Being There: May Day in Oakland

May Day 2012.  Occupiers were gathering at the Oakland Plaza for the noon rally.  My friend Steve Gilmartin and I had just arrived and were standing in the plaza near Broadway.  Music was playing over the PA system, when suddenly “Mic check! Mic check!”

“Police are grabbing our comrades!  We need to save them!”

We all hurried over to Broadway where the police had dragged a woman off her bicycle and were arresting her.  The next thing I knew, my view was blocked by those in front who were struggling with the police.  The crowd was pressing in tightly from behind me.

“We are not afraid!” we chanted.  “We are not afraid!” (I was very much afraid.)  We pushed and kept pushing.  Was the woman freed?  With people jammed in all around, my peripheral vision was about zero.  I could only see what was happening right in front of me. The police pushed back against us with their batons, while those in front stood toe to toe with them, and we were soon pushing the police back up Broadway.  A huge number of cameras were recording this, and we chanted, “The whole world is watching!”

Then a cop started jabbing the people in front of me with his baton.  “Officer Niven!” someone shouted, “You’re famous!”

I glanced at the many cameras, then at the officer’s name tag.  Yes, it was “Niven” — now famous because this was being live-streamed.

Shouts and chants continued.  “Police go home!  Police go home!”  The police retreated a hundred feet or more, to 15th street.  Then, suddenly, an ear-splitting blast — a flash-bang grenade.  Two or three more flash-bangs, and a cloud of white smoke.

I started choking and coughing. Tear gas.  I didn’t see what happened next, but watching it on video afterwards, I found that the cops had then grabbed several people.  What I did see was also confirmed in photos, but a lot happened during that interlude while I was choking on tear gas.

When I recovered somewhat, I could see that the police had repositioned themselves across Broadway in front of us, about fifty feet away.  They weren’t attacking us now.

“Mic check!”

“We’re done here,” the speaker with the bullhorn was saying, calling for us to return to the Plaza. Brian wheeled his ubiquitous stereo system along, just up ahead of me, playing music, a loud throbbing beat.  The police did not pursue us.  I noted down the time: 12:21 p.m.  The confrontation had lasted nine minutes.

What we’d just experienced was a “snatch squad” in action. “Surgical arrests,” the police call such operations, part of a new crowd control policy which the OPD had announced a week before. Police told newspapers that they would use specialized squads to isolate and arrest “troublemakers” before they could ignite others around them.  How the woman on the bicycle became a designated “troublemaker” is a mystery; no doubt anyone and everyone in Occupy would fit their dubious definition.

The OPD’s new policy had sounded ominous.  The ACLU had written the police a letter warning them that they were bound by their existing 2005 federally court-ordered Crowd Control Policy, and therefore not free to change policies whenever it suited them.  Meanwhile, there was a very real possibility that the OPD could be placed in federal receivership for failing to comply with court mandated reforms, and such a prospect could also affect the nature of police actions this afternoon, hopefully inducing them to chill out a bit.

But we didn’t really know what the police would do.  Earlier this year, the police had mass-arrested 409 Occupiers.  That was on January 28th, and as a result of that, people might be really intimidated, perhaps too traumatized to come out and attend today’s events.  Some people had wondered if perhaps only a handful of the hardiest of souls would dare to show up.  There’d been a lot of speculation about that, but nobody could really say for sure.  I always think of that 1952 movie “High Noon,” where the poor guy has to go out all by himself and face the bad guys.  Actually, there were already several hundred Occupiers here, and more were arriving.  The rally at the Plaza had resumed.

An aftertaste of the tear gas lingered in my chest, not disabling but discomforting, and I looked around for a medic but didn’t see any right then.  Apparently they’d gone to attend to a woman who’d been severely injured.

“The bicyclist?” I asked someone.

“No, another woman.  Only about 19 years old.  Her face was covered with blood.”

“Mic check!”

There was an announcement, presumably about what had just happened, but from where I stood I couldn’t hear what it was.

The rally continued.  Speakers, then music, more speakers, more music.

