A Basic Explanation of Recent Events (July 13-15, 2013) in the City of Oakland (Classified)
PART A: IN WHICH THE MACHINE PRIMES ITS OWN DEMISE
For the past three weeks in the city of Oakland, I have seen Oscar Grant’s face on billboards, on bus stops, and inside BART stations. Three years ago, his face was wheat pasted and stenciled all over the town, but back then it was his actual face, smiling at the camera as he held his child in his arms. Now, his face is the face of someone else, staring mournfully into some cinematic distance, the words FRUITEVALE STATION written in yellow below him. In another city, this might simply be a standard movie poster, but in Oakland it is charged with multiple layers of subtext that only exist in the words spoken between people in their homes and on the street, unheard by anyone but themselves.
So it is only appropriate that people watched the Zimmerman trial unfold on the screen while at the gym, jogging away as the spectacular charade of justice played itself out on the major news stations. Crossing the bridge into San Francisco, commuters listened to the trial on the radio with their eyes locked on the red brake lights of the car in front of them. Most people did not expect Zimmerman to go free once the trial was over, but that was how it was meant to be from the start.
The legal system, the media, the clergy, the politicians, and the black president did their jobs perfectly after Trayvon was murdered, ensuring there would be no black revolt against the forces of fascism. By the time the verdict was read, more black people had been killed, beaten, and imprisoned by the police. When the public learned Zimmerman was going to walk freely out of the courtroom, thousands of California prisoners were starving themselves in a hunger strike against the exterminatory incarceration of the isolation cells. A silence fell onto the streets of Oakland while the movie Fruitvale Station was projected in the theaters. At the end of the film, the entire YouTube video of Oscar Grant’s execution is played, ending with a black man dead at the BART station.
PART B: IN WHICH THE WHITE ANARCHIST OUTSIDE A BREAKS A WINDOW
There exists a fascinating subject known in the mainstream discourse as the white anarchist outside agitator. In the context of Oakland, this outside agitator is usually depicted as white for various reasons. These reasons are important to understand, so I will write about them as simply as possible.
1: The white anarchist outside agitator IS usually white. This is a true and undeniable fact, and it is not lost on people with good vision.
2: Individuals who are ideologically opposed to the ideas of anarchism portray the anarchist as white in order to turn people of color against the ideas of anarchism.
This is a very complicated situation and has caused many conflicts in Oakland. For example, a man named Jack Bryson has been present at many rallies held by the family of Alan Blueford, the young black man killed by the police last year. Jack Bryson has often been seen shaking the hands of the police behind the backs of the family and working with the authorities to the best of his abilities. When any action against authority takes places, he immediately confronts the people involved and singles out those who are white. Because he is not white, he attempts to quell rebellion by telling people of color that any white person who is disruptive is an anarchist who will get everyone arrested. If there is a disruptive person of color, they are called an anarchist laky, a stupid bitch, or some other insult. In many situations, the presence of disruptive white anarchists increases Jack Bryson’s ability to portray all disruptive or rebellious behavior as the exclusive province of white people. His objectives are the same as those of the police: to neutralize all rebellion against authority.
On Saturday, July 13th, the night that the Zimmerman verdict was broadcast, a crowd of over 100 assembled at Oscar Grant Plaza and then set off down Broadway towards Telegraph. Less than a block away from the plaza, a standard white anarchist outside agitator ran from the crowd and smashed a window at Awaken Café. Inside, the customers and employees were angry and scared. Outside, there was a silence followed by a halting series of cheers from the crowd. After this completely random action involving a white anarchist, a blunt instrument, and a café window, the rest of the crowd proceeded onwards, ostensibly in reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.
It is unknown what every person in the crowd was thinking at this time, but the sound of breaking glass continued to fill the air shortly after the incident at Awaken Café. More people began to attack windows and others dragged garbage into the street and lit it on fire. By the time they reached the Flora restaurant, the entire crowd was animated with rebellion, but, as fate would have it, this rebellion manifested itself in simple acts of vandalism against private property. And so Flora had its windows smashed and the crowd became even more animated as it headed off to Sears and the condos.
Given the brutal ways they are treated by the police, black people are less likely to commit random acts of vandalism in public. However, when people in a crowd begin to smash windows, write on the walls, throw rocks, burn garbage, and successfully avoid arrest, it encourages a sense of safety amongst all who wish to express their anger and rage. This sense of safety is founded on the trust amongst the crowd and the solidarity amongst them, but it is informed and shaped by the first acts of rebellion. What is witnessed is repeated until it is transcended. In the city of Oakland, the vast crowds of people who have flooded the streets these past years have often witnessed the white anarchist outside agitator at work, repeating the same tactics month after month.
