Friday, January 16, 2009
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Anarchy in the Streets of Oakland
How a peaceful demonstration against police brutality turned into an all out riot that left downtown Oakland aflame and in shambles.
Wednesday January 7th, 2009
It was just supposed to be a protest rally seeking justice for the cold blooded murder of an unarmed man at the Fruitvale BART station on New Years day. Oscar Grant, a twenty-two year old father of one, was shot in the back while lying on the ground by BART cop Johannes Mehserle and later died from his injuries. In an attempted cover up, Mehserle’s fellow officers began confiscating cell phones of commuters who’d witnessed the unprovoked murder. In spite of their efforts, not one but three separate videos were soon all over the internet and television news.
The killer was allowed to walk away from the scene, and was placed on PAID leave pending an investigation. He later resigned from the BART P.D. on January 7th, having still not spoken with investigators.
Not having a television or reliable internet access in the theater I’m currently residing in, I first learned of the murder of Oscar Grant when I received an invitation to the rally at the Fruitvale BART station where Oscar Grant was killed via my Facebook account. Not being a fan of law enforcement in general, and outraged at the merciless killing of an unarmed civilian and the resulting miscarriage of justice, I immediately decided to go to this protest rally and lend my support.
The rally was scheduled for three to seven P.M. and it was just before three when the bus deposited me at the BART station. There was a good size crowd already, and once the speeches began, the crowd began to grow at an almost exponential rate. It was a really diverse group of folks too, of all ages and from all walks of life. Among these were a couple of anarchist kids, girlfriend and boyfriend. For some reason I disliked them immediately, especially the girl. I had the strange desire to punch her in the mouth with a roll of quarters and I couldn’t understand why. I was really conflicted, because I don’t have anything against anarchists, I used to call myself one in fact, and this girl was really sexy, she had beautiful eyes peering out from atop her black bandanna, and beneath her bandolier belt she was all curves. There were a lot of anarchist kids in attendance, and she wasn’t the only hot chick, but none of the others made me nervous. Something about her made me not just uneasy but a little worried and slightly angry as well.
I tried to forget about her and drank one of the two beers I’d brought with me as I listened to some of the speeches, collected some literature, and bought a “Stop the Violence” CD that later turned out to be blank. (If I ever see that dude again, I intend to have my two dollars or I’m going to START the fucking violence!) The crowd grew so large the BART people shut down the station to prevent the arrival of more demonstrators, although when I asked them they claimed to have closed it due to the unruliness of the existing demonstrators, a bullshit lie if I’ve ever heard one. I noticed a complete lack of BART cops, there were only the Fruitvale Village security guys, and the police helicopter, which along with every news chopper in the Bay Area, filled the sky above the station like a flock of mechanical birds of prey.
An impromptu march was scheduled, and roughly half an hour later, enough time for my other beer and some hastily scrawled notes, a group of demonstrators began to walk, down International towards downtown Oakland. Reports are conflicting regarding the total number but I would say at least four hundred, conservatively, and many people joined in as we slowly made our way towards downtown. The marchers, like the protestors at the BART station, were a mixed group; black, white, young, and old. Sure, we were intermittently chanting “Fuck the Police!” but it was still just a peaceful demonstration.
Remember the anarchist lovebirds who made me feel a little uneasy? A few blocks before the shit hits the fan, I’m smoking a recently bummed smoke (I had quit the night before) when I see the girl run over to the side of the street. She empties the entire contents of a free newspaper machine into her open backpack and rejoins the crowd. I’d first noticed she was part of the march about half a mile back, when one of the organizers of the rally had attempted to turn the march around, and she’d told him to “stop trying to run shit.” I knew it was just a matter of time before our previously peaceful demonstration took a turn for the worse, and it wasn’t long before she proved me right.
Near the closed down BART police station was a single police cruiser, it’s two officers standing on the corner across the street. The mob halted to shout a few choice obscenities. My sexy/creepy anarchist girl decided to use this opportunity and her recently acquired stash of paper to light up a nearby dumpster. A group of the white anarchist wannabes, almost as if they had just been waiting for this signal, push the dumpster over by the cop car while still others began to damage the cruiser itself.
A frenzy ensues as the mob mentality begins to take hold of the crowd, the lights and windshield of the black and white are smashed out, and then a group begins trying to flip it on it’s side. I contemplate joining in the destruction for the only time that night, I think one more person and they could have rolled that damn car, it was already leaning precariously on two wheels. I hesitate, and in my indecision the option is taken away from me, as several cans of smoke and one can of teargas are shot off in the street around the crowd.
At this point, most of the younger and older members of the march have had enough, they put an egg in their shoe and beat it. What’s left is the anarchist kids, a number of teens and young adults, all of the above feeling rowdy and pissed off, and myself and the few members of the press who’d chosen to follow the march instead of remaining at the rally. Also a few of the more hardcore protestors who, while not willing to resort to violence, are not yet ready to stop protesting and go home either.
I see the first police in riot gear arrive, and form a line directly ahead of me, so I decide to detour around the block. On the way I meet Bryan Wiles, one of the aforementioned hardcore but peaceful protestors, and since we both want to be where the action is and yet not necessarily take part in any mayhem and destruction, we “buddy up” and decide to watch each other’s back’s, and as we make our way around the block to where the police are making the first of the many arrests that night, we form an exit strategy and discuss what to do if one or the other of us is arrested.
Sometime between the ignition of the dumpster and the detour, the mayor led a small group of the original march to city hall and gave a brief speech. Previously, he couldn’t be bothered, and so he sent a flunky of some sort to the rally at the BART station to deliver a half-hearted apology. I missed the mayor’s undoubtedly stirring words, en route to what would become the front line of the war zone the evening would eventually become.
