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On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte

It was Saturday, September 24th, and I was thinking of going to a movie when someone told me there was going to be a Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland that evening. “It’s in solidarity with people in Charlotte.”

“Oh why did she have to tell me that?”  I felt like saying.  Now I’d have to feel guilty for not going.  I just want to live in a quiet world where I don’t have to deal with all the bad stuff that goes on everywhere

Nevertheless, being a KPFA listener, I couldn’t help knowing that Charlotte, NC was the scene of yet another senseless police killing of an unarmed black person, followed by a cover-up of the crime, which was followed in turn by community demands for demanding transparency and justice, and that in turn by a police crackdown on protests.  The governor of NC had declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard to back up the out-of-control police who were unable to control the outraged community.

Okay, maybe I would go.  I hadn’t attended a rally in Oakland for a year or two, and it was time that I went.

The solidarity rally was to be held in downtown Oakland, at the triangular-shaped plaza where Telegraph Avenue splits off from Broadway.  It was 7:30 p.m. when I arrived; Gerald Sanders was speaking to a gathering of a couple hundred people.  Almost everybody there was quite young  A banner read: “Revolt with Charlotte;” another had something about “North Carolina.”

Gerald and another activist gave updates on events in Charlotte and a review of recent police killings around the country and here in the Bay Area.  At the same time, they cautioned us to maintain a peaceful march, and no window-breaking.  Vandalism is NOT the way to build a movement.  We were there to peacefully voice our response to a nationwide problems.

Several dozen police were taking up strategic positions along Broadway and Telegraph.  In the dim light of early evening, they looked ominous though they weren’t actually in riot gear.  Mayor Libby Schaaf had declared a ban on nighttime protests last year; then two weeks later she astonished everyone by denying that any nighttime protest curfew existed   So it wasn’t certain what she might have in mind for the police to do.

I saw a few people whom I knew.  Brigid from Take-Back-the-Farm in Albany was there.  So was Russell Bates of Copwatch; he was wearing a green hat identifying him as a legal observer.  That’s the neat thing about these rallies; they can be reunions with people I haven’t seen for a while.  One woman of about my age, in her 70s, told me that when she’d marched in demonstrations back in the 1960s she’d never imagined that she’d still be having to do the same thing fifty years later.  While a few of us were in our 60s or 70s, by far the greater number at this rally looked to be in their 20s.

At about a quarter to eight, darkness falling, we set out on our march, filling up the south-bound lane of Broadway.  Down to Fourteenth Street, past Twelfth, and so on, till we came to a stop at Ninth.  Why were we stopping? I wondered, then saw a row of police in riot gear lined up across Ninth.  For while we contemplated the situation, looking around, right next to the cops some of our people were holding the “Revolt with Charlotte” banner.

A woman standing next to me said, “I was arrested with you at J28.”  We laughed a bit apprehensively, hoping the same wouldn’t happen again this evening.  J28 was the Occupy Oakland demonstration of January 28, 2012. About 400 of us had been mass arrested by the OPD that evening; it had resulted in a civil suit for wrongful arrest in which we eventually each received $3,337.  The Oakland police are famous for doing things which cost the city money.  The J28 arrest still seems like yesterday.

Our demonstration was beginning to move again, marching back up Broadway, the way we had come.  When we neared our starting point at the plaza, the police blocked us from going farther up Broadway.  Again we turned around, marched south.  Again they blocked us and we marched north.

For three quarters of an hour we marched up and down Broadway, the police blocking us at one end, then at the other; they also blocked our access to any of the cross streets.  All this time, the police didn’t say anything to us, not telling us this was an “unlawful assembly” or anything else.  They just kept blocking our way.

I later saw online that an OPD public information officer, Marco Marquez, spoke to a journalist with bayareanewsgroup.com that evening, telling her:  “We’re just in the area to facilitate the protesters’ first amendment rights.”

Facilitating our First Amendment rights?  I must say it was really nice of the police to be thinking of our rights, though it appears that their interpretation of the First Amendment differs from ours.