On the night of the verdict, the crowd inflicted a large amount of damage on the windows of various banks and commercial enterprises. The Alameda County Courthouse had a few windows smashed and its exterior spray-painted. A cruiser belonging to the BART police (the same organization that employed Oscar Grant’s killer) had its windows smashed and its roof jumped upon. Several fires were also lit in the street. An American flag, a California state flag, and a McDonald’s flag were lowered from their poles and burnt. The employees inside the McDonald’s were overjoyed by this and filmed the flames with their cameras. By the end of the night, the rebellion had generalized, the crowd had increased to 300 before dropping down to 50, and no one had been arrested.
Let it be clear, the white anarchist outside agitator is not always white, nor are they always from outside Oakland. But they are often not from Oakland, happen to be white, and have a fixation on the most basic actions that have come to signify rebellion. Freedom inspires freedom, but some people are freer than others. Those with more freedom in this country can choose to either use it or squander it.
PART C: IN WHICH BLACK PEOPLE ARRIVE AND ENTER WEST OAKLAND
The next day, July 14th, a large crowd converged on Oscar Grant Plaza at four in the afternoon. After the first disturbances, police and media helicopters were in the sky, riot police and cameramen were on the streets, and the city was waiting for more vandalism against local businesses and big banks. Unlike the previous manifestation, this crowd had far more black people in it.
The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) played a large role in this mobilization, organizing the initial speak-out and coming with a prepared route. The speak-out revealed the pain and anger in the crowd for all who cared to listen. Amongst the speakers were assorted RCP members who unconvincingly informed the crowd that Chairman Bob Avakian possessed the correct path to revolution.
After the speak out, the crowd of nearly 1,000 set off for the remnants of old West Oakland. Black people immediately moved to the head of the march and effectively scrapped the original RCP route, taking everyone deep into the neighborhood. As the march passed DeFremmery Park, the black families of the neighborhood came to the streets, some of them cheering, many of them joining. The head of the march turned down Nelson Mandela Way towards the West Oakland BART station before entering the neighborhood once again.
On this leg of the journey, a conspicuous number of white people were on the front porches of their houses staring at the march. Many of them were young and seemed not to care about very much. Between these porches were houses still inhabited by black residents, raising their fists and shouting for justice. There have always been white residents of West Oakland, but rather than a few old families and some eccentric artists living in warehouses, there is now a growing gentrifier population. Ever since former city mayor and current governor Jerry Brown showed off his converted West Oakland home to the media, there has been a steady influx of capital into the neighborhood. The most obvious changes can be seen near the West Oakland BART station and along the Emeryville border.
The march then turned towards the ACORN housing projects, drawing out even more residents of the neighborhood. Recently, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies conducted a militarized pacification campaign against this housing project, similar to the campaigns that take place in the villages of Afghanistan and the favelas of Brazil. The aim was to intimidate the hundreds of project residents and discourage any illegal behavior. It was from the tallest building in these projects that a sniper fired on OPD officers after Oscar Grant’s killer was sentenced to six months of jail time in 2010. The sniper missed their target, but clearly the FBI did not forget this action.
By the time the march left West Oakland and crossed the overpass into downtown, dozens of children, teenagers, and young people were leading the march. There was an overwhelming sense of happiness in the crowd and it was clear that something important and beautiful had taken place. Everyone reveled in each other’s strength and knew beyond a doubt that they were not alone.
At ten that evening, a smaller group of around 100 people met at Oscar Grant Plaza and headed down Broadway towards Telegraph. Unlike the first evening, the police immediately cracked down on the mobilization once vandalism started, scattering different groups of people in several directions. Block by block, the riot police declared an illegal assembly and forced people back towards the plaza. The night ended with no arrests and the crowd remained defiant until the end when they were all back on the sidewalk, roaming the downtown streets, heading home to get high and go to sleep. By the end of that night, downtown windows were boarded up just as they have been many times these past years.
PART D: IN WHICH THE DIVERSE MULTITUDES EXPRESS THEIR OPINIONS
“If we got black people from East and West out here tonight, we’d shut down Oakland.”
“The first night was 95% white people.”
“You asked, where are the black community leaders? I’m a black community leader, and I say, respect our city.”
