400 arrested as Occupy Oakland tries to reclaim unused public space

When auto workers in 1937 needed a tactical advantage to advance their fight for a more fair, just, and equitable workplace, they occupied the GM Fisher Body Plant #1 in Flint, Michigan. They called their occupation a sit-down strike. Seventy-five years later when Occupy Oakland activists needed permanent space where they could meet, plan, and coordinate their fight for a more fair, just, and equitable society, they decided to occupy an unused public building that had fallen into disrepair. They called their planned occupation a move-in.

They selected the Oakland Convention Center, which had been closed since 2006, to be the site of their move-in and invited supporters to join them on January 28. Their first order of business, said their move-in announcement, would be to clean the building and make it ready to serve as meeting center and work area for the Occupy movement.

They viewed their move-in as a reclamation project that would result in the rehabilitation of a structure that the City of Oakland’s Budget Office called “a blighting influence” on the surrounding neighborhood. The revitalized structure would also serve as a base of operations for their campaign for good jobs, decent education opportunities, and a government responsive to the needs of the 99 percent, not the 1 percent.

They planned to celebrate their move-in with a two-day festival, but their plans never happened; instead, move-in participants found themselves in the middle of a one-sided brawl with police officers, who used tear gas, stun guns, and riot-control batons to break up the move-in before it got started, leading Occupy Oakland to ask, “With all the problems in our city, should preventing activists from putting a vacant building to better use be (city official’s) highest priority?”

The move-in began early Saturday afternoon when about 800 people gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza and began marching to the Convention Center.

The Convention Center was chosen because it had a long history as a public gathering place for Oakland’s residents dating back to the early 20th century. Operas, ballets, basketball games, Grateful Dead concerts and thousands of other public events had taken place at the city-owned building.

But in 2006, then-Mayor Jerry Brown decided to shut the building down. Douglas Allen-Taylor writing in the Berkeley Daily Planet speculates that Mayor Brown may have closed the venerable building in hopes of selling the property to real estate developers. That never happened, and the building was allowed to decay.

Mayor Jean Quan in 2011 struck a deal with the city’s Redevelopment Agency to buy the property and seek proposals for developing it. The East Bay Express reported that Quan planned to use the sale proceeds to make debt payments to bond holders.

Clearly Mayor Quan was not about to let the move-in take place, and police set up blockades to intercept the marchers as they left the plaza. Marchers, however, evaded the blockades, arrived at the Convention Center, and began tearing down a chain link fence surrounding it.

Police pushed the marchers back, and a skirmish broke out. Police fired tear gas and what the Guardian described as “crowd control weapons” at the marchers, some of whom responded with rocks and bottles.

The marchers regrouped at Oscar Grant Plaza and decided to try to occupy an alternative site, the foreclosed Traveler’s Aid Building in downtown Oakland.

Once again police blocked their way. This time, the police maneuvered the marchers into a dead-end and ordered them to disperse. The only problem was that the exits were blocked and there was no way to disperse. The police with their riot batons raised began closing in on the marchers swinging their clubs when they met resistance.

When it was all over 400 people, including six journalists, were arrested. Occupy Oakland has sent out a request for donations to help people make bail.

On the Monday after the arrests, Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly  announced that February 6, the day when arraignments for those arrested will begin, will  be day of action to show solidarity with those arrested. February 6 will also give Occupy a chance to set the record straight about the police actions that led to the arrests.

“Occupy Oakland has yet to have a chance to present our side of the facts in court,” reads a statement from Occupy Oakland. “Feb. 6th will be Occupy Oakland’s day for that.  It will be the first time that lawyers working with Occupy will be able to argue against the repressive tactics used by the Oakland Police Department and present evidence of (their) unlawful activities and arrests.”

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