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U.S.: As It Renews, Oakland Occupation Honours Injured Protester

Judith Scherr

OAKLAND, California, Oct 28 2011 (IPS) - Several dozen tents popped back up Thursday afternoon at Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza as people played music and shared hugs. But as darkness fell, a sombre mood overtook the nearby corner of 14th Street and Broadway, where friends and supporters of Scott Olsen lit candles and spoke quietly.

Olsen lay in a hospital bed with a fractured skull after being struck by a police projectile during a march Tuesday to protest the protesters’ eviction from the plaza. A member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, the former marine had served two tours in Iraq. The hospital announced Wednesday that his status had been upgraded from critical to fair.

Early Tuesday morning, Oakland police and officers from neighbouring departments had destroyed or removed the approximately 200 tents Occupy Oakland had installed in the plaza, which activists renamed to honour the young man killed by a subway police officer in 2009.

Officers also chased away or arrested the occupants, camped there in solidarity with the anti-Wall Street movement.

Amber Rose, a member of Iraq Veterans against the War, was at the vigil. “It’s ironic that he survived two tours in Iraq, only to come home and be taken out by Oakland PD during a peaceful protest,” she said.

Rose said she wasn’t present when Olsen was injured, but had watched videos widely available on Youtube that show him protesting peacefully.

“He wasn’t doing anything to provoke the actions of Oakland PD,” she said. “He was standing peacefully – and he is now awaiting brain surgery. That’s not okay.”

Olsen’s friend Jason Matherne placed a candle among the dozens already burning. “He is a generous, peaceful person,” Matherne said. “He believes what the occupation stands for – [correcting] the economic inequality that’s going on in America.”

Matherne called his friend “inspirational” and praised his “courage to speak out and to be an activist and do what he does and follow his beliefs and not just sit on the sidelines”.

Vigils in support of Olsen were held in several U.S. cities as well as in Cairo, Egypt.

At 7 p.m., Olsen’s friends and supporters took the vigil to Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly, held in the outdoor amphitheatre between City Hall and the grass tent-camp area.

They distributed candles and photos of Scott Olsen to many of the 1,000 people there and gave accounts of how a police projectile hit Olsen and how the police ignored calls for medical help. The crowd cheered as one speaker called for the mayor to resign and the police chief to be fired.

Mayor Jean Quan, under fire for the eviction of the protesters and the alleged use of force to do so, attempted to speak to the crowd around 10 o’clock Thursday night, but was booed off the stage.

Instead, she issued a statement Thursday saying, “Ultimately it was my responsibility, and I apologise for what happened.” She said she has opened an investigation into Tuesday’s use of force, including tear gas, that she hoped to meet with Occupy Oakland representatives.

In a letter to the city, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU) called for a full investigation of Tuesday’s events, especially in light of a settlement agreement resulting from a 2003 incident at the Port of Oakland, where police fired bean bags and other projectiles directly into crowds and used multiple rounds of tear gas.

In that historic settlement, the Oakland police department adopted “a crowd control policy that strictly limits the use of force and prohibits the indiscriminate use of bean bags and other projectiles against crowds or passive resisters, except in unusual circumstances”, the ACLU letter said.

It demanded that the city come forward with explicit information about the alleged use of force and chemical agents.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland, added her own stinging criticism. Speaking on KPFA radio Thursday, she called the incidents “a major overreaction by police” and underscored the protesters’ “right to free speech”.

She further said the Occupy Movement should be supported in order to stop war and create jobs.

Police responded to criticism by saying they reacted with legal means due to incidents of rock and bottle throwing.

Former Councilmember Wilson Riles said the police action highlights ongoing problems with the department. He pointed specifically to the case known as the Riders, where plaintiffs won a settlement against police officers accused of battery, falsifying police reports and other misconduct.

The courts mandated improvements, but the department has yet to implement all those it required, Riles said.

Riles added that the community should use this spotlight on Olsen to emphasise the underlying problem with police. “There are people in this city that are being hurt by [the police] who won’t be on TV and won’t be in the newspapers,” he said.

Now that Occupy Oakland has returned home to Oscar Grant Plaza and is expecting 200 tents on Friday, thanks to a donation by Occupy Wall Street, it is seeking to heighten public awareness of the gap between those who own most of the country’s wealth and those who don’t, whom they call the 99 percent.

At Wednesday’s General Assembly, 96.6 percent of 1,607 people voted to have a General Strike in Oakland on Nov. 2. They’re asking people to stay home from work or school that day.

Acupuncturist Nishanga Bliss came early to the meeting to offer free acupuncture treatment, especially to those traumatised by the arrests and police actions of Tuesday.

She said she and her colleagues plan to do more than simply honour the general strike by staying home. Instead, she’ll be working for free on Nov. 2.

“The vision is to create a healing zone in the middle of the city where we can offer acupuncture, massage and other healing arts services,” she said. “To me, it’s not only a general strike, but let’s create the world that we want to see. And part of that is free health care for all.”

Bliss went on to say that what was happening in Oscar Grant Plaza before the eviction was that people were providing for needs such as food, as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s. “They saw a need in the community and they came in and filled that,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why the city would want to shut that down.”

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