The Occupy movements have been gaining momentum around the country and around the world since the first protest, Occupy Wall Street, began on Sept. 17 in New York City. The movement’s unofficial slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” refers to the unequal distribution of wealth in our country.
Beginning Oct. 11, Oakland has been home to its own Occupy camp and demonstrations. Since the initiation of police involvement in the protests last week, Occupy Oakland has received worldwide media attention. Statements of solidarity have poured in from all over; protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt marched in solidarity on the U.S. embassy there to protest police violence, as did people in many other cities.
Organizing and participating takes a lot of time and energy, a fact that, in the case of some Mills students, limits involvement. But among protesters, there are Mills faces, although some were hesitant to get involved at first.
“I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen or what kind of potential it had,” said Anna Basalaev-Binder, a senior at Mills.
Basalaev-Binder was active in last year’s Oscar Grant protests and had witnessed large numbers of police dressed in riot gear before. She went with some friends to the Occupy Oakland camp in Oscar Grant Plaza the Monday evening preceding the camp’s police clear-out after she heard there would be a police raid that night or the next morning. She did not leave the camp until 6:30 Tuesday morning.
“All night the cops weren’t there, there was no sign of them — and then in 20 minutes they had the whole place surrounded in full formation with helicopters and everything. I had left to get food for a minute and I got a text that said, ‘They’re coming,’” Basalaev-Binder said.
According to Lauryn Guridi, a senior and organizer of the Occupy Mills movement, there were 500 police officers and 200 protesters during the Oct. 24th raid. The protesters formed a human barricade in an attempt to keep the police out.
“I got really scared. I feel more prepared now, but the first night especially — at some point it was like 50 people against the 200 cops,” Basalaev-Binder said.
Police broke up the barricade, arresting protesters and eventually using tear gas on camp occupants and their allies. The police destroyed the camp, also firing bean bag rounds to clear out protesters, as documented in videos and pictures taken by protesters and media.
Although the number of protesters may have been smaller Tuesday at 4 a.m., a sea of people turned up for the march that night. Among these thousands of people was senior Lauren McDougald, who had been living at the camp for over a week but had briefly moved back home until she got a new tent. McDougald was one of the hundreds of protesters who experienced the use of tear gas by the OPD Tuesday night.
“If I had to compare it to something, I’d say it’s like the way onions automatically make you cry — but it’s that feeling also inside your lungs and in your skin,” McDougald said. “It makes you cough, but when you cough you just breathe it in more. So you have to just not breathe for a while.”
Tear gas is not actually a gas, but rather a concoction of solids at room temperature put into an aerosol spray can or volatile solvent — a substance which dissolves other active substances and easily evaporates when combined with them. Police typically use CS tear gas (which stands for o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile). CS is stronger than mace, but wears off more quickly. The official position of the U.S. Army is that tear gas is non-lethal, according to the 2009 Review of the Department of Justice’s Use of Less Lethal Weapons. However, this position has come under increasing scrutiny, and there is evidence that prolonged exposure to a large amount (specifically in an enclosed area) can cause long term eye or breathing problems such as asthma, according to the New York City Department of Health and Public Hygiene.
McDougald realized the police were about to tear gas the crowd as the police read the Riot Act over a microphone to protesters. The first round of tear gas happened at about 7:45 p.m., and subsequent rounds were unleashed over several hours.
After the first round, McDougald left in a friend’s car. She and her friend drove to Lake Merritt and began telling people nearby what was going on.
They returned later with homemade tear gas masks — pieces of cloth soaked in vinegar to put over the mouth and nose. As they drove near protesters to hand out the masks, the streets of Downtown Oakland were enveloped in a thick yellow fog.
The Occupy Oakland protest is McDougald’s first experience directly participating in a political movement.
“Before this, it was just giving $5 to Greenpeace and stuff like that,” she said, laughing.
Guridi was also at the camp as it was destroyed Tuesday morning and at the demonstration that night.She arrived at camp Tuesday at 3:30 a.m. to show solidarity with campers and help protect the camp.
“I didn’t want to get arrested — I had class the next day — so I stayed near the back side of the camp,” Guridi said.
Guridi saw someone she knew from the camp being arrested and rushed over to help. She was grabbed and placed in zip-ties — plastic, disposable handcuffs — by an officer.
“I said, ‘I’m here for school,’ and he untied me,” Guridi said.
Guridi not only participated in the march that night but also drove to the Santa Rita prison (where protesters identified by police as women were sent) to give people rides back to Oakland.
Guridi was inspired to start Occupy Mills when she saw the Occupy Colleges Facebook page started by UCLA students. She hopes to hold a teach-in at Mills, possibly in conjunction with the General Strike on Nov. 2 — an action voted on by almost 2,000 Occupy Oakland protesters.
“The thing with this movement is it’s really based on people doing what they think is right. Nobody is stopping you from getting involved but yourself,” McDougald said.
Guridi noted that, although she would not be camping with protesters, there were other ways of being a part of the movement.
“Spending all my extra time down there is equally valuable, and doing things on campus is important. Colleges and universities have always had such an important role in social movements. Occupy Colleges is a crucial part of getting people informed,” Guridi said.
McDougald plans to camp out in Oscar Grant Plaza again as soon as possible, although at the time of print she was unsure exactly when that would be.
“The first time you get into this big group of people, you can’t just sit idly by anymore,” McDougald said.
On Oct. 27, Mayor Jean Quan released a statement apologizing for the events that took place over Oct. 25 – 26. She has since allowed all protesters to reconvene in Oscar Grant Plaza and has kept a minimal police presence in the area.