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April 11, 2003

  Portions of this letter were presented in testimony at a meeting of the Oakland City Council on April 9 attended by a packed gallery of irate demonstrators and their community and labor supporters. Testimony was also delivered on behalf of Walter Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer of the SF Labor Council; Judy Goff, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alameda CLC; and Steve Stallone, Communications Director of the ILWU, all condemning the police "shock and awe" tactics against peaceful pickets. John Dalrymple, Secretary-Treasurer of the Contra Costa CLC, and Chuck Mack, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 70, were also present in support of the protest.
From U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW)
P.O. Box 14156 Berkeley, CA 94712-5156
(510) 649-8626

Letter of Protest to Mayor Jerry Brown from USLAW Organizer

April 8, 2003

Jerry Brown, Mayor
City of Oakland
1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, 3rd Floor
Oakland, CA 94612

Dear Mayor Brown:

I was present throughout the events at the Port yesterday morning. I witnessed peaceful picketing at two of the three gates being picketed.

No effort was made on the part of demonstrators to commit civil disobedience. No cars or trucks were prevented from entering, however the size of the demonstration and possible sympathies of the drivers led all that I observed to refrain from entering. Absolutely no dock workers made any effort to enter as they had been advised by union officials to stand by pending the decision of an arbitrator whether the picketline constituted a safety hazard. Most trucks either waited in line in the street or turned around to leave, as did several others in passenger vehicles.

I watched as police formed their assault lines, declared the non-violent picket an "unlawful assembly," and advanced on the demonstrators who pleaded that they had a first amendment right to protest APL's role as the primary military cargo shipper in the Bay Area.

Most of the pickets abandoned the picketline and stood in the street chanting when police without provocation opened fire with pepper spray, stun grenades and wooden and rubber projectiles aimed directly at protesters. It was perfectly clear that the police had intended to conduct this kind of violent assault even before they arrived or determined the intentions of the demonstrators, since they arrived in full riot squad dress with gas masks already on. This assault was premeditated!

This happened, not once but repeatedly, as the police drove the protesters out of the Port area into Seventh Street and then continued firing on them to force them to retreat toward the BART station. The police continued to use weapons even though the protesters were no long obstructing access to the APL property and were in fact retreating. Evidence to support this is obvious. Many of the wounds suffered by demonstrators were inflicted on their backs as they were complying with the police order.

I did not witness anyone throwing anything at the police. The police department's claim that protesters were throwing rocks and bolts is a complete fabrication being used to rationalize what by any civilized standard was an abuse of authority and excessive use of force on non-violent demonstrators. All of the violence was perpetrated by the police.

When the police first began to move into position to march on the picketline, I approached an officer who appeared to be in command to ask what law was being violated. He responded by ordering me to step back or face arrest. Even if the police felt they had cause to remove the demonstrators, their resort to weapons was completely unprovoked and unjustifiable. They are supposed to be trained in crowd control techniques that use only the minimum of force necessary to carry out their duties. Their use of force in these circumstances was simply excessive.

This morning's San Francisco Chronicle offers an illuminating insight into the motivations of the police. In its report of the incident, the Chronicle says: "Oakland police Chief Richard Word said officers did not intend to injure protesters, but he said members of the force, about one-third the size of San Francisco's, had no choice but to fire on the crowd when protesters failed t o leave. Word said police feared many more could have gathered during the day. Mayor Jerry Brown backed the police response."

In other words, the police chose to employ a 'preemptive strike' and now justify that decision with the same logic used by President Bush to justify the U.S. 'preemptive strike' on Iraq. It was not a response to what the protesters were doing, but rather an effort to discourage any others from joining them (and presumably to dissuade those present from continuing or returning to demonstrate). I know of no place in the Constitution or the law that gives the Oakland Police Department the authority or right to chill protest by using violence to intimidate citizens from exercising their first amendment rights.

The OPD had the option of waiting for the arbitrator's decision to determine whether demonstrators would remove the picketline in the event the arbitrator ruled that the dockers had to go to work. That would have taken less time than was spent trying to disperse them with violence. But the OPD did not wait for the arbitrator's decision. It preempted that option as well.

What we see here is the application of military principles (questionable ones at that) to civilian crowd control. Is the OPD to be militarized as an extension of the armed forces for controlling the populace when it opposes government policies?

Is this the "democracy" which we claim to uphold to the rest of the world? Is this the standard we propose to export to Iraq? What happened to the Bill of Rights? I will not remain silent while our local government descends to the level of police state tactics! The Oakland City Council should immediately conduct a thorough public investigation of this incident and hold the participating officers to account for their outrageous behavior as a "goon squad" for APL. Commanding officers responsible for conceiving and ordering this assault should be removed from the police force.

Citizens of Oakland and surrounding community also have a right to know whether any state or federal authorities had a role in this incident or the events leading up to it. Was there pressure from other levels of government to "get tough" with or "make an example" of these demonstrators?

Sincerely, Michael Eisenscher, Organizer

U.S. Labor Against the War and Coordinator, Labor Committee for Peace & Justice

Member of American Federation of Teachers and National Writers' Union

For more information, see Ben Terrall,  "The Cops Had No Reason to Open Up on Them," in Counterpunch. Photos are available at Truthout.