Race and Violence in Occupied Oakland

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Oakland Police Arresting a Protestor, from the NY Times website.

According to the NY Times and the Oakland Tribune, about 1,000 protesters clashed with Oakland police on Tuesday night.  The catalyst appears to have been a decision to clear members of “Occupy Oakland” from Frank Ogawa Plaza, where they had been camped out for some time.  What’s remarkable about this story is the level of violence that appears to have been involved.  The NY Times piece includes a number of graphic videos and photos of injuries that protestors sustained at the hands of riot police.  

This post is not about science, but there is a historical component to the story.  I was immediately struck watching these videos by how differently things played out in Oakland (and, also, Atlanta) than they have in New York, where the city has allowed members of “Occupy Wall Street” to remain in Zuccotti Park.  The New York Times makes an interesting point, which I’ll quote here: 

“At a late-night news conference, the city’s acting police chief, Howard Jordan, said officers needed to use tear gas after protesters threw rocks and bottles at them. The city has seen multiple clashes between protesters and the police in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant III, a young, unarmed young black man, by a white transit officer.”

This suggests that one reason the police in Oakland have reacted so much more aggressively to protestors than those in New York is that Oakland is plagued by a higher level of racial tension.  This is very much in accordance with my own experience.  

I’ve spent time living in Brooklyn on several occasions over the past few years, as I was doing research for my dissertation at the American Museum of Natural History.  Last summer, I lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood, near the border with Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.  These are historically African American neighborhoods that are currently undergoing gentrification.  I was really amazed at how remarkably little racial tension I experienced there.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place that is so diverse and meaningfully integrated (which isn’t to say that none of the residents are angry about gentrification).  According to my brother, who lives in Oakland, my experience in New York represents a pretty stark contrast to the Bay Area.

I grew up just south of Chicago, and attended public school there.  During my senior year, I wrote a research paper on the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots, which exploded into extreme violence when riot police attempted to flush protesters out of their camps in Grant Park every evening.  Doing this research, I learned that other cities across America also had large groups of protest take over city parks.  However, Chicago experienced by far the worst violence.  As far as I could tell, the reason was that Chicago police were incredibly aggressive in the way they confronted protestors, using tear gas, clubs, and mace.  In contrast, other cities, including New York, responded to similar occupations by providing protestors with public washrooms, a source of running water, etc.   

Going through newspaper accounts from the late 1960s, the racial dimension of these events immediately became clear.  Chicago experienced a high level of racial tension during the 1960s, which often manifested itself as street violence.  After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a significant portion of city’s African American population took to the streets.  In response to unrest emanating from the city’s black neighborhoods, Mayor Richard M. Daley called in the Illinois National Guard, instituted a curfew, and reportedly gave orders "to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.”  When large numbers of people descended upon the city to protest the Democratic National Convention later that summer, Daley insisted on enforcing the curfew in city parks and, predictably, violence exploded.

History, we are learning once again, always seems doomed to repeat itself.


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