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‘This is a Hostage Situation’: Police Trap, Arrest Occupy Oakland Protesters and Journalists

The Oakland Police Department appears to have violated its own crowd-control policies during Occupy protests on Saturday, when hundreds of protesters were arrested after being “kettled,” or trapped between two police lines with no means of egress, outside of a YMCA.

“There was just no escape,” said Matt Gratz of Political Fail Blog, who shot video of the protests. “There were cops on all sides. People had no place to go.”

A police statement said the marchers “invaded” the YMCA after “ignoring a dispersal order,” and some media reports said protesters tried to “occupy” the building, but the video by Gratz shows a different story.

“Help! We’re surrounded!” protesters yell at the YMCA door. Eventually, a YMCA employee opens the door for them, cheers erupt, and protesters enter the building. They move a bit more urgently once police start rushing towards the entrance.

There is no occupation here: It’s a stream of people moving swiftly through the space, trying to find an exit to escape the police trap.

Numerous reports from both protesters and journalists, who were in the crowd, indicated that police issued a dispersal order but didn’t allow anyone to disperse. The Oakland Police Department’s crowd control guidelines require dispersal announcements to “specify adequate egress or escape routes.”

As seen on live video stream from the occupation, the crowd was clearly aware of the situation and clearly unhappy about it. Chants included “Let us disperse!” and “This is a hostage situation!”

Journalists didn’t have much luck with being allowed to disperse either, with or without press credentials. Several were arrested, including Gavin Aronsen of Mother Jones, who wrote about his experience:

As I waited in line to be processed and transported to jail, Ho [an arrested, Oakland Police Department-credentialed journalist] approached me with an officer who had released her from custody. The two explained to my arresting officer that I was with the media. "Oh, he's with the media?" the officer replied, although I had already repeatedly told him as much and my credentials had been plainly visible all night. He appeared ready to release me, until a nearby officer piped in, without explanation: "He's getting arrested."

After the YMCA incident, a few enraged protesters made headlines by vandalizing City Hall and burning an American flag found inside, prompting Oakland Mayor Jean Quan to fume about protesters using the city as their “playground.”

The chaos started earlier in the day when protesters and police faced off over “Move-In Day,” the attempted occupation of an abandoned building to repurpose it as a community center.

This video shows protesters holding improvised garbage-can shields and approaching a police line. Police then throw smoke bombs and tear gas at the protesters, some of whom hurl the canisters back at the police.

A statement from Oakland police claimed that protesters started the skirmish by throwing projectiles, though police deployment of tear gas and beanbag rounds in this situation may have also been a violation of the department’s rules.

Gratz said some protesters were “armored, protecting themselves with half-cut-off garbage cans … because they know from experience that the OPD will hurt them.”

This isn’t the first time Oakland’s police department has used aggressive tactics against protesters and been criticized for overreaching. The shocking injury of Iraq veteran Scott Olson by a police projectile, and the flashbang grenade thrown at those who tried to come to his aid, put Oakland on the Occupy map in late October.

Diane Reiner, a member of the Occupy Oakland media committee who was present at the Saturday protests, told Campus Progress she was “shocked and surprised” that the Oakland police used those tactics again.

“It’s the first time it looked like that since [October],” Reiner said. “Like a war in the street.”

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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