When I arrived at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland it was a small assembly with a sound system setup and three news vans already present. It was an odd mixture of brisk wind and sweatysunny ness with extremes in and out of the shaded areas. The location immediately stood out to me as a place that is not“Our Oakland”: mammoth corporate semi-skyscrapers in all directions, immaculately clean and judging from the architecture, fairly new. Most of the stores were strictly out of the price range of myself and anyone else unemployed or working at the minimum-wage-slavery level. The exception to this was a large Walgreens on the corner of the intersection, with massive windows boarded up by clean cut hardwood. Obviously not reused or recycled and an utter waste of trees. I wonder if there’s an entrepreneur wood supplier out there that exploited this situation, encouraging business owners to purchase their safety. It wouldn’t surprise me. Many stores however, were left naked to the wrath of rock-throwing monsters—otherwise known as citizens like yourself.
Walking down the square toward 17th is Oakland’s city hall: a building that has obviously outlived all others around. Apparently there are some things gentrification won’t devour. In front of city hall was perfectly trimmed grass lawn with a token old growth tree, a final survivor of the construction timber slaughters. And in the courtyard was a dance-party setup with a massive 1000 watt+ sound-system. As community speakers began to convey their thoughts and emotions at the opposite podium, including Oscar Grant’s grandfather, the sound system thumped away violently outpowering the weaker setup with heartless disrespect. Obviously this was the rival “peace rally,” setup by the people with property-interests in Oakland who claim affinity with the late Oscar Grant. It had its own private security and musician lineup, including some light guitar and techno. It attempted to draw sections from the crowd, like a breeze over fresh pollen attempting to force seeds from their womb. However, only a handful actually joined what a friend termed the “dance fo’ masta’” party.
As the ‘peaceful’ rally gathered I observed in anticipation the days’ coming events. I was highly impressed with the building turnout which approached one-thousand people. But more important than this was the kind of people. Unlike a typical SF protest of liberals and middle-class citizens choosing to convey their sympathies for the abstract politics of the age, this was a culmination of the real oppressed. There were hoods and hustlers of all kinds, some getting into minor quarrels with hipster-racists (One asked about Oscar’s murder in a remarkably pretentious tone, “what are you gonna do about it?”) and others expressing that binding camaraderie that is so necessary in the hidden ghettos of America. The anger and blunt realism of their feelings was the expression of their pain, a sure sign of frustration with living in this closeted racist society. But people banded together and observed the building perimeter of riot-police with a growing fearful intensity.
I needed to pee badly at this point and naively figured it would be a small problem to solve. Walking down Broadway street my friend and I were met by a wall of riot police.
“You can’t go through here.”
‘We just want to leave...’
“Go over there”
The cop pointed aimlessly north. During the conversation I took a video of the increased militarization of this police front. Behind the front line of over fifty armed police were two cops brandishing M-16s next to a small and unfamiliar red jeep. Provocation and smothering any dissent were at the forefront of this police interest. Unlike protests I have seen before, this was a heavily armed force that obviously had absolutely no intention of letting Oakland’s residents march or even leave a specified area. And they had the vehicles and weaponry to keep their point.
We walked along the outer perimeter of 14th street looking for a place to relive ourselves and began to quickly notice that a grim reality was in place: the police were sealing off the area. Every crevice and alleyway seemed to be filled with a standing riot cop, none of which were receptive to nature calling. They continued to say “go over there,” passing the buck to the next wall of bullet-glassed guards.
Finally we found an escape route between 15th and San Pablo Ave. We walked passed a very luxurious looking hotel which had signs posted of Oscar Grant in the window reading “BE COOL. Mehserle lost his cool. Lets not repeat his mistake.” Along 15th some riot police finally let us through as we passed a golden-trimmed office suite with yellow sheets of paper in every window reading “We Support Oscar Grant.”
I somehow doubt that owners from either building have done anything to “support” Oscar Grant.
At 16th and Telegraph we found an open bar mysteriously named Cafe Van Kleef. I had VIP access since I purchased an outrageously expensive French press coffee there twenty minutes earlier. The dark antique-covered tavern was fascinating as I casually listened over loud conversations concerning events outside. A scronny blonde white man in a business suit was discussing race with a Salvadorian in a purple capped tipped sideways. The Salvadorian was boasting about his Masters Degree in Architecture after saying how shootings can happen anywhere. “Look at Pink Saturday in the Castro. People were shot there and I don’t see anyone rioting over that.”
