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Occupy Wall Street clash in Oakland: How should police handle protests? (video)

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“I would give them a failing grade of 50 for the first interaction,” says Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth Uprising, an activist group which counsels young people. 

She notes, however, that 19 other law enforcement agencies were called in, creating chaos and misunderstanding about standard OPD procedures.

She gives the police an 80 for their behavior during Wednesday's general strike, which brought between 10,000 and 15,000 protesters to the port area for several hours.

“I think they learned from the previous disaster,” she says.

That assessment is echoed by Abel Habtegeorgis, a spokesman for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. When the police took a surveying role by standing in the background, protests went smoothly and peacefully, with family members of all ages participating. But later, outside agitators arrived to create problems, bringing police into situations that then escalated into violence, he adds.

"Ninety-nine percent of people were perfectly well behaved, and the message was clear until vandals came along and police brought out their tear gas and percussion bombs,” he says. “Then it got ugly.”

In such situations, police are put in a challenging position, says John DeCarlo, former police chief of Branford, Conn., and an authority on police tactics. But their role is one fundamental to American democracy, he says, quoting late sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset: “Born out of revolution, the United States has always considered itself an exceptional country of citizens unified by an allegiance to a common set of ideals, individualism, anti-statism, populism, and egalitarianism.”

Mr. DeCarlo says the police are at the center of this view of American exceptionalism. “It is the hallmark of our system that police must strike the balance between maintaining order in cities and towns while at the same time allowing the First Amendment rights of protesters to speak their message,” he says. “It is a very difficult task to reach the balance between allowing residents to feel safe and yet allow crowds to be free to march and speak.”

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