Oakland police take hands-off approach with protesters


Police arrested one protester after they found out he had a warrant. There was also a small group that was yelling at police and people have been given citations for stepping off the curb on a red light. Still, it is a big difference from the actions police took during the Occupy demonstrations.

At a press conference held Wednesday Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said the demonstrations and vandalism that broke out on Saturday night caught them off guard.

"We were preparing for a protest, but we didn't think it would happen over the weekend. So we had our regular Saturday night units out there," said Whent.

Tuesday night, City Council Member Noel Gallo criticized the chief for not being aware of the Trayvon Martin verdict.

"That's a real poor excuse. I mean we should have been prepared, we should have known. We knew. The public knew and certainly those protestors knew what was going to occur," said Gallo.

Gallo also complained about the department's soft stance on demonstrators. On Saturday night they were scene retreating from the intersection of Broadway and 14th while protestors intimidated people in cars.

"It is very difficult to march into a crowd of several hundred people to grab a couple of people that are breaking windows," said Whent.

"When the Occupy stuff came down, everyone was so mad at the police force for being so heavy handed that I think their hands were tied this time, so they couldn't do anything," said Rob Reeves, a Dogwood Bar employee.

Tuesday night police were ordered not to aggressively engage any protesters. In other words, hands off. The problem is that the protesters are well aware of it.

Oakland cleans up after protests, braces for more

Three nights of protests in Oakland over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin have resulted in vandalism, arrests and thousands of dollars in damage. There were more police on the streets Monday night than there were over the weekend, and the Oakland Police Department has staffed extra patrols anticipating a fourth night of demonstrations.

Oakland erupted Saturday night following the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and Oakland police were caught off guard.

"We were preparing for a protest, but we didn't think it was going to happen over the weekend," Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said. "So we had our regular crews out there. As soon as I heard the verdict came in, I came to work."

Saturday night, masked vandals started fires and smashed windows of restaurants. On Sunday, hundreds marched through city streets. Monday night, dozens of protesters marched onto Interstate 880, briefly bringing traffic to a halt before police ushered them back onto city streets. The demonstration continued downtown with what police called a "small fringe group intent on lawlessness" that set off fireworks, spray-painted graffiti on buildings and threw bottles and rocks at police.

Whent defended the actions of his department's "non-aggressive approach," saying, "The thing that prevents us from being more aggressive is the fact that we have to do it safely."

That includes, says the chief, the safety of the community and the officers.

Oakland attorney John Burris, who has successfully sued the department for aggressive tactics in the past, agrees.

"Lawfully exercise their rights as police officers and protect them, but understand the constitution rights that individuals have," Burris said.

Tuesday evening, a lot of downtown business owners had already closed up shop. But as businesses once more boarded up their shattered windows, there was little or nothing said about the third night of vandalism.

"We're focused on moving forward; again, I think the folks that are doing the vandalism are not really representative of our community," Youth Radio Executive Director Richard Raya said.

Youth Radio has been covering the Zimmerman verdict and subsequent protests. Monday night, vandals broke out three floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Raya says the cost could run more than $10,000.

When asked what he thought of the attack, he changed the subject.

"We're supportive of awareness, we're supportive of justice, we're supportive of peaceful protest," Raya said. "To be totally honest with you, I don't even really think about the agitators very much."

Raya calls the vandals a distraction. But last night it went beyond broken glass -- a waiter at Flora restaurant was hit on the head with a hammer.

"The cops are like the shepherds; they just lead the sheep down the street and they just, you know, do whatever they want," Flora co-owner Thomas Schnetz said.

ABC7 News asked them why their own merchant association won't condemn the violence or the vandalism.

"It's a very small minority of them that are causing these problems; they're obviously trying to further another agenda," Flora co-owner Donna Savitsky said.

Police say those who commit most of the vandalism quickly work to blend into the crowd making it difficult to arrest them. So they're turning to the public for help and asking that anyone with video of vandalism give it to police.

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