OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – Oakland police fired rubber bullets to disperse about 750 anti-war demonstrators on Monday in what was believed to be the first use of the projectiles against U.S. protesters since the American-led war on Iraq began.
Several people suffered minor injuries and demonstrators complained that police overreacted because protesters had simply blocked access to a firm they claimed was profiting from the war in Iraq when police shot rubber bullets and wooden pellets into the crowd.
One man lifted up his shirt to show a welt about the size of a baseball, and several were hit as they were moving from the scene, as evidenced by large bruises on their backs.
“I have been to many protests over the years, and I have never seen police resort to shooting people because they didn’t like where they were standing,” said Scott Fleming, 29, a lawyer hit several times in the back.
“They had loaded guns and started charging.”
An Oakland police spokeswoman said officers warned before firing. At least a dozen protesters were arrested.
“We gave our dispersal order, we gave them an order, we gave them ample time to disperse,” said police spokeswoman Danielle Ashford. “When we give our dispersal order, that’s pretty much it. (If) there are safety issues involved, that’s when we step in.”
The action is believed to be the first police use of anti-crowd munitions against U.S. demonstrators since President Bush launched an invasion aimed at toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The police action angered many in the crowd, which later dispersed, with some moving to a different part of Oakland.
“This was not professional, to say the least,” said Joel Tena, a constituent liaison for Oakland’s vice mayor. “I was afraid for the safety of the protesters and concerned that a nonviolent protest had turned violent at the hands of police.”
Susan Quinlan was hit with pellets twice in the back. “I never heard any warning to disperse. They pursued us and shot us as we walked away,” she said.
Leone Reinbold, a spokeswoman for Direct Action to Stop the War which organized the protest, said she saw a policeman run his motorcycle into one woman and another man get hit with a rubber bullet to the nose.
“We weren’t there to confront the police. We set up a peaceful picket line,” she said. “The worst injury was to the long, tried-and-true tradition in this country of picketing.”
Jerry Drelling, a spokesman for American President Lines, the company that was the object of the protest, said it has some government contracts but declined to provide details. He said no one at the firm had been injured.
“The Oakland police department managed to keep the ingress and egress open so that worked out pretty well,” he said. “We’re trying to run a business and you want to keep the gates open.”
At a separate demonstration, San Francisco police detained about 20 protesters blocking the Federal Building. Several people also briefly blocked one of the city’s main highways.
Anti-war activists in the San Francisco area said they were resuming protest actions on Monday after a period of relative quiet in a city famous for its history of dissent. Police arrested more than 2,000 people in San Francisco in the first two days of the war.
Also on Monday, New York police arrested two or three dozen people who blocked the entrance to the Manhattan building of the Carlyle Group, a firm with a stake in the defense industry.