As Calif. protest looms, cops confused on handling demonstrators
City leaders have called for a minimal police presence throughout the day
By Kevin Fagan and Demian Bulwa
The San Francisco Chronicle
OAKLAND, Calif. — One day before a protest that could be Oakland's largest in years, the city's police union questioned the leadership of Mayor Jean Quan and said officers were confused about how they should handle demonstrators.
Occupy Oakland organizers who have camped in front of City Hall for nearly a month have called for a citywide general strike of employees and students in protest of economic inequity and corporate greed, and they have planned a flurry of events culminating with a 5 p.m. march on the Port of Oakland.
The goals are to picket the offices of as many as 30 banks and major corporations in Oakland, from Wells Fargo to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and then shut down the port in support of union struggles in the state of Washington.
City leaders including Quan have called for a minimal police presence throughout the day, but that didn't appear to constitute enough direction for the police union.
The Oakland Police Officers Association released a statement Tuesday noting that after officers cleared the Occupy Oakland camp early on Oct. 25, Quan allowed the protesters to start returning the next day. The raid was accomplished with the help of 16 outside agencies, and follow-up protests turned violent that night, resulting in serious injury to a military veteran who was demonstrating.
The camp is now larger than it was before the raid, with more than 300 people squatting before City Hall in more than 100 tents.
"As your police officers, we are confused," the union said.
The city is allowing employees to participate in the strike that Occupy Oakland has called, the union said, while all officers have been ordered to work.
"That's hundreds of city workers encouraged to take off work to participate in the protest against 'the establishment,' " said the union, which represents 645 officers. "But aren't the mayor and her administration part of the establishment they are paying city employees to protest? Is it the city's intention to have city employees on both sides of a skirmish line?"
'No clear mission'
The union's president, Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, said, "There is no clear mission here. The mayor is painting this picture that we're the bad guy. We're just doing our jobs, carrying out her orders, and we need some big leadership now."
Asked about the police union's beef, interim Police Chief Howard Jordan said, "They have a legitimate reason to be concerned."
Quan released a statement saying she hoped the strike would be peaceful, but she did not address the police criticism.
"I am working with the police chief to make sure the pro-99 percent activists - whose cause I support - will have the freedom to get their message across without the conflict that marred last week's events," Quan said. "Although getting the balance right is never an easy task, in Oakland we are committed to honoring free speech and protecting public safety."
City spokeswoman Karen Boyd met with reporters in the afternoon, but also did not directly respond to the union's concerns.
"We've had many, many demonstrations in Oakland throughout many years that have remained peaceful and that have required a minimum amount of police presence," Boyd said. "That's what we anticipate from what the demonstrators are telling us."
Keeping their fingers crossed that Boyd is right are community groups planning to serve food at rallies, and downtown workers and students planning either to participate or carry on as normal.
City leaders have urged businesses to stay open, though some have said they will close either for safety or to support the protesters. Schools will also remain open, but some teachers said they would use paid time off to join in the rallies.
Major labor unions in the city expressed support, and though most workers cannot legally strike today, some said they plan to participate by taking time off or walking out spontaneously.
In the Occupy camp, protesters who believe that good can come out of chaos continued a debate with those who believe such tactics marginalize the movement.
"I think conflict is important, but it needs to be appropriate," said Amanda, a 31-year-old protester and organic farmer, who like many Occupiers refused to give her last name.
California Nurses Association spokeswoman Liz Jacobs said she believed that the day will go calmly. As many as 50 nurses will participate, either in rallies or in staffing a medic tent at the Occupy camp.
"When you have nurses dressed in scrubs and your everyday working people marching along with the crowd, it creates a calmer presence," Jacobs said. "There is safety in numbers."
Copyright 2011 San Francisco Chronicle