Oakland in Upheaval: Perspective from a Protester

8 Jan

UPDATE: I’m starting a list of Oakland businesses that were vandalized on Wednesday and will publicize this list next week. Please help me with this list.

Last night was a difficult one for me and I’m sure for many Oaklanders who stood by as we saw our downtown being attacked. A friend of mine, Santiago Wechsler, attended and documented the protest. Here is his story:

I’m not sure if you are all familiar with the BART shooting that occurred early new year’s day when a BART Police officer shot 22-year old Oscar Grant after responding to a report of fighting in the train. Well, a few days later a video of the incident went viral due to Karina Vargas who made it available to the public by posting it on YouTube and making it available for download. Other videos appeared after, and the videos resulted to be quite and explosive spark. Here’s one video, be warned because at the very least you’ll see a very tragic event. You will see Grant on the ground with an officer’s knee on his head, then suddenly you’ll see that an officer standing over him pull out his gun and shoot Grant in the back. You will also see all the officers jumped back in surprise, and the shooter, 27 year-old Johannes Mehserle, also seems to be surprised, he also jumps back, looks at his partner, looks at the body, and after a few seconds of inaction, in what seems to be stupor, they proceed to, according to witnesses at the scene, take the handcuffs off of Grant. A man in the background seems to protest as they do that.

Regardless of what really happened, whether Mr. Mehserle meant to pull out his taser rather than his gun, the fact remains that this video triggered widespread anger within the community. It is such a source of unspoken frustrations. Coupled with the announcement that the DA had not pressed charges, and that Mehserle quit his job with the BART Police to avoid being forced to make a statement, it set off a tornado of anger through the streets of Oakland.

It all started peacefully enough at the Fruitvale BART station. Several people spoke including the family of Grant. There were mothers with children and several young teenagers, many holding hand made signs.

It was a solemn affair, I saw a woman at the verge of tears standing next to me as speakers told their stories of lost loved-ones to police fire. And once in a while the crowd would chant “fuck the police”.

I got there around 4:30, and at around 5:20 a group with their own loudspeaker started chanting that we should march. They pressed on for several minutes, finally leaving as a group around 5:45. Most people stayed at the station, including myself staying until the end, around 6:15.

So I grabbed my bike and headed north on International with the intention of going to Berkeley, but as I got closer to downtown Oakland I saw several helicopters hovering over the Laney College area, so I headed that way. I caught up with the protesters on 10th street headed north. Things were different this time, there was zero police presence at the Fruitvale BART, but there were dozens of police cars with their lights on around this area. They were already stopping traffic and driving against the direction of traffic at fast speeds headed somewhere. We continued on 10th, but suddenly the crowd stopped at Madison.

There were a couple of police officers standing next to their cruiser which they positioned perpendicular to the road in order to stop traffic on Madison St. The crowd quickly turned towards the cops, little by little they became more violent, and started throwing trash at them. A guy right in front of me was the first to hit the car, kick it hard, and I immediately grabbed him back, reacting in fear of the line he was crossing. But it was all over. Right as he was threatening to kick my ass some one else threw an object at the windshield and others started stomping on the car. So I just stepped back and looked at what was going on. Check out the videos below, you’ll see for yourself, but it was a crazy sight. It was thrilling and sinful almost to see those people destroy that police car. After a few minutes the police shot off some tear gas and the crowd split. This happened a little before 6:41.

The crowd regrouped around Broadway, finally settling at 14th and Broadway a little after 7pm. This time we were surrounded on three sides by police in riot gear. We stayed there for a while. Many angry people were yelling at the cops, in particular a young girl caught my eye, she couldn’t have been older than 13, but she was going right up the cops faces and yelling the most elaborate obscenities I have ever heard in my life. People were venting their fury, I just hope it had some sort of therapeutic effect. Trash cans were set on fire and toppled over the street. A few minutes later, a little after 7:50, the police started to make their move. They rammed the protesters, grabbing some people to arrest. The protesters were forced south on 14th street, and they wreaked havoc along the way, smashing car windows, store fronts and setting a couple of cars on fire.