14th and Broadway.
At first it appeared to be a kind of totally one sided Mexican standoff. Lines of police in full riot gear blocked either side of Broadway. In between them, completely blocking off any traffic, are the two dozen or so protestors. Some of the anarchist kids remain, but the lovebirds are nowhere in sight. Perhaps they were so excited by their little trashcan fire they felt the need to rush home to Suburbia and make love in their evil lair located in his parent’s basement, or maybe they were tear gassed and had to pack it in early. I like to think it was the latter.
There are still a couple of bullhorns left in the hands of the remaining protestors, and they aren’t shy about using them. They lead the crowd in chants like, “No justice, no peace, fuck the police!” and “We are all Oscar Grant!” I was even pleasantly surprised to hear, “Hey cops, you better start shakin, today’s pig is tomorrow’s bacon!” It reminded me of Hunter. I think he would have been both pleased and disgusted with the way the night played out, pleased that so many had gathered to speak out against injustice and police brutality, and disgusted at the senseless destruction and vandalism that had nothing whatsoever to do with Oscar Grant or police brutality, it was just kids having fun; breaking shit and setting shit on fire.
It starts with another garbage fire, this time not a dumpster, just a regular sized can on the corner. It’s lit up and then kicked over, but the police seem uninterested, so the can on the other side of the street is set ablaze and knocked over as well. Still no reaction from the police, so a few bottles get thrown.
That pissed them off a little, so they order the crowd to disperse, and when no one seems to be dispersing they start herding us down 14th. This pisses the crowd off a little, and car windows start being broken, and a USA Today machine is kicked over and smashed. One of the cars with broken windows in set on fire when someone throws what I believe was a small Molotov cocktail inside it, in seconds there’s flames pouring out the windows and extending three feet over the roof of the vehicle. This was approximately eight-thirty, but I only know this from the newscast I watched later that night while having beers at Bryan’s place. I had no way to know what time it was at that moment, my ipod claimed it was just after three in the morning, which I knew couldn’t be right.
Several people refused to be herded like cattle, and I saw a couple sporadic skirmishes with the riot cops break out, usually ending with the person in the way being slammed to the ground, although one lady was simply picked up and carried away. I nearly catch the bums rush myself as I’m hastily scribbling notes and only Bryan’s tug on the shoulder saves me from becoming a doormat. “No justice, no peace!” chants the crowd, continuing on it’s path of destruction. It’s extremely violent, and just as senseless, the mob destroys things and sets other things on fire indiscriminately and completely at random.
I hear from a nearby photog that the police have closed down Madison, which intersects 14th about a block down the street. As he’s telling me this, I watch a kid looting the cars with broken windows. No one says a word to him, there’s so much anger in the air I don’t think anyone cared. A scary looking SWAT vehicle, armored and with some kind of gun turret, rolls by, loaded down with riot police, some of them wielding bean bag shotguns. One of them jumps off the vehicle and begins chasing the looter kid on foot, and then two more jump off and give chase. When they catch the kid I see all three of them pile onto his back, their knees on his shoulders and neck, one of them slaps the cuffs on, and another blasts him with a taser. By that time the kid was completely docile, and the taser was just a little bit of old fashioned police brutality.
We’ve reached Madison, and sure enough it’s blocked off by a line of cops. We’re forced to turn left on Madison, which prompts another volley of thrown bricks and bottles. Once again I’m saved from being trampled under the feet of the riot police by Bryan, who thankfully is paying attention to them while I’m busy taking in the sight of all the property damage and trying to write down as many details as I can. I see another small skirmish, a couple of men attempting to have a fist fight with the riot police. It doesn’t last long. More shit gets thrown, more shit gets broken.
At 15th and Madison, another car is in flames. I see a man across the street holding a fire extinguisher and go over and ask him why he didn’t put out the fire. “I was going to,” he told me, “but the cops told me to stay back. Dude said let it burn.” The power on the street goes out, and before it comes back on a minute or so later, the only lights are the car fire and the police Mag Lites. Someone says the cops cut the power so we couldn’t see them shoot us, which is both ridiculous and a little scary.
Once again, helicopters fill the sky above me. I see a well dressed man emerge from a nearby side street, speaking into a walkie talkie. “Keep the chopper right here, over me.” Says Supercop, for now I can see his badge and gun, both hanging from opposite sides of his belt. This is at 17th and Madison. The SWAT tank rolls by again. The distance between cars with smashed windshields and windows has grown longer. The worst seems to be over with. By mutual consent, Bryan and I make the decision to call it a night. There was nothing more to see, and we were not helping matters hanging around.
Turning down Lakeside Drive next to Lake Merritt, we pass a badly smashed Taxi whose driver wants no part of us or our fare. There’s some damage to cars and property down by the lake but not nearly as bad as the last few blocks have been. After a long wait at a bus stop, the buses are allowed to start rolling again and we hop on the 40 and ride it back to my place, where I immediately dig my old pack of smokes out of the trash and light one up, before going to the kitchen for a beer. Helluva night.
What should have been a show of support for the family of Oscar Grant III instead became a series of senseless acts of destruction that destroyed the property of small business owners and private citizens. (I make no mention of city or police property because I could give a shit about any of that.) A small group of white kids all hopped up on “Anarchy” as they understand the concept, ruined what should have been a good thing. Taking the focus off of the cop who shot an unarmed man in the back and the system that allowed him to, and instead placing it on a bunch of idiots breaking windows and burning cars. Way to go kids, you sure showed ‘em!