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How a peaceful protest about wealth disparity became an ongoing
clash with police.
On Friday evening, less than 24 hours after San Diego police arrested more than 50 protesters involved with Occupy San Diego, the Civic Center plaza was filled with tension, anger and fear.
As a growing group of protesters gathered around a bullhorn, a woman laid down in a sleeping bag — a direct violation of the order from police to vacate the concourse of such belongings.
Police circled her, and chaos broke out.
As officers lifted her from the ground, protesters quickly circled around them. Pushing, shoving and shouting ensued as occupiers and media jostled to get a view of the arresting officers. Police blocked cameras and drew their batons.
One man got nose-to-nose with an officer who shoved him and arrested him minutes later.
Then protesters turned on a public address system. “Sleep Now in the Fire” by Rage Against the Machine blared through the speakers.
The tension in the air was thick. Fear crossed the faces of both the protesters and the police.
How did it come to this?
At First, All Was Peaceful
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|Mike Geck, head of security for Occupy San Diego, gives a fist bump to Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long before the protest kicks off.|
Weeks ago, police and protesters were getting along. The occupiers had established a head of security, who served as a liaison to SDPD Assistant Chief Boyd Long. They bumped fists before embarking on the group’s first major march, during which police provided protection all along the downtown route.
The occupiers established a small makeshift village outside the Civic Center.
For a movement often derided for being listless or disorganized, it was remarkable to see a group of San Diegans so quickly establish a community, complete with food services, medical care, a small library and even a governing structure.
Just like any community, it housed an incredibly diverse group of people.
At the makeshift encampment, I met socialists and anarchists. I met brilliant thinkers and people so spun out they could hardly form a sentence. I met people in suits and people with dreadlocks. I met people who legitimately wanted a peaceful protest and people who absolutely wanted conflict with police.
Sarah Parish, a 25-year-old with a master’s degree from SDSU, was upset that even with her credentials, she couldn’t find a job.
Joshua Londono, a 23-year-old Iraq War veteran, thought the conflict he served in was unwarranted, and only helped prop up corporate interests.
And Sophia Kahn, 24, just didn’t want to “stand by and watch a revolution happen” without being part of it. She wanted to participate, to make a better world for her child.
The Tension Became Inevitable
|Photos by Sam Hodgson|
|Clockwise from top left: Occupy San Diego demonstrators Charles Mercer, Shannon Dove, ‘Tribal’ and Sophia Kahn.|
The elaborate nature of the occupiers’ camp, coupled with the fact that they planned to stay indefinitely, created a dilemma for SDPD, which had vowed to protect their right to peacefully protest.
Erecting a tent on a public sidewalk is a violation of city law. But occupying is at the heart of the demonstration. As long as there were people tasked with enforcing the city’s laws and people committed to keeping the protest alive, a clash was inevitable.
Police evicted the occupiers once, after a long showdown, but protesters eventually reestablished their camp at both the Civic Center and the Children’s Park.
Then, in the middle of the night Friday, with few cameras around, officers in riot gear swept in and arrested 51 protesters from both locations. SDPD said the conditions were so unsanitary at the Civic Center that they had to take action.
The protesters were arrested under a variety of charges:
• 11 were charged with violating the Children’s Park’s nighttime curfew. (The park is closed between midnight and 6 a.m.)
• 24 were charged with resisting, obstructing or delaying an officer in the performance of his or her duties.
• 4 were charged with illegal lodging.
• 11 were charged with unlawful assembly.
• 1 was charged with encroachment, which prohibits people from storing their property on public property.
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|A San Diego police officer shouts at protesters to back up as they handcuff a man accused of throwing something at police.|
I’ve learned something important from these demonstrations: It only takes one heavy-handed police officer to set off a group of protestors. And it only takes one misguided protestor to turn a peaceful group into a crazed mob.
That’s what happened on Friday night.
At one point, an SDPD officer shoved a 17-year-old in the back for approaching the police line from behind. That same young man also shouted at the police that he was “ready for a fight.”
Throughout the day, police endured taunting and antagonizing from some protestors. After pushing occupiers with their batons, one shouted “Are those the same batons you beat your wives with?”
The Clash With Police Isn’t the Whole Story
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|John Petersen, a 47-year-old member of Boilermakers Local 1998, holds an American flag while listening to speakers.|
Earlier in the evening, local labor leader Lorena Gonzalez made an impassioned plea to the crowd to forget the struggle over tents and sleeping bags and focus on the issues the movement was formed to address.
The media, she said, just wanted to talk about tents and tension with police — it was a simple storyline that distracted from the real issues of wealth disparity.
Her words moved the crowd, who cheered louder and more passionately than I’ve seen throughout the protests.
The majority of people involved in Occupy San Diego want to support a peaceful protest that addresses growing issues of wealth disparity in the United States. And the majority of police want to protect the right to protest.
And that’s what continues at the Civic Center today — a mixed bag of protesters and mixed opinions about whether they should be allowed to occupy there.
The tents are gone, protesters are not being allowed to lie down in the Civic Center and, while tensions still exist, progress is being made toward a peaceful occupation.
And the group continues to meet nightly to discuss the political and economic structure that they hope to fix.
I’m a photojournalist at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact me directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5664.
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