Charges dropped vs. Oakland protesters

OAKLAND, Calif. – In a victory for the right of peaceful protest, the district attorney’s office said April 22 it is dropping charges against 24 demonstrators and a longshoreman arrested by Oakland police during antiwar protests last April at the Port of Oakland.

Police claimed protesters attacked them with rocks and bottles. But demonstrators and observers maintained the April 7, 2003, protest had been peaceful until police used rubber bullets, wooden dowels and concussion grenades against them. The police barrage also targeted longshore workers waiting nearby to go to work. Nine workers and 50 demonstrators were injured, with several requiring surgery.

Unions, peace organizations and community members held solidarity rallies, including gathering at each hearing on the case. City Council members protested the police attack and demanded an investigation, which resulted in the Oakland Police Department changing its crowd control policies. The United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a scathing report on the incident.

Union and peace leaders hailed the dropping of the charges but warned that upholding the right of peaceful protest takes a constant struggle.

“I think they never had the intention of giving discovery information the defense asked for,” said Steve Stallone, spokesperson for the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers (ILWU). One of those arrested was a business agent with ILWU Local 10, which represents longshore workers at the Port of Oakland. “They never had anything to start with; they couldn’t risk it,” Stallone said. He cited the UN report as “putting Oakland center stage as a violator of human rights.”

“It’s a big victory, the result of labor and the community coming together and the pressure resulting from the UN report,” said David Solnit, spokesperson for Direct Action to Stop the War. “Had we not done rallies at the hearings, built broad labor and community support, the charges would not have been dropped.” But Solnit warned that despite the victory in this case, “we still have an out-of-control police force” including habitual violations of the rights of youth of color and others.

National Lawyers Guild attorney Bobbie Stein, who is working on a related lawsuit filed by the NLG and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the dismissal confirmed there was no violence by the protesters, and the “chaos” at the port was on the part of the police.

Attention will now turn to the NLG-ACLU lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages for medical expenses, lost wages, interference with school and work, and many civil rights abuses.

Meanwhile, charges are still pending against many of the protesters who were subjected to police strong-arm tactics at the anti-FTAA demonstrations in Miami last November. On March 25, the Miami Activist Defense and the NLG filed a federal lawsuit charging that the coordinated federal, state, and city police actions violated the anti-FTAA demonstrators’ constitutional rights.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.