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Oakland Panel to Probe Violence at Protest

Demonstrators against the war in Iraq complained that police fired rubber pellets and other items into a crowd without provocation.

May 27, 2003|Chris O'Connell | Special to The Times

OAKLAND — The City Council has called for an independent panel to investigate a confrontation between police and antiwar protesters last month that ended with officers firing nonlethal weapons into a large crowd at the Port of Oakland.

The council created the three-person panel, whose members are yet to be named, in response to protesters who say police had no provocation for firing wooden dowels, beanbag rounds, rubber pellets and stinger grenades into crowds protesting the war in Iraq.

About two dozen people were hit, including six nearby dockworkers. No one was seriously injured, although one dockworker suffered a broken thumb that required surgery, union officials said.

Karen Boyd, a spokeswoman for the city attorney, said her office already had received seven claims on behalf of 22 people, alleging excessive force and violation of their civil rights.

The Oakland Police Department maintains that its use of force was appropriate. Capt. Ronald Yee gave orders to fire only after protesters threw rocks, steel bolts and concrete at advancing officers, said a police spokeswoman, Danielle Ashford.

Mayor Jerry Brown has consistently defended the use of force.

"As a mayor, he's going to back the police," said a mayoral spokeswoman, Erica Herald. "He's going to trust his commanders in the field; he can't second-guess them."

Recently released police videotapes of the demonstration do not show the provocation that the police described. The tapes show several standoffs between officers and people trying to block traffic at entrances to American President Lines and Stevedoring Services of America.

The companies were targeted by protesters for their involvement with the conflict in Iraq and that country's reconstruction.

On the tapes, Capt. Yee repeatedly tells dozens of chanting protesters over a bullhorn that the gathering is an illegal assembly and orders them to disperse in minutes or face arrest.

While many people moved on, some remained. After several minutes, officers on motorcycles followed by police in riot gear and gas masks advanced toward the remaining protesters. After moving them back several hundred feet, police fired stinger grenades into the crowd, the video shows.

The scene, also captured by television news cameras and broadcast worldwide, was repeated several times as police slowly forced the protest away from the entrances to the two companies.

One person close to the police camera is overheard saying of the protesters, "They don't move fast enough." Another voice, possibly from a walkie-talkie, asks, "Should we arrest them or disperse them?"

There is no sign on the tapes of protesters throwing anything. Protesters say that proves the officers overreacted. But Oakland police say other videotapes from TV news crews confirm that demonstrators threw objects at officers.

Sri Louise, a 35-year-old San Francisco resident, was hit in the jaw by either a rubber pellet or a dowel.

"Their evidence is not adding up," said Louise, who has filed a claim against the city. "All of the violence that day was on the part of the Oakland Police Department."

Ashford, the police spokeswoman, acknowledged that the tapes did not capture any violence on the part of protesters.

But she said the video was from only one perspective and tapes from other sources paint a different picture.

"Our investigators have received video footage supporting" police allegations of a provocation, Ashford said.

The three members of the investigating panel will be chosen by the city attorney and the city manager. The panel will report to the city's Citizens Police Review Board, which will make the findings public, said City Councilwoman Jane Brunner.

One thing activists and civil libertarians are eager to find out from the investigation is what information the police had about the protest beforehand.

An alert sent to law enforcement agencies on April 2 by the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center warned of traffic problems and possible illegal activity during the April 7 protest.

The agency sometimes has used the warning system for purposes other than terrorism alerts, said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, which operates the center. The agency is not monitoring peace activists, she said.

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