Unruly Oakland meeting over Occupy, ‘violence’

Matthai Kuruvila
SF Chronicle, May 26, 2012

Councilwoman Pat Kernighan said she will push forward an ordinance banning possession of shields, sticks and other “tools of violence” at demonstrations even though a vitriolic discussion of the issue shut down a public meeting this week.

The unruly Public Safety Committee meeting was cut short on Tuesday when Kernighan, who chairs the committee, decided that members of Occupy Oakland threatened the safety of the sole public speaker who supported the ordinance. Kernighan and the speaker left with a police escort.

The man, who identified himself as a 26-year resident of downtown Oakland, had said that protesters’ behavior “borders on terrorism.” Occupiers then charged him and grabbed his microphone. One man came up to his face and said, “You’re not going to make it home.”

“That’s when I closed the meeting,” Kernighan said.

The ordinance, co-sponsored by Kernighan and City Attorney Barbara Parker, would ban shields, fire accelerants, clubs and hammers, which have been used repeatedly in protests to commit vandalism or attack police. Possession of those items could result in six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The councilwoman said she will modify the proposal to address concerns raised by some speakers at the meeting, including clarifying what is banned. Prohibiting shields is the most controversial element. Police say protesters have used shields to charge officers and protect those who hurl objects at police. Occupiers say the shields are essential to protect themselves from police, who have been captured on video shooting bean bags at visibly peaceful protesters.

Kernighan said she is exploring whether smaller shields might be acceptable, such as 2 by 2 feet.

She said the revised ordinance will make it clear that camera tripods and monopods are not clubs, and that water bottles are legal for protesters to carry. “Water bottles and cameras are not a problem,” she said. “It’s the items that have been consistently used for vandalism – the paint projectiles, the fire accelerants, the large wrenches and hammers. There is zero reason for any of those things to be brought to a protest march.”

Police searches

Kernighan said she will also clarify that police cannot freely search demonstrators for banned items and that they will have to follow laws requiring probable cause to search people and their bags.

Those changes do little to resolve the problems with the proposed ordinance, said Jesse Trepper, a member of Occupy Oakland’s antirepression committee.

“I don’t want to give them more ways to criminalize protest,” Trepper said. “The things she’s complaining about, like property damage, are already crimes.”

Typically, council items have to be approved in committees before coming to the full council. Because Tuesday’s meeting was canceled before a vote, Kernighan said she will use a procedural move to bring the ordinance to the full council, probably in six weeks.

Uproar grows

The disrupted meeting has caused a growing furor at City Hall, with city staff and elected officials angry at Occupiers but also at Kernighan, who they blame for not keeping a better handle on the meeting.

Occupiers repeatedly hurled a misogynistic slur at Kernighan, while she told them to “shut the hell up.”

“I should have shut the meeting down earlier,” Kernighan conceded.

Yet Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who was not at the meeting, said the shutdown made the city look like “a circus” or “The Jerry Springer Show,” a television program notorious for having audience scrums.

“We cannot allow a group of people – clowns – to shut down a meeting,” he said on Thursday. “It’s the responsibility of our administration and the police to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Council President Larry Reid said it was the worst public meeting he’d seen in 30 years and walked out before it ended. Reid told De La Fuente: “I promise you: It will not happen again.”