My friend and I decided to wait here for a few minutes while we tried to get into contact and warn people on the inside. Nothing would happen until the sun went down more, so we ordered a Coke & Whiskey ($6!) and talked about revolution and how knowing 200-year-old texts doesn’t make anyone special. I couldn’t help but feel like we were in a mini Casablanca; the space for neutrals to “wait out” the war and quibble over minor political differences, comfortably sipping on overpriced drinks just as they did after their comfortable jobs most days. Why riot? It was just one man. The uncomfortable truth is that these people have never seen the end of a night stick or lived in poverty. Things are still ‘working’ for them...
Leaving the bathroom a second time I ran into a slightly worried and very tipsy well-dressed white couple. They seemed concerned for their safety and wondered if they should leave yet. I filled them in on the details and told them they had nothing to worry about yet. I had them judged as liberal sympathizers but on the way out the man said “damn, I wanna see some Anarchy!” I got to remember never to judge a book by its cover...
We decided to work our way back into the sectioned off area since the action was inside and it wasn’t leaving. At this point people were filtering out and it seemed like this was a very smart tactic of the police: surround the peaceful protest and refuse to let it move; people will be either scared or bored and will just leave. The numbers were about half when we got back in. But the energy was there with drums and chants and people wearing paper masks of Oscar Grant’s face.
Another friend told me police had beat up a few people including two legal observers. I wasn’t surprised. Then, without notice, the police started shoving the entire line back and everyone started running towards 17th street. A young black man on a bull-horn began instructing people “not to be violent” and that “that’s what the police wanted.” Shortly after the crowd burst into chants of “FUCK THE POLICE!” and then came the ever-so-unfamiliar sound of a cracked window. It sounded like a glass cup breaking inside a paper bag.
The milieu intensified and the media puppets were swarming with dollar signs in their eyes to identify the men in black—Anarchists, the “outside agitators” that they had warned of so consciously, as if a prophetic utterance made on the eve of war. M-16 riot police, armored police cars, and snipers on rooftops got into position as the residents of Oakland joined in on smashing a Footlocker window to pull out the clothes they sweat so much to buy. At this, the protest somehow becomes ‘violent’ because property is attacked—the True religion and sanctity of American Law and Morality. Woman and children began screaming in agony as Footlocker shoes were removed from their natural home inside cardboard boxes. Babies cried feverishly for the lost profits of Footlocker shareholders....
Okay I made up the last two lines.
The police began their armed attack, now having ample “excuse” to do so—thanks to the corporate media trumping up fears for previous weeks all over the state of California. And the people at home watched in satisfaction as The Law did what it does best: Protect Property. Gas masks were donned and batons swung. The carnage ensued for a people that rebelled against its slave masters, only to be reminded that the slaves needed more numbers than they had there that day. So they took home consolation prizes, a glossy pair of Nike’s and fresh-pressed white tees.
I began looking for an exit at this point after being severed from my friends in the scramble for overpriced clothes. I peeked down 12th Street BART only to find a metal gate in my face. Then I scrambled down 14th Street past city hall and into the dark and empty streets. I could see barricades up in every direction and for the first time I really understood the scale of police planning and intervention in this minor civil unrest. This really was a message from the State about rebellion generally and a clear message to the Oakland community to continue slaving away in a broken economy and fearful of the Big Brother Police Dogs. As one man’s sign said, “Police: Join Us! We Get Away With Murder.”
Walking through the dark streets I passed many would-be intimidating characters. Small gangs that could probably tell I was out of my element. But, in a most miraculous and hauntingly beautiful way, I felt more comfortable and welcome than anywhere else in the world. I was quickly assisted with directions to the next BART station, and others swarmed to the vortex of police violence, fearlessly diving into the armageddon for a chance at facing the abstract racist beast that beats upon their shoulders daily. Escaping down these alleyways and under vacant overpasses I knew who really were my brothers and who were my enemies in a world wrought with insanity. And for just these brief moments it all became perfectly sane and perfectly clear.
Rest In Peace Oscar Grant..