by Rocky Neptun
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]anded a printed ultimatum late afternoon on Thursday, October 13, to either remove all tents by midnight or be arrested, the 150 Freedom Occupiers at the San Diego Civic Center held a democratic general assembly and decided to peacefully resist the assault on their rights of free speech and assembly.
The occupiers, mostly youth, many of them people of color, had been camped near San Diego City Hall since the previous Saturday to proclaim solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide and to begin a movement of youthful confrontation with local injustice.
By 9:30 p.m., a few hours after receiving the ultimatum, protesters had moved most of their tents and personal belongings to a park near the Embarcadero and had symbolically set up about a dozen tents of various sizes in front of the San Diego Civic Center Plaza building.
Drawing a chalked line on the cement around the tents, one young man named David called it the borderline between Freedom Square and the police state. The protesting youth vowed to lock arms and protect the tents with their bodies and be arrested en masse. Their occupation was now a symbol of liberation from greed and corporate servitude.
By 10 p.m., more than 300 people were milling about. As the local media finished up their “News at 11” live broadcasts, the Civic Center Concourse became a human ebb and flow under the full moon. Older activists began eyeing their watches and cell phones as midnight approached, then slowly, quietly slipped away.
Meanwhile, ruckus teenagers and more youth of color arrived on skateboards, carrying musical instruments and wearing bandanas over their faces. They had tuned in, seen through the media’s propaganda and distortions, their crap detectors working perfectly, as they looked into the faces of their peers on the screen — sisters and brothers challenging privilege, wealth and the ugly specter of militarism on the streets of San Diego.
By midnight, several hundred youth and a few seasoned activists stood ready to be arrested in the name of freedom. The deadline imposed by police came and went, and the shivering, breezy hours on the cold pavement passed slowly.
Theories skipped through the encampment. One was that the police informants had mistakenly told the brass that the group was separating, splitting into smaller groups because of the tactical move to the Embarcadero. My theory is that San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne, a hard, bitter man (whom I have interviewed in the past) set the midnight deadline so that officers could crush the city’s burgeoning youthful rebellion with full force and violence, under cover of darkness and away from television cameras.
But he may have been overruled by Mayor Jerry Sanders, whose number-crunching accountant realized how much it would cost to pay overtime for an army of officers in the wee hours of the morning. Sure enough, the police instead waited for the early morning shift to deploy.
Moving into the concourse slightly after 7 a.m., a pitiful number of 35 police officers began to inch into the encampment, trying to target and arrest protesters one by one in an effort to frighten off the rest. Utilizing almost-hilarious Keystone Cops antics, eight or nine officers took more than 20 minutes to arrest one young man, their first pick of the day.
Maneuvering around the corporate media, alternative journalists and even tourists with their phone cameras, while pushing against demonstrators and occupation supporters, “San Diego’s Finest” stumbled, tripped and look very sweaty, fearful and foolish, dragging the young man out of the crowd like a crowd of bears pulling a single salmon out of a stream. At that rate, it would have taken about 20 hours to arrest all the demonstrators.
The gang of cops, now looking disoriented and confused, retreated to the front of Golden Hall. Lieutenants called captains, captains called supervisors, supervisors called commanders and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Deputy Police Chief Boyd Long appeared, almost dragging a hapless Police Chief Lansdowne behind him.
Lansdowne appeared dazed, unsteady, as if he and his gun, flopping obscenely at his side, had been pulled reluctantly into the OK Corral at Tombstone. Deputy Police Chief Long was clearly in command, as Lansdowne stood chewing his fingernails and looking sheepishly at the city’s corporate television crews.
At that point, thick-booted motorcycle cops with heavy helmets arrived, pulled off their beats to expel the occupation. The police force facing down the young activists had grown to about 75 officers. All the cops were rattled, and Chief Lansdowne watched in horror and disbelief. This doesn’t happen in San Diego!
In the two decades I have been reporting in this city, I have witnessed youth arrested several times in the past, picked off at the end of a march or picked off individually or in small groups in alleys and side-streets during protests.
In the past, San Diego police have resorted to lethal force against youth. On April 4, 2005, Jacob Faust, a 25-year-old actor and musician, was shot to death at a traffic stop by a San Diego police officer with a grudge against the young man. The officer tried to justify the shooting by saying he was reacting to a toy gun in the back seat of the car. Jason often used the toy gun in his puppet show, and it was marked as a prop. The officer was then protected by Lansdowne.
Given that history, it was remarkable to witness about 150 youth — including African American, white, Latino, Asian, LGBT, Native Americans, and working-class students — who were not intimidated by the police. They had no political agenda, no list of demands, no leaders, no dogma, as they stood in Freedom Square.
Like their insurgent brothers and sisters of the “Arab Spring,” they will mutiny and, rather than tinker around with piecemeal reforms Obama-style, they will attempt to change the very paradigm of power in this nation’s “American Autumn.”
Standing arm in arm, waiting for the corporate state to send its armed agents against them, they chanted, “We are not here to comply, we are here to occupy,” and “Arrest the corporate criminals, not the protesters.”
The steel in their eyes, the determination in their voices, the beauty of their solidarity, their bodies and freedom on the line to defend the symbolism of a liberated space, if even for a few hours or days, brought tears to these eyes.
Stay tuned. As one young man told me, the war for Middle-Earth has begun.
Rocy Neptun is a Quaker and a longtime activist in the tenants rights and homeless movements in San Diego.