet and built from corrugated metal on wood panels, complete with multiple handles. “Commune Move In” was painted on the front of the shield.
“The shields are becoming stronger, larger and more mobile,” Watson said. “We’re in a dangerous area for law enforcement. ... We are being assaulted and when we react to those assaults we can’t penetrate shields like this.”
Occupy Oakland’s media committee issued a statement condemning the police actions, saying officers did not give demonstrators enough time to disperse before moving in to make mass arrests. Several journalists were detained along with protesters.
“Contrary to their own policy, the OPD gave no option of leaving or instruction on how to depart,” the group said in a news release. “These arrests are completely illegal, and this will probably result in another class action lawsuit against the OPD who have already cost Oakland $58 million in lawsuits over the past 10 years.”
“With all the problems in our city, should preventing activists from putting a vacant building to better use be their highest priority?” the group asked. “Was it worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent?”
The Oakland Police Department is under a federal consent decree stemming from civil rights violations by a cadre of officers more than a decade ago. A federal judge is losing patience with the slow pace of the city’s compliance and this month ordered all administrative and policy decisions to first be cleared with a court-appointed monitor. The department is under threat of federal receivership if it does not comply with court demands in the coming months.
The department’s heavy-handed initial response to last fall's Occupy protests did not help its reputation. The use of tear gas and other projectiles on largely peaceful demonstrators Oct. 25 made international news after a military veteran was struck in the head and seriously injured.
But Quan said Sunday that she believed officers had modified their tactics to better single out trouble makers. She said tear gas was used twice Saturday –- once when demonstrators holding a shield were rushing officers, and later in the evening after repeated failures by one group to disperse.
“We’re tired of one faction using Oakland as their playground,” Quan said of demonstrators intent on clashing with police.
Of the first 20 people arrested, she noted, only three were from Oakland. Prosecutors will seek stay-away orders for some of the demonstrators, she added. Such orders were given to a number of people arrested in previous Occupy activity, and Quan said it wasn't clear whether any of them were arrested Saturday.
The city also will seek monetary damages from protesters, Quan said. In addition, the mayor said she would pursue “restorative justice” by asking that those deemed guilty be put to work picking up garbage and removing graffiti in East Oakland -- a crime-ridden city pocket where Quan has singled out 100 blocks for concentrated resources.
Oakland officials planned to release a fuller breakdown of arrests later Sunday. Watson said some demonstrators were arrested for the City Hall break-in and others for assaulting officers. Some of those arrested for failing to disperse were released from jail Sunday morning and police were on alert, with mutual aid on standby, in case of further unrest.
In a morning tour of the damaged City Hall, Quan pointed out that a room with a smashed door and toppled soda machine is used for classes for low-income, first-time homeowners.
City Council agendas and other trash littered the floor in the building’s grand lobby. Although some graffiti had already been removed, evidence of the prior night’s mayhem was visible in broken display cases. A student art exhibit had been damaged and wires severed in the building’s electrical box. Quan said video showed that the crowd gained entry after a man forced a crowbar between the front doors of the historic building and depressed the emergency release bar on the inside.
Near the door, a more than century-old architectural model of the regal structure was toppled in its case. Oakland’s City Hall was built after the1906 earthquake and “lovingly restored” after the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor.
“It’s really a symbol of how resilient Oakland is,” Quan said of the building. “And we’ll survive this too.”
--Lee Romney in Oakland
Photo: Oakland Mayor Jean Quan surveys damage to City Hall on Sunday in Oakland following an Occupy protest Saturday. After a confrontation with police, demonstrators gained entrance to City Hall where they burned an American flag, broke glass and toppled a model of City Hall. Credit: Noah Berger/Associated Press