Occupy Oakland, Violence Optional


Occupy Oakland activists have filed a lawsuit against the city and are seeking damages. The American Civil Liberties Union-backed suit argues that protesters are engaged in “peaceful expressive activity” and that Oakland police have used “excessive force” that has inflicted “mental stress” on activists. The lawsuit also complains that police have not warned activists sufficiently before dispersal orders. Thus, Occupy protesters “did not have an opportunity to gather their belongings and leave the camp without being arrested or harmed.”

Of course, participants are aware that when they trespass on others’ property or block streets to keep people from getting to work, police are supposed to arrest them. Yet they whine that they aren’t given enough warning to get away — with all their stuff.

It’s no problem when Occupy is violent. Its website has announced that certain protests will be “militant” and that those who “identify as peaceful” may want to stay home. Occupiers describe their mix of peaceful and hostile protesters as a “diversity of tactics” — which is doublespeak for violent anarchists hiding behind clueless lefties.

It’s asymmetrical warfare. In the rest of the world, the dissident who fights City Hall is the hopelessly outgunned underdog. In Oakland, City Hall is the underdog.

When activists first pitched their tents on Frank Ogawa Plaza in the first half of October, members of the Oakland City Council welcomed them. After two weeks, the illegal encampment was a health nightmare — as well as toxic for local merchants. Mayor Jean Quan finally told police to remove the tents in front of City Hall. After Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was injured and out-of-town liberal wags chastised the mayor, Quan invited Occupy back.

Since November, Occupy protests have been both peaceful and lawless. Police generally have refrained from making arrests unless a protest turns ugly. On Jan. 28, authorities arrested 400 protesters.

Quan’s office estimates Occupy’s cost to city coffers to be close to $3 million. The unquantifiable cost is the diversion of an understaffed police department in a city that last year saw 103 homicides — more than four times the rate in San Francisco. Quan spokeswoman Sue Piper laments that on one night in January, when police were busy with Occupy protests, there were 482 calls to 911.

No worries. The City Council essentially handcuffed the police this month when it failed to pass a resolution to beef up law enforcement against those who assemble without a permit and block streets. Thus, Occupy protesters know they can close down the Port of Oakland and infringe on the rights of other people to go to work without much hassle from the authorities.

Oakland has few defenses. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley charged eight people with misdemeanor counts and four with felony offenses relating to the Jan. 28 demonstration. In addition, her department has sought and won stay-away orders against 14 protesters believed to be responsible for “violent conduct or conduct that involved destruction,” Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick explained.

Drenick says the district attorney’s office is serious about winning prosecutions. That’s great, but trials take a long time.

So on one side you have hundreds, at times thousands, of individuals who know they can trample Oaktown and provide cover for anarchists who throw things at police — with little downside.

On the other side are a gaggle of flower-power appeasers, flanked by a hobbled police department with a checkered history and prosecutors who have to preface every statement about enforcing the law with an homage to free speech.

ACLU attorney Linda Lye told me that the suit is intended to enforce existing policies. And: “As a matter of constitutional law, there is a difference between engaging in illegal activity — such as trespass, for which you can be arrested because of conduct — and engaging in activity that presents a real risk of substantial harm, for which police can use some force on you.” Which sounds like: Oakland PD is supposed to beg on bended knee until protesters taking over buildings turn themselves in.

The future of Oakland, then, will be Phil Tagami. On Nov. 2, as masked vandals ran through Oakland setting fires and vandalizing property, the developer and active Democrat stood with a shotgun to keep the rioters from breaking in to Oakland’s iconic Rotunda building. At great personal risk, he saved the building.

Just weeks ago, Tagami reminded me, an armed robber tried to hold up taco truck owner Omar Casillas in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Casillas was armed. The two shot each other.

“I don’t want to have a gun locker in my office,” Tagami told me. But he has been threatened.

And unlike Oakland City Hall, Tagami is free to defend himself.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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