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Defying the Oakland Curfew
A first person story
DEFYING THE CURFEW IN OAKLAND ON JUNE 3, 2020
by Daniel Borgström
June 3rd was the night of a protest to defy the recently declared curfew in Oakland and defend our Constitutional rights. Thousands attended, the plaza was packed full. This was the community calling the bluff of Law Enforcement, and the latter didn't enforce their curfew.
Massive demonstrations had risen up across the country after the George Floyd murder. Police had responded violently with the encouragement of President Trump, who threatened to send the military and told governors to "dominate" the protests, or "look like a bunch of jerks." "Dominate the battle space" was the White House mantra.
Local officials here in the San Francisco Bay Area are nearly all Democrats, politicians who loudly despise Trump and are part of the "Resistance," but they are also very much on board for the neoliberal agenda and for police militarization. So here's how that played out. Trump's "dominate" speech was on the morning of Monday, June 1st, and that same evening Oakland police tear-gassed a march of 15,000 high school students. That demonstration, led by young organizers from Oakland Tech, was peaceful and seemed to be legal -- until local authorities suddenly imposed a curfew, effective immediately, and police attacked. Over a hundred were arrested and charged with violating the curfew.
The National Guard was also reportedly on the way; it was already on the streets in Los Angeles and now arriving in Vallejo. Was this going to be martial law? People had been asking such questions since the beginning of the Covid 19 lockdown, now in its tenth week. Was Homeland Security taking advantage of Covid, using it to tighten the screws and strangle our Constitutional rights?
While the George Floyd murder had sparked these demonstrations, the issues were multiple. Along with hundreds of police murders in recent years, many of them here in the East Bay, there were the Covid 19 issues. The lockdown was causing massive unemployment and was being used as a pretext for trillion-dollar handouts to wealthy corporations. Black people fared worst, along with Latinos and Native Americans, but there was massive economic injustice to the 99% of all races, and far worse was likely to follow in months and years to come -- that which Naomi Klein called "Disaster Capitalism." And so in this situation it is totally understandable that the 1% would see militarized police as their indispensable enforcers.
So with the police state closing in, a coalition of East Bay groups called for civil disobedience against the curfew for the evening of Wednesday, June 3rd at 8:05 p.m. in downtown Oakland, at Oscar Grant Plaza, 14th & Broadway.
This caught me in a time conflict. I needed to attend, but due to a previous commitment, I also had to leave the demonstration early, no later than 8 o'clock; a rather awkward way to attend an event scheduled for 8:05. At least I'd be there for some of it."
I took BART, and guessing the station at the plaza would be closed (which it was), I got off at 19th, and walked the remaining 4 blocks. It was 6 o'clock, a full 2 hours before the protest.
About a hundred people were widely scattered throughout the mostly empty plaza, apparently in accordance with the rules of social distancing. Other than these few, the whole area was practically deserted. Buildings on all sides of the plaza as well as those up and down Broadway were closed for business and had their windows all covered with sheets of plywood, giving the city center a foreboding appearance of a prospective war zone. But for the moment all was quiet, nervously quiet. There was only a low rhythm of some drums and brass cymbals over on the distant side of this plaza.
No cops in sight either. I looked up at the roofs of the tall buildings on all sides, where during protests of years past I'd sometimes seen a few solitary silhouettes, possibly police observers or perhaps snipers. But this evening those heights were also deserted; there were only the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun. Nor were the ever-present police helicopters up there in the sky. Just the pale moon on a light blue background with a few clouds.
Minutes passed. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Now maybe two hundred had gathered. Members of one group were passing out masks and gave me one. It was a much nicer one than the makeshift one I was wearing, one that my friend and I had made of an old green T-shirt. As 7 p.m. approached I estimated 300 people; then looking up towards the northeast entrance of the plaza, I saw a fairly large contingent approaching, 500 or more. This was the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) contingent coming from Snow Park by Lake Merritt where they'd held a rally. Others were also coming, more and more of them now. I estimated a thousand in the plaza. People had been trickling in; now they were streaming in. The gathering seemed to grow and grow and grow. No longer room for social distancing in this large but crowded plaza. Numbers were in the thousands now.
