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Bay Area clergy arrested at Occupy Oakland

Unitarian Universalist ministers participated in interfaith vigil as police in riot gear slashed tents.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
11.21.11

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Interfaith clergy held a vigil as Oakland, Calif., police dismantled the Occupy Oakland. encampment

Interfaith clergy held a vigil as Oakland, Calif., police dismantled the Occupy Oakland encampment in the early morning hours of Nov. 14. (Marcus Liefert)

Two Unitarian Universalist ministers were arrested at Occupy Oakland in the early morning hours of Monday, Nov. 14, as police stormed Frank Ogawa Plaza to dismantle the tent city.

The Rev. Jeremy Nickel, minister of the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, Calif., and the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald, visiting professor at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., were among 15 clergy arrested while keeping a vigil in the center of the Oakland park as police destroyed more than 150 tents and emptied the plaza of hundreds of Occupy protesters.

In addition to Nickel and Kuhwald, 31 others were arrested, including Marcus Liefert, intern minister at the UU Church of Berkeley, Calif., and seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry, and the Rev. Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, a visiting scholar and former trustee of Starr King. Brock is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

By the end of the day on Monday, all but one of the protesters were charged with misdemeanors and released. Police transferred Francisco “Pancho” Ramos Stierle, who was arrested while meditating with a small group across the plaza from the clergy group, to federal custody because they suspected he was an illegal immigrant. In July 2010, Ramos Stierle was arrested alongside UUs protesting Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law SB 1070 in Phoenix.

The ministers were part of a group of interfaith clergy that had formed after Occupy Oakland’s “general strike” on Nov. 1, which briefly closed the nation’s fifth-busiest port. The strike followed an earlier police attack on Occupy Oakland, when a U.S. Marine veteran, Scott Olsen, suffered a skull fracture after he was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police. Though generally peaceful, the Nov. 1 march was accompanied by vandalism, including smashed windows and graffiti along the route of the march, according to news reports. The clergy group began to speak with Occupy Oakland’s general assembly after the general strike. “We’ve been in dialogue with the GA about how to bring nonviolence more to the center of the movement,” Nickel said.

Police began serving eviction notices to Occupy Oakland protesters on Friday, Nov. 11. Protesters anticipated that evictions would begin Sunday night or Monday. They gathered for a general assembly at 6 p.m. on Sunday, and the interfaith clergy planned a 10 p.m. vigil Sunday night. A DJ appeared that evening, and a massive dance party erupted, which protesters—aware that their tent city would soon be destroyed—dubbed “the Occupocalypse.” “Everyone danced their minds out for hours waiting for the police to come,” said Nickel. “There was a nervous energy for a long time.”

In the early morning hours, 15 clergy members formed a semicircle in front of the interfaith tent at the center of the plaza. They locked arms and sang “We Will Not Be Moved,” “We Shall Overcome,” and other hymns.

At 4 a.m., two police helicopters hovered over the plaza, and armored vehicles rolled in. According to Nickel, police in riot gear stormed the park, and began to funnel protesters out of the plaza through metal gates that blocked their return. As the clergy sang, police slashed open the tents with knives and pushed them into a massive pile of rubble. “Once they were sure the park was clear, they came to us,” Nickel said. “They slowly moved around us and arrested us individually.” Nickel was the last to be arrested.

Police asked each person several times whether they really wanted to be arrested, according to Liefert. He was sure that he did. “It was important to me to stand up as a Unitarian Universalist and say that another possibility exists for our future—a more loving, more fair, more just world,” he said.

Police transported the clergy to the Glenn Dyer Jail, and charged them with disorderly conduct and refusal to disperse. They have a court date of Dec. 14. Prior to the arrests, the National Lawyers Guild had agreed to represent the clergy members, many of whom had written the guild’s telephone number on their arms. The clergy were held together in a cell for about 12 hours.

“We told stories,” said Nickel, who traded tales of civil disobedience with the other protesters, and was particularly moved by listening to the Rev. Louie Vitale, OFM, a Catholic priest who has been arrested hundreds of times for acts of civil disobedience over four decades.

Nickel said the Occupy movement is distinctly different from any form of protest he has seen, and he believes it’s important to be involved in it. “There is this idea that Occupy is really disorganized, and that’s not true,” he said. “There were UUs involved from the beginning of the movement who helped shape this participatory democracy, and it’s the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. People are learning to talk to each other. This is a place where you really do not have to think alike to love alike.”

The interfaith clergy group in Oakland has been offering nonviolence training to protesters and helping them learn how to respond to violence when they encounter it, according to Nickel. “Oakland is an extraordinarily violent city, and historically Oakland police have used violence,” he said.

Since the tents were dismantled on Nov. 14, the Occupy Oakland protesters have been continuing to gather and hold GAs at Frank Ogawa Plaza. Police are still allowing protesters to assemble, but are not allowing them to erect tents.

Nickel was planning to bring a group from his congregation in Fremont, 20 miles south of Oakland, to observe the Occupy Oakland protest on Nov. 16.

Across the country, police were cracking down on Occupy sites, including New York City, where police evicted protesters at Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.

The absence of tents will not deter protesters, said Kuhwald, the visiting professor at Starr King. “This movement is not going to go away,” he said. “This movement is bigger than any particular tent complex.”

Kuhwald noted that there was no violence during the Monday morning raid on the part of protesters. And the “one violence” by police, he said, was the detainment of Ramos Stierle. “I know Pancho very well,” Kuhwald said. “He’s an amazing activist, who has organized folks around food and gardening.” The San Jose Mercury News reported that Ramos Stierle was a former graduate student in astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, who left the program because it helped to develop nuclear weaponry, which he opposed.

Ramos Stierle was released from federal custody Nov. 17, pending a hearing with a federal immigration judge.

Nickel said that he was not surprised that among the many issues Occupy protesters are calling attention to—including income inequality and corporate greed—immigration concerns would also begin to surface. “It’s all connected,” Nickel said. “If you pull at one issue, you can see that string attached to everything.”

Many Starr King faculty and students have been supporting the protest. Prior to the general strike, Dr. Ibrahim A. Farajajé, Starr King’s acting president, released a statement that said, “As a community that is engaged in the work of countering oppressions, and building just and sustainable communities, it is important for us as progressive people of faith to be present in Wednesday’s Occupy Oakland march and general strike.”

He added: “This moment in history is deeply related to our work as a Unitarian Universalist/multi-religious institution of thea/ological education and the values that we hold dear.”


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