OAKLAND, Calif. – Outraged witnesses and community leaders used words like “preemptive,” “premeditated,” and “brutal” during an emotionally charged meeting of the Oakland City Council to describe the Oakland Police Department’s attack on anti-war demonstrators and longshore workers near the gate of the Stevedoring Services of America dock on Monday, April 7.

Police fired rubber bullets, wooden dowels and concussion grenades at several hundred demonstrators gathered in front of port facilities they said were involved in the war against Iraq. Dozens of protesters were injured as were nine members of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Five workers were taken to the hospital and one required surgery.

Oakland Police Chief Richard Word told The New York Times the shipping companies had asked police to break up the demonstration. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said police were trying to keep order and blamed protesters for the attack.

“This happened as the workers were waiting outside,” Lyman Hollins, a longshoreman for nine years, told the council. “The police shot a longshoreman deliberately at his back, to take him down.”

Steve Stallone, ILWU communications director, told the council the ILWU international officers were “angry” over the violent attack on its members, and “disturbed by the complete disregard of the First Amendment rights” of the demonstrators.

Stallone reminded the council of police attacks on union members and the murder of strikers during the San Francisco General Strike. “We didn’t tolerate those actions in 1934, and we sure as hell won’t tolerate them in 2003,” he said.

Sri Louise, who was wounded in the jaw, told the council, “We were in the street, we had dispersed. We were committed to not do anything that would warrant an arrest,” she said. “The whole world is watching you,” she warned.

Kathleen Parson, a longtime Oakland resident, testified the officers were shooting directly at demonstrators. “The only acts of violence I saw yesterday were those committed by the police,” she said.

Michael Eisenscher of U.S. Labor Against the War called the action “a preemptive strike,” and demanded to know if the police had been urged by higher levels of government to “make an example” of the demonstrators.

Local 10 Business Agent Trent Willis described the police response as “brutal … they seemed to be looking for a fight,” he said in an interview with the World.

Longshore leader Clarence Thomas described the arrest of one of the union’s business agents who tried to explain to police that ILWU members had been shot and that he was instructing the union members to stand aside. Thomas said the man was pulled from his car, thrown to the pavement, handcuffed and jailed for 18 hours in a “totally unnecessary, totally unprovoked” assault.

Chuck Mack, an IBT vice-president and secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 70, told the World, the attack “was an over-response. It appeared to be premeditated.”

Judy Goff said, “There is a perception that the police acted the way they did in order to send a message that demonstrations won’t be tolerated at the Port.” Noting that the police failed to protect the workers, Goff, head of the Alameda County Central Labor Council, told the World, “We need to see a change in the policy of the Oakland Police Department so they are as protective of First Amendment rights as they are of property rights.”

The council meeting turned dramatic when Council President Ignacio de la Fuente tried to shift to the regular agenda. When rebuffed, he adjourned the meeting and walked out briefly. But the meeting was immediately reconvened by Councilwoman Jane Brunner.

Councilmembers Brunner, Nancy Nadel, Jean Quan and Desley Brooks are demanding an impartial investigation of the attack. “We will get to the bottom of why the police acted as they did,” Brunner said, while Nadel called the police response “entirely inappropriate.” Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif) expressed deep concern and has also demanded that Brown explain the police behavior.

Anti war organizations say the U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded Stevedoring Services of America, the largest stevedoring company in the U.S., a multimillion dollar contract to manage the port at the Iraqi city of Umm Qasr.

Police claims that protesters failed to disperse or threw objects at the officers were countered by Joel Tena, an aide to Nadel. “I was a witness,” Tena said. “At no time did I see protesters act in a provocative way.”

An observer from the National Lawyers Guild said police, dressed in riot gear, “gave no audible order to disperse … They began shooting at us minutes after their arrival.” According to the NLG, police blocked the exit of people who wanted to leave.

Most injuries from the wooden dowels – which typically caused large bloody welts – hit protesters in their back, substantiating eyewitness accounts that police continued firing at the crowd as people were leaving.

The authors can be reached at ncalview@igc.org

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