Signs and banners read "Black Lives Matter" and "Defund the Police." Others were about our civil liberties, our Constitutional right to assemble peacefully. Many bore the names of George Floyd and numerous other victims of police murder. But there were no speeches this evening, probably no need for any.
Demonstrations are not only political events but also social events where we see old friends and comrades, exchange greetings, hear how we're all doing. In a crowd this large and where everybody's wearing masks it can be hard to find people, but even so, I'd hoped to see more. I saw only a small handful of my contemporaries. Where were they all? Sadly it occurred to me that several had passed away only this last year. The once young activists of the Vietnam Era are passing from this earth, but their spirit was here on the scene, marching on.
These were young people, the new generation stepping up to take their part. And there were thousands of them here now.
Eight o'clock was approaching. I saw Gerald, retired electrician and long time union activist, and when I told him I had to leave, he said, "Stay till 8:05. And what you'll see is nothing happening. Nothing! You'll see the police unable to dominate the community, and the city officials looking like a bunch of fools."
From the amphitheater came the sound of drums, very loud, very intense. I couldn't get near enough to see, but I could hear them all the way over where I stood. They thundered intensely, like a rolling thunder. They'd pause for a few moments, then play again.
These dramatic sounds were like something in the soundtrack of a movie, a very well done movie that is. This was where art interfaced with life.
It was 8:01, and time for me to leave. I walked out in the direction of 15th street, across Telegraph and onto Broadway. People were still arriving. From up the street came a contingent of fifty or so. In groups both large and small, they continued to pour in.
Glancing down Broadway towards the intersection of 14th, the gathering was moving into the intersection. "Black lives matter!" they chanted, then drums, then "Whose Street? Our Street!" Then more drums.
This being a summer night, there was still light. The pale moon was overhead, overseeing the event.
A helicopter circled, high in the sky. A police chopper? Or it could be a TV news helicopter, they use helicopters too. Otherwise, no police in sight, I hadn't been any all evening. Where were the police?
Finally I entered the 19th street BART station and sat down to wait for a train. From in here, deep in the subway, I could hear nothing of what was going on and I felt as though separate from the world of the streets above. It was so quiet down here. Not more than 20 minutes had passed when the BART speaker system broke the silence, announcing that the plaza station was now open.
"Open?" I scratched in my notebook "What does that mean? What happened?"
I thought it could only mean that the police had driven people away from the plaza. But so quickly? And how? Could the police have appeared out of nowhere, formed up, attacked, and driven people out within the short space of 20 minutes? It didn't seem possible, but what other explanation could there be? I could only hope that people were safe.
My train finally came, and I rode home, getting off in North Berkeley. I was climbing the steps towards the exit, and there I somehow missed a step, fell forward and heard a sharp crack. Pain shot through my left shoulder. My left arm didn't work Everything seemed to hurt.
After a bit I managed to stand up, retrieve my pack with my right hand, and made my way home, which was only 2 blocks away. Apparently I'd sprained my arm and shoulder and would be better in the morning. But the next day I was no better, so my friend Virginia insisted on taking me to get it X-rayed. The X-ray revealed a fracture of the humerus bone, the main bone of the upper arm just an inch or so below the shoulder joint.
One of the medical staff had also been at the Oakland demonstration, and he told me what had happened. That is, nothing happened -- exactly as Gerald had predicted. Oakland city officials had not enforced the curfew, and BART had opened up the plaza station.
And we learned that the other three police involved in the murder of George Floyd had now also been arrested and charged.
This protest in Oakland was of course only one of the many, many that have been going on across the country. A victory, yes! Certainly! But we still have a long way to go, a long struggle ahead.
As for my arm, yes it's painful, but not much compared to what so many others have suffered. It's healing and in the meantime I've learned to type with one hand.
Steve Gilmartin contributed to this article