The first Occupy Oakland encampment lasted 15 days before the police department shut it down during a pre-dawn operation. Credit: Mercurywoodrose

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All of Oakland knew the raid was coming. 

City officials, police, and local business groups had been criticizing the “autonomous” Occupy Oakland camp—a tent city erected on the lawn outside City Hall—since it was established on October 10, 2011. Part of a national anti-capitalist movement protesting income inequality, Occupy Oakland was also a protest against police brutality. The camp’s participants renamed Frank Ogawa Plaza “Oscar Grant Plaza” to honor the young man killed by a former BART police officer two years earlier. There’d been some tense encounters with police on the edge of the camp when officers sought to enter and patrol the space while residents repelled them, screaming “pigs go home.” On the camp’s twelfth day, the city posted notices ordering protesters to pack up and leave, but these warnings were ignored.

When the police raid finally happened in the pre-dawn hours of October 25, few could have predicted the mayhem that would unfold over the next 18 hours. The Oakland police reacted with a level of violence that echoed their brutalization of a 2003 anti-Iraq War march at the Port of Oakland and exceeded their militarized response to the Oscar Grant street marches in 2009 and 2010. 

The crackdown on Occupy Oakland a decade ago happened years before scenes of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Minneapolis, and dozens of other cities after police killings of Black people, became part of the normal news cycle. Back in 2011, video of tear gas billowing through the streets and armored police unleashing withering barrages of riot control munitions were shocking and unusual. While police have used violence against protesters throughout American history, the response to Occupy Oakland stunned many, prompting condemnations from local news editors, columnists at national media outlets, and even comedian Jon Stewart.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the police raid of Occupy Oakland and the violence that took place in the streets later that day. The Oaklandside  looked back on that fateful incident and its aftermath to see what lasting impact it had on the city, and how one person’s life in particular was forever altered.

Part of a nationwide shut down of Occupy camps

In the predawn hours of Oct. 25, 2011 about 200 Oakland police officers and police and sheriffs deputies from other nearby cities and counties, marched on the Occupy camp outside City Hall. Camp residents knew the police were on their way and erected crude fortifications with dumpsters, pallets, and other debris. OPD quickly breached these obstacles and lobbed tear gas and flashbang grenades among the tents and arrested dozens. Then-Mayor Jean Quan made the decision to close the camp with her city administrator, Deana Santana, and then-Police Chief Howard Jordan. Quan was out of town when the raid happened. Cities across the country had been communicating with each other and federal law enforcement about their desire to shut down the protest camps.

News of the forceful camp closure spread rapidly and hundreds of people rallied later that afternoon at the Oakland Public Library before marching on the now-shuttered North County Jail, where some camp residents were being held from the morning arrests. But before they made it there, they came up against squads of police, resulting in violent confrontations. Police again gassed the crowd and fired “less lethal” bean bag rounds of birdshot wrapped in canvas to repel the furious Occupy supporters.

More people kept pouring into downtown Oakland as the march looped around the empty streets. By 6 p.m., the crowd had grown to a couple thousand people and they returned to the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway, where a skirmish line of cops from Oakland, Palo Alto, and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department were arrayed behind metal barriers. 

Scott Olsen, 24, was one of the protesters in the crowd that night. The Wisconsin native had moved to the Bay Area earlier that summer for a job in IT. He was a Marine Corps veteran, having served two tours of duty in Iraq. But he personally opposed the invasion and occupation, and linked up with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) for some of their summer 2011 actions in support of the imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Olsen was also drawn to the economic and social justice messages of the Occupy movement. When a group set up a camp outside the Federal Reserve Bank’s San Francisco branch, he became an integral part of the protest there by setting up his own tent and camping out, walking the short distance to his day job rather than commuting from his home in Daly City. 

Olsen came to Oakland that night to show solidarity with the East Bay’s Occupy movement, and in the crowd he spotted another IVAW member and Navy veteran Joshua Shepherd. The two of them moved to the front of the crowd, within ten feet of the barriers and police line. They stood out in their military garb: Olsen was in a camouflage blouse and hat, and Shepherd wore his Navy dress blues.

