Last night the streets of Oakland became our own Tahrir Square when a crowd of around 500 people angry at the way they police had dismantled the Occupy Oakland camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall early that morning, marched through the streets in a show of solidarity and were fired upon by police with tear gas, flash bombs and bean bags.
Before the mayhem irrupted, I watched the crowd massing at 14th and Broadway via a live feed from the local ABC station’s helicopter. The feed was mute, strangely, yet by linking to the #OccupyOakland feed on Twitter, I was able to read tweets from people on the ground. As with the tweets when Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square, the tweets were a mixture of truth and emotion. People tweeted that the crowd was 2,000 people, and some estimated the number to be 5,000. Looking at the protestors on the street from above, I could see the the march was only about a block long and probably comprised a total of about 400 people. They were emotional, the tweets definitely expressed, but they were peaceful.
That was until they decided to march back to the plaza at city hall. When they arrived there, more than 100 police stood in a line behind metal barricades wearing full riot gear.
The stand off between the cops and the protestors escalated as the cops warned they would lob tear gas and flash bombs at them if they did not disperse. They issued time-sensitive warnings, saying that the protestors had five minutes, then three, then one to clear out. The Twitter feed reported that the cops were lowering their masks, getting ready for battle. The view from above via the ABC helicopter showed the distance between the protestors massing at the barricade and the cops holding their line. Then suddenly the ABC feed went dead.
A few minutes later the television station posted a notice saying that at this crucial moment when the battle was joined the helicopter went to get fuel. This was a stunning experience for me, the journalist. At first I didn’t want to believe that this was true. No news organization would, unless it was strictly necessary, pull away from a story at the crucial moment. This would mean that ABC was taking its orders from the cops, not guiding its decisions by its own news judgment.
Fortunately there was Twitter and the smart people on the ground with their cell phone cameras who were able to record what was going on.
Photos accompanied many of the tweets, telling a story that the media refused to convey.
Protestors carry wounded Iraq veteran Scott Olsen away from the Oakland battlefront. Olsen suffered serious head wounds and was hospitalized.
The crowd retreated to a park near Lake Merritt, a few blocks to the east of the plaza, to re-group and decide what to do next. As they gathered strength and purpose, they decided to go back to the plaza and confront the cops again. At that point, the helicopter news feed miraculously came back on the air.
Again the crowd marched back to the plaza. It seemed from my distant vantage point that it had become larger. Perhaps people nearby hearing the helicopters in the sky and getting the tweets on their cell phones, rushed to the lake to join in. Then again, just before the confrontation was joined, the ABC feed from the helicopter went dark.
A better description than I can convey of what was happening on the street is available from The New York Times and Mother Jones whose reporters were on the ground last night and witnessed the carnage first hand.
My experience was at a remove, but had a different kind of immediacy. I was as mentally engaged as if I had been reporting on this event, but without the personal risk. It was if I was in my own little newsroom here at my computer: watching the newsfeed, refreshing the Twitter feed every few seconds, which posted updates in blocks of 20 tweets. I was updating what I collected from these various sources in Facebook status updates while simultaneously narrating it to my daughter, who was at work, and exchanging text messages with my son in New York. The combination of all of these elements gave me a sense that I was involved in this struggle, even if the struggle was far from me.
I’m struck by two things sitting here the next day. The first of which is the overwhelming power of social media. I just started participating in Twitter last week and was disdainful of it as a lot of inane chatter. Most of the time it is, in an even more annoying way than Facebook, with people telling you what they had for lunch or that they’re bored. Yet in the middle of this confrontation, when something of national importance was happening, it was vital. It fulfilled a role that the media refused to take on. I have been taught to think that in a situation such as the one that transpired last night, the media was at its best. This was the moment when others want to look away, and the trained witnesses of the media point their cameras and their eyes toward the thing most of us are too scared to see. That was what always made me proud to be a journalist: the fact that we turned an unblinking eye to the world and showed it, consequences be damned.
Yet last night, that whole illusion was shattered by the ABC, CBS and KTVU collusion with the police. All of these networks went dark at precisely the moment when the public needed them most to record what was happening, both the alleged aggression of the protestors and the alleged too-strong response of the cops. There is no way of any of us judging for ourselves who behaved badly in this conflict because the cameras turned away. I am in a bit of mourning over this, but so grateful for the twitter feed. The witnesses there have their biases — we weren’t getting competing tweets from the cops — but the photographs and videos they posted stand as a record for all of us to examine.
Secondly I respect the protestors for holding back, not becoming violent in the face of this assault. The Oakland Police Department press release says that the cops were provoked by protestors hurling rocks and liquid: paint, vinegar, and one cop detected a smell of urine in those fluids. In the tweets last night I also read that one protestor threw money at the police and taunted them by asking, “Now will you protect us?” As terrible as it was, with more than 100 arrests and dozens sent to the emergency room, it could have been much worse if the protestors became violent and the police answered in kind.
My friend Edwin Dobb, another journalist, posted on Facebook a sentiment I also share about the unreported tragedy of last night. Now we are writing and thinking about the clash between the cops and the demonstrators. The discussion is about police violence and whether or not the protestors have the right to occupy the public square. The cops claim that they had to clear the square because it had become a health hazard and that there were fights there; that it had become less about the ideals of the Occupy movement and more of a homeless encampment. This is what Edwin Dobb was noting last night albeit in a different way. We’re not talking about the way Wall Street has extracted so much money from the economy, the frauds and abuses of the investment class and the regulations necessary to bring it back in line, or the corrupting influence of money in DC. We’re talking about cops vs. protestors. We need to get back to that discussion and not lose focus, yet I fear that tonight there will be another confrontation in Oakland, bringing the conversation totally off this incredibly important topic.