People were dancing.  Others were in groups, conversing. I ran into Henry Johnson from the Sunday Lake Merritt peace walk.  He’d just come from a picket line at Alta Bates hospital where nurses were on strike.  It was one of the numerous actions people had been doing since early that morning.  A couple hundred had been picketing at the hospital.  Another couple hundred had gone to Child Protective Services, and others had formed a detachment of flying pickets, visiting the various banks.

Before going to Alta Bates, Henry had gone with a contingent to Larkspur to support the Golden Gate Ferry workers.  “I didn’t bring my sweater, and at four in the morning the wind-chill factor made the temperature quite low,” he said.

“You were cold?  You?” I said.  Even on the chilliest of days Henry always shows up wearing a thin T-shirt.  I couldn’t imagine him ever being cold.  “It must’ve been sub-arctic conditions,” I remarked.  Here at the plaza the afternoon was turning out to be sunny and fairly warm.

The crowd had grown; there looked to be a couple thousand here now.

A lot of actions had taken place that morning, and more were on the agenda for the afternoon.  However, we seemed to be boxed in.  The streets leading from the Plaza were blocked off by police in Darth Vader helmets, creating a war-zone ambiance in order to keep the downtown area open for business as usual.   Ironically, the police, by their numbers, had unwittingly partnered with us in doing exactly what they were trying to prevent us from doing — shutting down the center of downtown Oakland.  An even further irony was that the small restaurants which were friendly to Occupy were swamped with customers.

The Oakland police had called in “mutual aid” from five other cities plus the Sheriff and CHP, someone told me.  “They even brought in an armored vehicle.”

“A tank?” another person asked in disbelief.  “Did you say a ‘tank’?”

People all around were chuckling.  Riot police are not a laughing matter, but the concept of armored vehicles for use against protesters seemed bizarre, silly.  Like hunting ducks with howitzers.

“Occupy Oakland holds a demonstration, and they send tanks.  Wow!  That’s what I call respect!”

“Shows they have a high opinion of our prowess.”

“It probably has nothing to do with us.  They spend big bucks acquiring that hardware, so they like to show it off and pretend it’s useful.”

They’re closing schools for lack of funds, but police agencies had money to buy a tank.  Actually, as armored vehicles go, it was rather unimpressive, didn’t even seem to have a turret with a cannon.  But we preferred to think of it as a “tank” — which was more flattering to our collective ego.

A number of CHP were guarding the entrances of the City Hall, some carrying automatic rifles.

People were dancing to music from a stereo system.  Actually, the police don’t allow anyone to use sound amplification systems without a permit, and they’d hassled us several times for it in the past.  Our rallies and marches weren’t “permitted” either–not by the police or city officials, that is.  Occupy Oakland doesn’t ask permission.

Meanwhile, the big event of the afternoon would be the immigrant march, “Dignidad y Resistencia.”  It would gather at Fruitvale, about 3 ½ miles east of here, then march from that plaza to this one. That was a permitted march; the organizers of it had wanted it that way as they believed that would ensure the safety of their marchers, many of them undocumented.

We were hoping to march out and meet the immigrant march.  But would that be possible?–to the east of us a line of riot police blocked off 14th Street at Franklin.

The afternoon was wearing on.  Steve and I considered taking BART to San Francisco for some of the activities there.

Just then, a blast resounded.  It seemed to come from the other side of the city hall, on 14th near the Federal Building.  A flash-bang? Immediately, the crowd started moving in that direction.  It seemed a bit ironic, because those flash-bang grenades are intended to disperse crowds, not attract them.  But this was clearly a pretty assertive crowd.

Crossing the plaza and reaching the street, it was packed full of people, curb to curb and the sidewalks as well.  There were hundreds, probably a thousand or more.  I was pretty far back and couldn’t see what was going on up ahead.  Presumably there was a bunch of police there.  Someone, probably Brian, had brought a mobile sound system and loud music boomed out and echoed back from the tall buildings on either side of us.  People were dancing.  Much of the day they’d been dancing, and now, apparently with the police not far away, they were again dancing.

There was cheering, chanting.

From time to time I heard what sounded like a police bullhorn.  I couldn’t make out any of the words.  The music and dancing continued.  Then people started moving back toward the intersection of Broadway.  A block to the east of us a row of police were still blocking off 14th.