“You’re mad about some smashed windows. I don’t give a fuck about smashed windows. I’m out here because they’re killing our children.”
“Wake up! They’re killing our babies!”
“This isn’t a fucking game!”
“The night is young, baby, the night is young!”
Part E: In Which The Egg Cracks Open And Reveals A Phoenix
On July 15th, a crowd gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza at four in the afternoon, assembling at the corner closest to Broadway. A speak-out started that lasted for an hour, highlighting the rage and defiance still animating hundreds of people. When the march entered the street, dozens of bikes swarmed ahead of them. Music blasted from two mobile sound systems. Once again, there were hundreds of black people in the crowd, many of them women. When they all reached the OPD headquarters, they found it surrounded by riot police. The off-ramp to the 880 freeway was blocked while the crowd lingered in front of the building.
Suddenly, it was clear to the crowd that they were strong enough to shut down the 880 freeway and very spontaneously people walked onto the off-ramp. Everyone was smiling as they rushed into traffic and halted the northbound commute. No one seemed to care about the consequences, just as they hadn’t when 880 was shut down in 2010. It was a moment of collective freedom, lasting only as long as the crowd was able to change objective reality by themselves without interference. In this case, they were stopping the flows of capital, human or otherwise.
When the riot police began running towards the crowd, one group ran past three Highway patrolmen and down the next on-ramp, while another group stayed on the freeway and walked back towards the rest of the crowd, still holding the intersection in front of OPD headquarters. Eventually, these three groups met in Chinatown. Many dumpsters were put in the street and some random Chinese businesses had their shutters, walls, and windows spray-painted while a nearby Wells Fargo and Citibank were left untouched. It was around six thirty in the evening when the group left Chinatown and continued to march for the next six hours.
Remaining around 1,000 strong for most of the evening, the march was lead around Lake Merritt all the way to the Grand Lake Theater where Fruitvale Station was playing. At this location, half of the crowd decided to block the 580 freeway but were prevented from doing so by the riot police. After burning an American flag and taking a long to come to a collective decision, everyone continued around the lake towards the beginning of International Boulevard.
For these long six hours, the crowd was determined and unified. When fireworks were thrown at the small group of riot police permanently following the crowd, hundreds of people cheered. Chants against the police were common and no one doubted the strength of the thousand people behind them. But rather than head down International, as was hoped by some, the march proceeded to the Alameda County Courthouse where another speak out took place. Had the march proceeded down International and managed to enter East Oakland, hundreds of additional people would have been drawn into the street. Just before the crowd lost its energy at the speak-out in front of the courthouse, the crowd returned to downtown. Rather than stop at the plaza, everyone kept marching. Near the Awaken Café, windows were once again smashed before the riot police stormed in.
A large scuffle with the police broke out that lasted fifteen minutes in which several people were arrested, the cops pelted with various objects and forced to retreat. One particular cop threw a flash bang grenade into the hostile crowd. Once it was clear no one was going to be freed from custody, the crowd regrouped and once again left Broadway and headed down Telegraph. In a now infamous incident, the Flora restaurant was attacked again. When a waiter attempted to intervene, he was hit with a hammer amidst the sounds of people yelling “gentrifier.” After this, people attacked buildings that had already been attacked and repeated scenes from two days before. With the riot police lagging behind them, the crowd weaved in and out of downtown. In this time period, several black teenagers smashed out the windows of Youth Radio (absolutely true) while others broke into and attempted to loot a small Greek café. When the crowd was pushed onto Telegraph, it was clear the march was going to end. People stayed together until the final police charge. By then it was midnight. Everyone dispersed into the dark streets, encountering each other with smiles and winks, knowing they were in on a secret no one else could understand, a sense of belonging to a collectivity greater than themselves that would protect them whenever possible.
PART F: IN WHICH THE CONCLUSION IS REVEALED TO BE ILLUSORY
There is no conclusion to this series of events. After the revelations regarding the big tech companies and the NSA, everyone knows the federal government is totalitarian. After the Zimmerman verdict, everyone knows that it is acceptable to kill black people and get away with it in this country. At a recent rally, an ex-Black Panther said, “We all know what time it is when we hear black people saying what they’re saying.” If she is correct, this is not a game, the phoenix is rising, and if we all stay lucid and strong, we will not make the same mistakes as those before us. When all unite against the beast, when East and West become two fists smashing the virulent capital spilling in from San Francisco, when the killing fields turn into urban communes, Oakland will finish the job it started all those years ago when the people decided not to die.