Overtime with the occupation
Was city police’s Occupy Sacramento strategy too much?
A lone city cop rests atop a stationary bike under a canopy of trees in Cesar Chavez Plaza. It’s a few ticks before 9 p.m. on a Thursday, the first night of Occupy Sacramento, the local incarnation of Manhattan’s Wall Street protests. The cop explains that the protesters, who number about 150, have been informed they’ll need to evacuate the park by 11 p.m. or face arrest.
Across the plaza near a small cafe building rest two open tents: Occupy Sacramento’s makeshift headquarters. There is no boss, no general; someone explains that this is a “leaderless movement.” A Costco-sized toilet-paper bundle, dozens of bottled waters, laptops on fold-out tables, a Pizza Hut box—it’s not U.S. Central Command, but the occupiers’ arsenal does include a live view on Ustream, a WordPress news feed, and even a medic.
As 11 approaches, occupiers pack up belongings into cars; police will confiscate anything left in the park. Someone announces to “leave the park cleaner than when we got here.” Meanwhile, a woman in a red sweater toting a red megaphone walks to 10th and I streets, where a handful of police now congregate. She informs them that 18 occupiers are prepared to be arrested. It’s an amicable, calm exchange: “We’re going to do this,” the woman shares. “OK,” the cops offer.
And, come deadline, protesters hold true to their word: 18 individuals—mostly under 30, one woman—sit at the park entrance, arms in the air, ready to be zipcuffed.
There are more media than occupiers. A few more police arrive, a bit clandestinely—dotting the park on bikes, resting in cars down the block. Reporters broadcast for the 11 o’clock news with a penchant for interviewing unaffiliated tagalongs, including a drunk who lights something on fire.
Finally, the news is done. And, like a troop of monks praying only to cigarettes and the night’s cold, the remaining occupiers wait. And wait. For hours. To be arrested for violating a city code that says you can’t camp in parks past 11 p.m. Like hundreds of area homeless most evenings.
By 11:45 p.m., the police’s enforcement slowly reveals itself. A female officer pulls up to the J and Ninth streets corner, exits her car, announces via megaphone that this is an “unlawful assembly,” gets back in, drives 50 feet, exits again, makes the same announcement, then drives off. This happens a total of three times, approximately every 30 minutes.
By midnight, the California Highway Patrol closes off both J and I streets at Ninth and reroutes traffic. More and more cop cars park along the Cesar Chavez’s perimeter. By this time, Sacramento American Civil Liberties Union board member Cres Velluci, who protested the Vietnam War and has been arrested numerous times, gets fed up with the police—its deception and protracted, shady tactics, he says—and joins the 18 occupiers.
Around 12:45 a.m., it all happens: A fleet of more than three dozen cop cars, two police wagons, and one multimedia communications RV light up the streets before parking on Ninth. Next, some six-dozen SWAT team members donning riot-gear helmets and automatic weapons emerge and form two single-file rows. The first wave of SWAT form a perimeter around the 19 occupiers, who lie completely still, followed by a second crew, who begin citing and arresting, one by one.
It’s a quiet, uneventful, nonviolent scene. The authorities are professional.
As one onlooker proclaims: “You don’t need a SWAT team. You could have turned on the sprinklers and they would have gone home.”
City police sergeant Andrew Pettit explains that, while he doesn’t have exact costs or numbers, the city “didn’t know what to expect” and had to use dozens of local officers who were already on duty. There was overtime, and it was more police than on Second Saturday or at a Sacramento Kings game.
Pettit cited YouTube videos featuring police and protester clashes in other cities across the nation. “We’re preparing,” he reminded, “for the worst-case scenario.”
A total of 34 occupiers have been arrested during the protests.