In video collected by the Oakland Police Department for its investigation, an officer is seen firing bean bags from a shotgun toward the area where Scott Olsen was standing. Joshua Shepard is holding a flag in the background. OPD’s investigation identified the officer who shot Olsen as Robert Roche, although this finding was later overturned in arbitration. Credit: Courtesy of Oakland Police Department

In a recent interview with The Oaklandside, Olsen acknowledged that part of the reason he stepped to the front was because he wanted the police to see that military veterans were part of the movement, and he hoped it would make them think twice about attacking protesters.

The atmosphere was tense. Angry chants of “who do you serve, who do you protect!” rang out as some demonstrators at the front removed rows of metal barriers, pressing right up against the police line. Every now and then, plastic water bottles would sail through the air at the police. Behind the initial line of officers stood OPD’s riot squads, called “Tango Teams.” These were made up of SWAT and gang officers with violent histories, and they were heavily armed with tear gas and shotguns loaded with lead-filled bean bags. An OPD sergeant announced over a loudspeaker that the protest was, according to city officials, an “unlawful assembly,” and he ordered the crowd to disperse. He was met by jeers and taunts that grew louder by the minute. 

At 6:40 p.m. a police captain named Paul Figueroa, who had been placed in charge of OPD’s ground force that day, instructed Roland Holmgren, a sergeant leading one of the Tango Teams, to deploy riot control munitions and disperse the crowd. Within seconds, the Tango officers threw gas canisters and flash-bang grenades into the crowd. Deafening explosions rang out and huge clouds of choking tear gas tinged orange by the streetlights billowed through downtown, mixing with the acrid scent of gunpowder from “CS SKAT” munitions (40mm shells that spray rubber balls in a shotgun pattern) and lead-filled bean bags that several OPD officers fired at people who they suspected were throwing objects toward the police.

“I remember a couple of tear gas canisters and flashbangs being thrown at us, and that’s where shit went sideways,” Olsen said. “People were screaming and running everywhere.”

Olsen knew the scent of tear gas intimately: like other branches of the U.S. military, the Marines trained to fight through tear gas attacks, even though it’s one of the chemical weapons banned for use in war under the Chemical Weapons Convention and 1925 Geneva Protocol. Olsen had been gassed repeatedly in basic training and wasn’t afraid of it. But the flashbangs and shotgun blasts spooked him. He turned to run but suddenly lost control of his body and dropped to the ground: he’d been shot at point-blank range in the head with an OPD “less lethal” bean bag shotgun round. As he lay stunned on his back, blood pouring from his nose, several protesters ran to his aid, gathered around him, and tried to pick him up and carry him to safety.

Robert Roche, one of Oakland’s Tango Team officers who’d been firing “less lethals” from his Remington into the crowd, lowered the barrel of his shotgun, took a couple steps back from the barricade, and tossed a flashbang grenade into the crowd. The bomblet bounced off the knee of one of Olsen’s rescuers and exploded. Some of those trying to extract Olsen from the cloud of gas and police violence scattered, but several returned, lifted Olsen off the pavement, and carried him away, shouting for medics.

https://oaklandside.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/CSBlast.m4v
OPD investigators analyzed video in slow motion to determine who the officer was who threw a tear gas grenade into the group of protesters aiding Scott Olsen. Credit: Oakland Police Department

No police officers stepped out from behind the barricades to help the wounded Marine Corps veteran. The incident was captured on film.

Olsen’s rescuers loaded him into a private car and drove to Highland Hospital. He was unable to speak and couldn’t get his fingers to punch in the code to unlock his phone to call his parents in Wisconsin. The buckshot-filled bean bag, which left a round black mark the size of a quarter on his camouflage hat, had cracked Olsen’s skull, fractured his vertebrae and left orbital bone, and caused serious bleeding in his brain, which was swelling dangerously. The experienced Highland Hospital surgeons, who were used to seeing gunshot wounds, induced him into a coma to allow his brain to rest and listed him in critical condition. 

Reflecting on it years later, Olsen noted that he came out of two combat tours in Iraq in the mid-2000s unscathed. After attending one protest in Oakland, he ended up unconscious in the county’s level one trauma center, hovering between life and death.