We headed north on Broadway, going a block or so.  Then back south on Broadway.  Back and forth.  I had no idea what was going on.  There were “Mic Check” announcements over a bullhorn, but I couldn’t really hear very well.

The police seemed to be closing in, or at least that was my impression.  Being in the midst of the crowd, I couldn’t see much.

Then I saw Frank, wearing as always his brown bicycle helmet, for which reason we called him “Brown Hat.”  I remembered him from the security committee at the camp in October, and I asked him if he’d seen what was happening.  The police had ordered us off the streets, to get on the sidewalks, he told me, “they said they’ll use chemical agents.”

The gathering filled the entire width of Broadway; the sidewalks were already packed and not large enough for all the people.  Nearby was a BART entrance, and I really wanted to go home, hide under the bed.  I was just scared, scared, scared.  Very scared.  But I’d been through a lot with these people during the past half year since October.  Two police raids on our camp, two port shutdowns, J28, and a lot more.

“What do you want to do?” Steve asked.

I bit my lip and said, “I need to stay. But if you want to leave, it’s okay with me.”

“I’m staying too.”

“Thank you for staying,” I said.  That’s all I could think to say.

“Mic check!”  An announcement followed, but I couldn’t hear what was said.  Another mic check, but I still couldn’t hear.

People were cheering, chanting.  “Let’s go!  Oakland!” they chanted.  Spirits were high.  Motorists caught in this traffic jam, actually a people jam, honked and waved to us.

Soon we were moving, marching north on Broadway.  We passed 15th, then 16th, then turned east on 17th.

“Whose street? — Our street!” “Whose street? — Our street!”

Going east on 17th, we crossed Franklin, turned south on Webster.  Where were the police? I wondered.  We marched on.  Reaching 14th, we turned east again, crossing Harrison, Alice, then Jackson.

14th was the street which would take us out to Fruitvale.  The police had blocked it off near the plaza, presumably to keep us from marching out to meet the immigrant march, but now we’d just walked around the police, leaving them behind us.  Were they just going to stand down and let us go?

As we passed the library, the librarians came out and stood on the steps, waving to us and cheering.  We crossed the new bridge over the estuary which connects Lake Merritt to the bay.  It’s a saltwater lake which rises and falls with the tide.  It’s the oldest wildlife sanctuary in the US, populated with geese, cormorants and even pelicans.  A noisy flock of seagulls flew overhead, and out on the lake I saw two or three small sail boats.

Up ahead, music from Brian’s stereo system boomed out in all directions from the crest of the bridge.  Looking back, I saw what looked like police vans trailing us.  People at the rear of our column grabbed the large orange-colored road dividers from the street construction and pulled them across the bridge behind us, a temporary makeshift blockade for the police vehicles.

Minutes later we were out in the avenues, soon crossing 4th, 5th, and 6th, taking care not to trip in the potholes as we marched along.  I wondered how many of the people on this march were old enough to remember back when the streets of American cities weren’t full of potholes?  Most of the people around me were young.  Some carried signs, some carried shields with peace signs painted on them  Beside us was a woman with a small white dog decked out with signs. “Tax the big dogs” it read on one side, the other: “Justice for the little guys.”

Steve and I exchanged estimates of our column, eventually concluding that we numbered something over a thousand, possibly as many as two thousand.

The significant thing about this march here in Oakland was that despite the months of police repression, over a thousand of us took the risks, braved the dangers, and were marching.  “Marching in the beauty of the day,” as the song goes; and this was a truly beautiful day, the sun shining nicely.  A thousand plus people.  That’s not the same as a thousand people turning out to hear politicians and other celebrities make speeches, as was at so many protest marches in years past.  This was a march in the face of intimidation.

People along the streets waved to us, as did children at a school we marched past.  Motorists also honked and waved.

Reaching San Antonio Park, we took a break and waited for the immigrant march, which eventually arrived from the opposite direction.  As they came marching up Foothill Boulevard, we lined up on both sides of the street and cheered for them.  Then we marched back to the plaza together with them.

DANIEL BORGSTRÖM is a writer and also an activist at Occupy Oakland.  His website is http://danielborgstrom.blogspot.com/

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