Oakland Nears Final Payouts for Protesters Hurt by Police
OAKLAND, California - A clash between the police and antiwar protesters here nearly three years ago will cost the City of Oakland more than $2 million, including dozens of payouts to people injured when officers fired wooden dowels, bean bags and rubber pellets.
The Oakland City Council is scheduled Tuesday to approve the final payments related to the incident, which was the most violent of many protests nationwide in the early weeks of the Iraq war. At least 58 people were injured, including nine longshoremen who were caught in the crossfire on their way to work.
The Oakland Police Department said officers had fired the "less than lethal" rounds to disperse several hundred demonstrators, some of whom the police said had thrown rocks at them.
The protesters said they had been behaving peacefully and accused the police of using excessive force. A lawsuit against the city, the Police Department and several officers, which led to the settlement payments, accused the authorities of civil rights violations.
Many here say the officers were on edge during the protest because state officials had warned that terrorists or self-described anarchists might try to disrupt the event, which was held at the Port of Oakland on April 7, 2003.
The demonstration had been organized to draw attention to two shipping companies that were assisting the government's military efforts. American President Lines was under contract to ship weapons to the military in Iraq, and Stevedoring Services of America held the government contract in 2003 to operate the port at Umm Qasr, Iraq.
In settling the lawsuit, the city did not admit fault, and there is still disagreement about whether the police were provoked by the protesters. Even so, the department did agree to change its crowd-control policy to prohibit the "indiscriminate use" of rubber and wooden bullets and similar ammunition and to require a fair warning to protesters to disperse.
"The settlements are a vindication," said Jim Chanin, one of the lawyers representing the protesters and dock workers. "The punishment did not fit the crime. It was not appropriate use of force."
Erica Harrold, a spokeswoman for the Oakland city attorney, John Russo, said the revision of the crowd-control policy was overdue, as were the clearer guidelines on the use of force.
"The most useful outcome of the case has been the revamping of the crowd-control and use-of-force policy," Ms. Harrold said, adding that the changes did not indicate an admission of wrongdoing.
The city has already paid more than $1 million to settle most of the claims. The payouts, from $5,000 to $500,000, cover medical costs associated with the injuries, which included broken bones and grapefruit-size welts and in some cases required operations and skin grafts.
Mr. Chanin estimated that the settlement would ultimately cost the city over $2 million, including $1.5 million in payments to the plaintiffs, plus legal fees and costs associated with the new crowd-control policy. That tally does not include the cost of hiring an outside lawyer to help with the case, which the city said would add well over $500,000.
Thirteen of the 52 plaintiffs had been holding out for a trial, in hopes of drawing attention to their complaints of free speech and civil rights violations, but in the end agreed to the settlement, Mr. Chanin said.
"We got the comprehensive crowd-control policy and every single person got money, with serious compensation for the most serious injured," Mr. Chanin said. "There was no need to put on a show trial for no reason."
The longshoremen's union, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, held a protest in Oakland this month and invoked the memory of the violence in 2003 to raise concerns about the Iraq war, terrorism, port security and the domestic spying program.
"Real port security means inspecting all containers offloaded," one of the injured longshoremen, Jack Heyman, wrote in an opinion article for The San Francisco Chronicle to coincide with the protest, "not stifling the free-speech rights of those who work in the ports."