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Posted on Mon, Apr. 07, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Police violence shocks activists, others at Port of Oakland protest

Mercury News

An anti-war demonstration at the Port of Oakland turned violent this morning when Oakland Police opened fire with wooden dowels, ``sting balls,'' concussion grendades, tear gas and other non-lethal weapons when protesters at the gates of two shipping lines refused an order to disperse.

Scores of protesters ran from a line of police or tried to hide behind nearby big rigs. At least a dozen demonstrators and nine longshoremen who were standing nearby were injured.

``Our guys were standing in one area waiting to go to work, and then the police started firing on the longshoremen,'' said Henry Graham, the president of ILWU Local 10. ``Some were hit in the chest with rubber bullets, and seven of our guys went to the hospital. I don't want to imply that the police deliberately did this, but it doesn't make sense.''

There have been so many anti-war demonstrations in the Bay Area in recent months that they have almost become routine, and most have been peaceful. Monday's events mark the first time that local police have used projectiles to disperse crowds, and many demonstrators said they were stunned that the projectiles were fired at such close range.

``I was just marching in a big circle and the police lowered their guns at us,'' said Scott Fleming, 29, who took off his shirt to reveal four large red and swollen welts on his back. ``I turned to run and I started getting hit with wooden bullets. They just kept shooting at us, and I kept running. I'm a lawyer, and I'm serioulsy considering filing charges.''

The early morning mayhem came as a shock to veteran activists and Oakland leaders alike. Oakland was one of the first cities in the region to pass a resolution condeming the U.S.-led war with Iraq, and the City Council has a progressive reputation. Some well known public officials even turned out to participate in the early morning protest.

``I got hit a few times with rubber bullets,'' said Dan Siegel, an attorney and member of the Oakland School Board. Siegel pulled a sting ball out of the pocket of his business suit and said he was outraged that the police fired on a peaceful protest. ``The police totally overreacted. It's over the top. They were reckless, and I also saw an officer on a motorcycle run over a woman's foot.''

The port protest was one of several anti-war demonstrations held Monday in the Bay Area. Several people were arrested at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, and seven were arrested after they temporarily blocked an off-ramp from Interstate 280 in San Francisco. Other demonstrators walked in a circle in front of the federal building in San Francisco, drumming wooden spoons together as federal employees arrived for work.

The action at the Port was the largest. Hundreds of demonstrators met near dawn Monday at the terminals of Neptune Orient Lines Ltd.'s APL unit and Stevedoring Services of America, shipping companies that activists say are profiting from the war.

In late March, Stevedoring Services of America won a $4.8 million contract from the U.S. government to manage the Iraqi port Umm Qasr and ensure that urgent food assistance and materials flow smoothly through the seaport. Critics are screaming foul over the process, which excluded any foreign companies from bidding on the lucrative contracts.

The demonstrations at the port were planned with the quiet support of the ILWU, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Many rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 oppose the war with Iraq, and the local has its own Anti-War Action Committee.

Police fired into the crowd after some protesters failed to clear the street in front of the terminals.

``At that point, we fired non-lethal munitions,'' said Danielle Ashford, an officer with the Oakland Police Department. ``There were a few agitators in the crowd. The majority of them were peaceful.''

But others said they never saw any evidence of ``agitators'' and urged any witnesses to come to Tuesday's City Council meeting.

``I was there from 5 a.m. on, and the only violence that I saw was from the police,'' said Joel Tena, the constituent liason for Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel. ``What happened today was very surprising. It seemed the police were operating under the assumption that they were not going to let any kind of protest happen.''


Contact Dana Hull at dhull@mercurynews.com or (510) 790-7311.
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