The cops had the street completely locked down, blocking us in from both north and south.  Just as it looked like we weren’t going anywhere, like our march was over for the evening, we were suddenly slipping through an unguarded gap in the police line and onto some street heading west.  What street was this?  I just kept moving as fast as I could go; we were all running.  The police were right behind us, also running, but we got to the next intersection first and turned north.  We slowed down to a fast paced walk, and I scribbled the time and street names into my notebook — notes which turned out to be really hard to read the next day, but it looks like we’d dashed up Tenth Street and then turned onto Clay.  I was still catching my breath; the rest were chanting, “Whose street?  Our street!” “Whose street?  Our street!”

The police had caught up and were walking or running along on the sidewalk next to us.

“No justice No peace!” went up the next chant. “Fuck the police!”

There seemed to be about a hundred of us, cheering and chanting as we went.

“Resistance is justified!” “Resistance is justified!”

We were still on Clay, crossing Fourteenth, San Pablo, Seventeenth.  Turning east on Nineteenth, we were crossing Telegraph.

“You doing okay?” a young fellow asked me as we strode along.  “I’m fine,” I assured him with a grin, “though maybe when I get old I won’t be able to do this any more.”  We both laughed.

“Whose street?  Our street!” people were chanting now, everyone in great spirits.

North, then east, south again, west again, up one street, turning onto another, on and on we marched, often double-timing to get to the next intersection ahead of the cops, before they could block it.  All the while, cheering and chanting.

“From Oakland to Charlotte!  We’ll never be defeated!”

“¡Un pueblo unido, jamas será vencido!”

“No justice! No peace!”

“Black Lives Matter!”

For a while we were on a street lined with bars, groups of the bar patrons standing out front watching us as we marched by.  This was, after all, a Saturday night.

“Out of the bars and onto the streets!” we chanted. “Out of the bars and onto the streets!”

I continued to keep track of the times and places, my timeline, scribbling rather illegibly in my notebook.  It’s enough to say that for about two hours we were circling around on Telegraph, Castro, MLK, San Pablo, as well as the streets between Tenth and Nineteenth.

At times there seemed to be only a couple dozen people around me.  Had all the rest quit for the night? Gone home?  Moments later we’d turn a corner, and there’d be another fifty or sixty of us. Eventually we seemed to be all together again, perhaps a hundred of us.

Passing an entrance to the 980 freeway, we saw it was guarded by a detachment of California Highway Patrol officers. The CHP did seem to have a clearly defined mission, that of keeping protesters off the freeway.  But what about the Oakland police?  What was their reason for being here this evening?  Crowd control?  They were constantly interfering, but certainly not controlling.  We were asserting our First Amendment rights despite their presence.  I’m sure they could’ve mass arrested us if they’d really wanted to, but that didn’t seem to be their objective.

Dashing around like this, cops blocking this street, then that, finding narrow streets or alleys to get past them, this was exactly the situation in which windows get busted, fires get set, vandalism often happens, though not this evening, fortunately.  According to numerous newspaper articles that can be found online, that is precisely what the police were supposedly there to prevent.  Mayor Schaaf had said time and again that the intention of her policies is “to prevent vandalism and violence.”

So why were the Oakland police creating this sort of situation where vandalism is prone to occur?  Incompetence?  Stupidity?  Maybe.  Police do have abundant experience at this and should be able to see such situations coming.  It was so obvious that I wondered if this was really mismanagement, or perhaps deliberate provocation.

The media picks up on window-breaking and plays it big, as though that were the object of the demonstration.  That’s the corporate media, hardly unbiased.  I’ve seen that time and again over the years.  Many of us have. Fortunately I didn’t see any window-breaking that evening, (and I’m pretty sure that if there had been any, the media would’ve dutifully reported it.)

It’s easy to blame the police for all the bad stuff.  They do the killing, the shooting, the attacking, the provoking, and function as the instruments of oppression.  But they are acting on orders from the mayor, who is under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce. The real culprit behind it all is the neoliberal system of corporate power, which needs to be gotten rid of.

The motorcycle cops continued to scoot around us, but at some point I noticed that the police who’d been following us on foot were no longer there.  Had we run them into the ground?  Maybe, or maybe it was the end of their shift.

After about two and a half hours of marching, a lot of walking and some running, we found ourselves back on Broadway, at Latham Plaza where we started out.  There were about a hundred of us back together again.  We held a short rally, forming a large circle holding hands.  Having marched in support of Charlotte and at the same time asserted our First Amendment rights, we were ready to call it a night and go home.

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