THERE'S NOTHING like making the list of the world's worst government violence against activists. The Oakland Police Department earned that distinction for its assault on peaceful anti-war demonstrators at the port last year. The action, in which police fired wooden dowels and shot-filled bean bags at protesters, was noted in the recent report of an investigator for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. "This alleged incident was the subject of a letter of allegation by the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression ..." reads the report. The question of torture, that's pretty scary. For the protesters who were hit, the unprovoked attack was a form of torture. The more seriously injured went to the hospital. One woman needed surgery. Even the less-seriously injured suffered enduring physical pain. Another woman who was hit in the back of the leg and the back of her upper arm limped for a couple of weeks and suffered pain for several months.
You may have noticed I unequivocally called the action an assault on peaceful demonstrators and an unprovoked attack. While the department claimed protesters threw rocks and objects at the officers, a police video of the demonstration did not show protesters throwing anything at officers. Department spokesmen continued to claim a video shot by a television news station showed objects being thrown, but no video was ever produced.
Even if some protesters had thrown objects, the police response was excessive. Standard police practice does not include responding to rocks and bottles by firing wooden dowels at a crowd of people who were walking away -- many of the protesters were hit in the back. Not unless you're talking standard police practice in Uzbekistan or Burundi.
Since the fiasco, Police Chief Richard Word has announced a change in crowd-control tactics. The department will no longer use wooden dowels or bump demonstrators with police vehicles. In the view of one police expert who testified at a public hearing on the protest, the issue should not be the weapons officers will or will not use. The larger question is whether force should be used at a peaceful demonstration.
When Word announced the changes, he emphasized that people have a right to march, demonstrate, protest, rally and engage in other activities protected by the First Amendment. That assurance will be tested Wednesday when protesters return to the port to mark the one-year anniversary of the police attack. We have to assume with the entire world watching, including the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, the police will refrain from using excessive force.
Another part of that U.N. report offered a frightening glimpse of other efforts to intimidate anti-war activists. One of the Oakland protesters who was wounded, Erik Shaw, was the liaison between law enforcement agencies and protest organizers in San Ramon and Sacramento. According to the information collected by the U.N. investigator, during the San Ramon protest, Shaw was videotaped by three men in plainclothes while he talked to a local journalist. When he asked if they were federal agents, they said he had good intuition. One of the men photographed the journalist's notebook and Shaw's contact information.
Two months later, before the Sacramento protest, Shaw saw six Sacramento police officers get out of a passenger van and start searching the flatbed truck of the person he was riding with. When Shaw asked if they had a search warrant, they initially said they didn't need one because the flatbed was in plain view. When Shaw pressed the point, they left.
The U.N. report also cited the actions of New York police officers during an anti-war protest in February 2003. Officers charged horses into crowds, used pepper spray and batons on demonstrators and arrested more than 350, some of whom were interrogated about their political and religious affiliations.
The State Department declined to respond to the U.N. report.
Firing on peaceful demonstrators. Illegal searches of protest organizers. Interrogating protesters about their political and religions affiliations. It's not Uzbekistan. It's the United States, and it's pretty scary.
©2004 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers