June 1: Oakland Tech and Oscar Grant Plaza
On June 1, Oakland hosted an enormous march demanding justice for George Floyd. The youth-led event was one of the best organized protests I’ve ever seen — until the police threw tear gas into a peaceful crowd.
The event started at 4 p.m., but people began gathering much earlier, and by the time I arrived the front lawn was filled with a couple thousand people. The mood was friendly, with people circulating the crowd handing out free masks, water, gloves, and snacks. The crowd was very multiracial. A fair number of non-Black attendees had signs making cross-racial solidarity explicit, like “Brujxs Contra Racismo” and Asian-American teens sporting “Yellow Peril for Black Power” signs. The crowd was also multigenerational, with a skew towards high school–aged protesters, many with their parents.
DSA had a substantial turn-out, as did the Oakland teachers union — Oakland Tech was one of the most militant schools during last year’s teachers’ strike, with students organizing sick-outs and wildcat strikes with their teachers, joining Bread for Ed, and so on.
Oakland has a long radical history, but the speeches were even more overtly anticapitalist than I expected. Students linked police to slave patrols and the plantation system to modern corporations. They talked about how police exist to protect private property and white supremacy, they talked about how cops are racist, and they called for the end of capitalism.
The march itself was incredibly orderly. Fifteen thousand people fanned across Broadway, and on every block volunteers waited with bottles of water, personal protective equipment (PPE), snacks and first-aid kits. Supporters parked their cars, blocking off nearly every cross street, ensuring no cars could drive into the columns of pedestrians. Nearly every single person was wearing a mask, and marchers maintained as much personal space as they could muster.
When we passed Kaiser Hospital, a line of healthcare workers stood outside cheering. Patients came to their windows to waive and pump their firsts. The marchers cheered back at the healthcare workers. The mood, which had been solemn at times, brightened.
While the march was underway, many marchers received mass text messages telling them the mayor had declared a curfew to begin at 8 p.m. As we neared the end of the march, police had set up barricades a few blocks before their headquarters, and rather than confront them directly the front of the march veered off onto 12th and 14th Streets, filling the square in front of city hall unofficially but widely known as Oscar Grant plaza (after a Black Oaklander murdered by police in the Fruitvale BART station in 2009).
At 7:30 p.m., half an hour before curfew, Oakland police fired tear gas into the crowd in response to verbal taunting from a handful of children. At 7:45 p.m., they began reading everyone their Miranda rights over a loudspeaker. They kettled protesters around Oscar Grant Plaza, and another group of people who were on their way back to their cars around 26th Street.
In the end, there were 80 reported arrests. The coordinator of our DSA group chat kept things together, and some comrades who live near downtown were able to provide rides to those cut off on their way home.
Again, I can’t express enough how impressive and well organized an event this was and how calm the crowd remained all day. Then the police began rioting essentially out of nowhere and trapped people who had long-since dispersed.
Our city’s police department has been under federal supervision for 17 years, failing over and over again to make their officers refrain from brutality and corruption. They habitually target Black and brown Oaklanders for violence. We’ve burned though police chief after police chief — at peak, firing three police chiefs in one week — following revelations many Oakland cops and police from around the region were sexually trafficking a teen and covering it up. This is not an institution that can be reformed. Oakland Police Department (OPD) takes up 40% of the city’s budget, while social services are being cut and schools are closing. It’s time to take away their funding and give the money to agencies that improve our lives.
June 3: “Fuck Your Curfew”
Following the Oakland police firing chemical weapons into a crowd on Monday, under the pretext of a curfew announced after the march was already underway, Oakland’s Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP) called for an all-night “Fuck Your Curfew” sit-in at city hall two nights later to run the entire duration of the curfew — 8 p.m. June 3 until 5 a.m. the next morning — with a mural painting beforehand for those who couldn’t risk arrest.
East Bay DSA rushed to endorse and quickly put together the most impressive direct-action effort in our chapter’s history. Several hundred members and supporters met at a nearby park beforehand for know-your-rights and non-violence training.
Attendees sorted themselves into “pods” of two to five people according to risk tolerance — green for those who did not intend to break curfew, yellow for those who planned to break curfew but would try to avoid arrest if possible, and red for those committed to sitting in either until they were removed by police or until the curfew ended the next morning.
Each pod designated a leader to coordinate logistics with other pods over Signal. All attendees signed in with a phone number, and at the end of the night we confirmed everyone arrived home safely. Those risking arrest provided emergency contact info, health needs, etc. as well, and wrote the National Lawyers Guild hotline onto their bodies with Sharpies.
Volunteers remained at the park, and more would be on call from home all night with cars to take home any protesters who needed to leave for any reason. We were a well oiled machine.
We marched together to the plaza at city hall, arriving more than an hour before curfew. The East Bay DSA contingent alone filled two city blocks, around 400 people. The atmosphere outside City Hall was festive, with artists painting a large “DEFUND OPD” mural on the sidewalk, music, medic stations offering PPE, and lots of snacks. Organizers had put together a low-powered radio station to re-broadcast the sound system, so I caught “We Are the World” coming from several angles at once as strangers handed out free burritos. The city had shut down all BART trains, stranding a comrade who needed to get home, so I slipped out with her to walk her to the DSA carpool. I returned to the park just after curfew.
By 8 p.m., the crowd had swelled to several thousand, and we shifted, blocking the intersection adjacent to City Hall (14th Street and Broadway) and sitting down in the street. Speakers took the mic, announcing they intended to block the intersection for two hours, and began political speeches from groups like APTP and Moms For Housing.
There were no police in sight, but the cops had called a press conference of their own timed with the start of civil disobedience. We learned from Twitter that the national guard was waiting a few blocks away and over 100 cops from various departments were guarding police headquarters.
After 9 p.m., helicopters started buzzing the crowd and protesters began pulling out goggles and bracing ourselves psychologically for an attack. Volunteers circulated the crowd handing out tear gas kits, with goggles and bottles of water and directions to flush your eyes. Given the behavior of Oakland Police in previous days, we all expected to be gassed.
Around 10 p.m., someone made an announcement that the event would end at 10 pm., though we couldn’t make it out from where we were. My pod leader got texts saying we’d heard that the remainder of the event was canceled, then that the organizers from APTP were debating whether to end the event or not. Someone checked the Facebook event, and the end time had been changed to 10 p.m. without mention that it had ever been otherwise. People began streaming out.
I was in a yellow pod, and the three of us quickly decided that it would be dangerous to confront the police in a much smaller group after the organizers told us to leave. The red teams prepared to sit in longer, awaiting more information.
It turned out the police never advanced. Remaining protesters threw a dance party, but by midnight I got word all of our comrades were on their way home, and the event had broken up. There were no arrests reported.
By morning, both sides were declaring victory. Protest organizers declared they’d met their goal of sitting in at the intersections for two hours, peacefully defying the curfew before getting everyone out safely. Police got some badly needed good PR out of showing restraint, and without protesters defying them till dawn they retained the sense they could have broken up the protest but generously chose not to.
Police sources pointed to their lack of arrests at the sit-in to prove that police violence against protesters in previous days had been necessary and justified. The mayor retweeted video of the dance party, commenting “Another peaceful and proud night, #Oakland” prompting a wave of replies reminding her that we were protesting her curfew order, her racist police department, and their excessive use of force, both against protesters and in day to day policing. Hours later, Mayor Schaaf rescinded our open-ended curfew.
I don’t know what would have happened if the protest had continued as planned. It’s very possible police would have engaged in mass violence like they have in days past, or it’s possible protesters could have pushed a further retreat by a police force that is already having to call in backup from hundreds of miles away just to protect their own headquarters.
The extreme police repression of the last two weeks have been both terrifying and radicalizing. A friend reported that half the members of a Facebook group she’s in dedicated to reviewing baby carriers had been teargassed this week and are now sharing Fred Hampton readings with each other.
The previous extreme repression made a return to the status quo feel like a victory, but it won’t change the conditions that lead the entire country rises up against unpunished police brutality and the casual murder of Black Americans. Liberals like Mayor Schaaf are promising new rules that will disallow police from using deadly force quite so easily, skirting the fact that many cities which have already implemented stronger regulations find enforcing them nearly impossible.
We’re in a transformative moment, and if we don’t use it to demand major change, everyone involved will simply declare victory and go home. But if all we do is return to the status quo, who really wins?