“I thought I wasn’t in Iraq anymore. I thought I was safe,” he said recently about his assault. 

Consequences for the Oakland Police Department

The Oct. 25 raid and Olsen’s wounding ended up galvanizing Occupy Oakland. The protesters retook “Oscar Grant Plaza” the following day and organized a massive November 2 “General Strike,” when tens of thousands of Occupy supporters shut down business in much of downtown Oakland and at the port. More clashes with the police ensued, including on the night of Nov. 2, and on Nov. 14, when the second encampment was forcefully disbanded.after city leaders said they believed a murder in the plaza was linked to the camp.

OPD’s handling of the Occupy protests brought increased federal scrutiny and nearly sent the department into receivership—a process whereby a federal judge appoints an independent authority to take control of the police department away from the city. More than 1,200 internal affairs complaints had been filed against Oakland cops because of their violent behavior on Oct. 25, as well as other protests on Nov. 2 and Jan. 28, 2012, when a hard-left faction of Occupy Oakland unsuccessfully attempted to seize the empty Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center and were repulsed once again by the Tango Teams. 

At the time, the Oakland police department was almost a decade into court-ordered reforms stemming from the “Riders” scandal. The Riders were a group of West Oakland cops who brutalized and planted drugs on dozens of men in the summer of 2000. A civil rights lawsuit against the officers and police department ended in 2003 when the city signed a settlement agreement that included a promise to completely reform OPD. Among the many changes were new policies and training to reduce officers’ use of force on people, and vast improvements to OPD’s Internal Affairs Division, the department’s accountability system that is supposed to hold officers accountable when they break the rules. 

Three months after signing the Riders settlement, a squad of officers responded with overwhelming violence to an anti-war protest at the Port of Oakland. Demonstrators were blocking an entrance to the port to make a point against the invasion of Iraq, and longshore workers were standing near them, waiting to see if their shifts that day would be canceled because of the protest. OPD officers decided to disperse the protesters by shooting them with munitions like wooden dowels, seriously wounding multiple people. Some of the longshore workers were also shot and beaten by officers. After the incident—which outraged many and led to lawsuits that cost the city $2 million—OPD promised to change the way it responded to protests by updating its crowd control policy, so that it would be clear in the future that people’s First Amendment rights were to be respected and that groups of protesters shouldn’t be collectively punished because one or a few people in a crowd was acting violent or otherwise breaking the law.

Despite these promises to change, in 2011, OPD had become the face of violent, anti-democratic policing in the United States because of its response to Occupy.

Even though the Riders settlement required OPD to fix its internal affairs division so that it could hold officers accountable, the aftermath of Occupy Oakland showed that the department hadn’t delivered on these reforms. The volume of complaints against OPD officers overwhelmed the agency. 

Making matters worse, OPD received no outside assistance from other law enforcement agencies that could have helped them investigate these complaints, or examine whether the shooting of Olsen was potentially criminal. Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris declined Police Chief Howard Jordan’s request for the state Department of Justice to help OPD investigate misconduct allegations during the Occupy Movement, according to an email Jordan sent to his deputy chiefs on February 23, 2012. 

The FBI opened an assessment—a level below a full investigation—into whether Olsen’s wounding violated his civil rights, but closed it within a few months after only interviewing Olsen. The FBI doesn’t appear to have subpoenaed any records or interviewed any law enforcement personnel or witnesses, according to FBI records Olsen obtained and provided to The Oaklandside.

One of the biggest problems with OPD’s handling of the misconduct investigations was the fact that Paul Figueroa, the captain who was in charge of the police deployment on Oct. 25, had a conflict of interest; Figueroa also happened to be the captain of internal affairs, meaning he was in charge of investigating himself and everyone under his command during those protests 

Accountability came from the outside. The East Bay Express used video footage and OPD records to identify Robert Roche as the cop who tossed the flashbang onto Olsen while he lay wounded. The alt-weekly also documented the violent histories of the Tango officers, failures of officers to activate their body cameras during the crackdown, and identified other officers who brutalized protesters.

In December of 2011, the city was required by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson—who oversaw OPD’s compliance with the Riders settlement agreement—to hire former Baltimore and San Jose Police Chief Thomas Frazier to conduct an independent investigation of OPD’s response to Occupy Oakland. Frazier’s report, which would be made public the following June, was a scathing analysis of OPD’s dangerous use of riot control munitions, the untruthful accounts of Tango Team cops about their actions, conflicts of interest within the internal affairs review process, and more. The report’s findings were so damaging that then-City Administrator Deanna Santana tried to redact the most scathing findings from the public version, only to be rebuffed by Frazier. 

To further investigate the problems the Frazier report highlighted, Oakland hired an outside attorney to conduct an impartial internal affairs investigation into police actions on the night Olsen was wounded. The outcome was recommended discipline for 44 officers, including two terminations. The outside investigator advised that Robert Roche should be fired for tossing the flashbang grenade into the crowd aiding Olsen, and because the investigator concluded that Roche was the officer who shot Olsen in the head with the bean bag. The investigator also concluded that Roche gave an untruthful account of his actions that night when he first spoke to internal affairs, calling him “by far the least credible” of the Tango Team cops. 

OPD’s brutalization of protesters and mishandling of the subsequent investigations prompted civil rights attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin to ask Judge Henderson in October 2012 to place the department under full control of the court. Few local governments and states have seen agencies under their control—school districts, police departments, jails and prisons—placed under “receivership,” the formal name for the process of stripping local control away. The drastic measure is resorted to only in cases where it’s been shown that the local government is incapable of reforming itself to protect people’s civil rights. 

In the end, Henderson decided not to have OPD taken over by an outside authority. The compromise reached by Henderson, the city of Oakland, and Chanin and Burris was to delegate significantly more power to a “compliance director” who could order the department to do things like discipline officers, and who would even have the power to fire the police chief. Frazier, the former Baltimore chief who investigated the Occupy fiasco, was initially picked for the job, but it ultimately became part of the duties of OPD’s current independent monitor, Robert Warshaw. 

Olsen’s life was permanently altered by OPD’s protest crackdown

Scott Olsen was in the hospital for two and a half weeks, but recovered sufficiently to take part in a protest at the Port of Oakland in December 2011 while wearing a neck brace. His appearance was noted by many as a hopeful sign for Occupy, and for the young Marine Corps veteran.

“I thought it was important for me to show resilience and get over any fears I had about going to protests,” Olsen said. 

However, he was still having difficulty talking and went through extensive rehabilitation for many months after. Olsen suffered permanent brain damage and was unable to continue his IT job: he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and won a $4.5 million settlement in 2014. He moved back to his native Wisconsin, where he now lives on a farm. His brain injury still has lasting effects.

“I did try to go back to work, and I couldn’t hack it,” Olsen said, adding that he still suffers from memory loss. He feels like his injury stole his future away. “I was very happy doing IT work and I’m pretty sad that I can’t do that anymore.”

Olsen became familiar with the Oakland Police Department during the course of his lawsuit. He learned of the department’s history of violently responding to protest movements and its track record of conducting insufficient investigations into officer misconduct. “They’re a very special department,” he said. 

Even though his injury made international news and he filed a formal complaint with OPD, Olsen said that complaint fell into a black hole.

“It felt like I was forgotten about, that they were more interested in protecting their own, instead of doing the bare minimum,” he said.

He has no regrets about participating in the Occupy movement, which he believes helped inspire Bernie Sanders’ two presidential runs and underpins many of the progressive political movements working for a better future today. 

On a more local level, however, Olsen believes that the city of Oakland has learned little from its troubled response to Occupy. Even from Wisconsin, Olsen has kept up with OPD’s 19-year struggle to complete the Riders settlement reforms, and the agency’s ongoing tumult, including ongoing lawsuits over the most recent violent responses by OPD to last year’s George Floyd protests. 

“It’s sad to see them still have problems,” he said. “I somewhat hoped that maybe my case could help them be better.”

Ali Winston

Ali Winston is an independent reporter covering criminal justice, privacy, and surveillance. He is a former reporter for the New York Times and fellow at Type Investigations. His reporting on police corruption, right-wing extremism, and surveillance have appeared in a number of regional and national outlets and been recognized with several awards, including a George Polk Award for Local Reporting. Ali is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of California.