I was driving to San Francisco for a meeting when I got the reporter's call about the shooting last night at Occupy Oakland. He thought that I might be taking a shift at the Interfaith Tent, which is near where the gunshots happened, and that I could tell him what was going down. After I hung up, I started calling people on our Tent team and told them to get down there if they could.
As I headed away from Oakland, I felt two things intensely. First, I wanted desperately to be going the other direction so I could be with the team to help people process the trauma. Second, I feared the city would use the incident as a pretext to evacuate the encampment. It did not immediately occur to me to think someone at Occupy Oakland had done the shooting.
Why? I've been at the camp at all hours of the day and night since we put the Tent up on Nov. 2, and after about 10 pm, camp security patrols come around regularly to check on people. In addition, I've gotten to know folks at the encampment, and I've never ever seen a weapon like a gun or knife in the tents or in people's possession. Occupy Oakland stresses nonviolence and respect. At the Interfaith Tent, we have a Baptist pastor, Preston Williams, who stays at the Tent 24/7. He has fixed it up, greets visitors, and accumulated a small library collection for guests. I enjoy talking to him.
Preston witnessed the shooting from a distance of about 20 feet, but, more important, he saw what preceded it and how the camp responded. I talked to him at length when I got there, and here is what he told me.
Some time before the incident, a heated argument broke out between a small cluster of men, not with Occupy Oakland, in front of a store about 50 feet from the Tent entrance. Camp security came over and calmed the men down. They then asked them to leave the area, which they did. But in a few minutes, they came back arguing in the area of some portable toilets where Preston was standing. One man ran away. Preston saw one of the two men standing near him shoot the man about 100 feet away and very near the entrance to the Tent. As the shooter and his companion ran away, they threw the gun, which went off and narrowly missed hitting Preston.
People in Occupy Oakland came running over, saw the man lying on the pavement, and, after the medical crew at the camp did what they could, the group organized a circle around him to protect him until an ambulance could arrive. They also created a human perimeter to protect the crime scene. When a photographer tried to break through, they told him no pictures. He was roughed up some when he climbed up onto a wall to film and occupiers pulled him down.
My friends with the Interfaith Tent told me that after the police came and did an investigation, the occupiers created an altar with candles where the slain man had lain. We began Wednesday night to hold late night candlelight vigils to protect the camp from evacuation by doing a prayer walk around its entire perimeter. The vigil group held a short service with silence at the altar for the victim. No one knew him, but the group nonetheless grieved that he was dead.
Some of the Interfaith Tent at Oakland team stayed all night to make sure people were OK. I came home to write this article at 1 am because I know this shooting is going to feed the media obsession with the violence of a tiny number of occupiers, which dominated news of our successful General Strike held on Nov. 2, with a few wonderful and notable exceptions, including a full report of our people of faith presence that day.
On Wednesday, I was at the Oakland General Assembly from 6 until 10 pm, fascinated with their lively, well-organized process of direct democracy for the 900 people who attended. I was never bored, and remain very impressed with this young and deeply moral movement. But more about that later. For now, I just want to register that Oakland Occupiers dealt with a serious crisis responsibly and bravely, and they exhibited a kind of decency and care for a stranger we could use a lot more of on Wall Street.