I saw a couple that while  closing down a diner on 14th, a group of young hooligans stormed into their store and made a mother of a mess in a few seconds. The hooligans left quickly, but the couple stayed inside hiding somewhere until a few minutes later a young man armed with a baseball bat came to get them, I assume he was their son. The young man was so angry, yelling at the top of his lungs asking who had done this. Of course by then the culprits were gone, and his screams served for nothing more than to break my heart a little. The violence continued but the crowd splintered into different factions, and all that was left was a cat and mouse game with the police around downtown for a few minutes.

I decided to go to 12th Street because there was a new car burning over there, I had to go around a long way because the police had it mostly blocked off. It was definitely a smaller group there, and it may have been that these were the only people causing the destruction from the beginning. Suddenly and I don’t understand why, a group of the street agitators turned against other protesters, they targeted a group of hipsters on their bikes that were mostly standing by. They tried to steal a guy’s bike and when he resisted they punched him in the face. I told them to calm down, but as soon as I opened my mouth I had a group of pretty angry faces looking at me so I left in a hurry, it was already around 9 at this point.

Here are some pictures I took. Best I could do with my iPhone while trying not to get my ass beat. Also it’s my first time using flickr and I don’t know how to put them in order yet.

I just wanted to share the experience because it was fascinating to witness this sort of event first hand. I was running on adrenaline the entire time, and I was too enthralled to leave, I wanted to see every detail.


17 Responses to “Oakland in Upheaval: Perspective from a Protester”

  1. Andy January 8, 2009 at 12:11 pm #

    Sounds crazy. I was involved in similar protests in SF at the start of the first gulf war. Masses of people on the streets. We were on bikes at the front of those marches. I recall the adrenaline you speak of. I don’t recall nearly the amount of violence that was evident last night. Sounds like a few agitators got things way out of control.

    This is really a shame. It gives a bad name to the protest and totally detracts from the issue. While it seems obvious that Oscar Grant should not have been killed, it is just as obvious that this riot was totally counter productive. From accounts I have read, the victims of the riot were mostly innocent people of color. The thugs responsible should be punished.

  2. Ken O January 8, 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    Hey, I was in a similar mood, and went out to check things out around Broadway/Telegraph at 19th/20th. They burned a trashcan at Tele/19th and broke windows at sears and flora.

    Very much a juvenile male thing, taking advantage of an already sick situation to cause a melee.

  3. Peter January 8, 2009 at 12:47 pm #

    Andy, go back to your hole, you whiny twit.

  4. Ken O January 8, 2009 at 12:47 pm #

    These hoodlums, don’t know where they came from. Certainly a group of them are the Downtown Oakland regulars (gangstas) who hang around Broadway and 14th, passing through Chinatown and causing trouble there too. Young bangers/dealers from the lake and dto.

    If only they could contribute their energy to positive projects instead, but this country is so f’ed up already…

  5. Mike January 8, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    What really baffles me is, why go after all these stores in their own home? Are they just pure anarchists? It makes no sense to go after local businesses, ruining a downtown area that has been making huge strides to improve it’s image, and now… it’s completely tarnished.

    Not only has the Oakland Downtown’s image been tarnished, public transportation. The news is reporting at the BART public meeting, that people were demanding that BART become closed indefinitely. There were also people “blessing” the rioters last night for causing havoc, for “creating pain.” To what end does this serve? To ruin your own home? To create fear between our community?

    Not only is all of this making us fearful of the police, but now we are fearful of the people.

  6. themacinator January 8, 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    that’s so sad, and so different than the last time i took to the streets:

    i wasn’t out last night, but my roommate got stuck in the traffic. i’m kind of glad that i wasn’t out last night, because i still have the taste of obamanight in my head. last night sounds much more like the oakland i know, and i was so glad to have somethign to be optimistic about.

  7. Bobby January 8, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    San Francisco- Demonstration Against Police Murder of Oscar Grant

    AnnouncementsTonight’s events in Oakland made it clear to everyone that police murders will not go without reprisal. The burning cars and smashed windows of the evening’s conflict showed that the people of the Bay Area will not forget Oscar. The kids know what’s up. We are not interested in passive, impotent and utterly ineffectual displays of disapproval. The Mayor’s calls for calm fell upon deaf ears. We will not remain calm when a young father has been executed by the police, because to them, a passive youth is an easy target. We will not lie down and be shot in the back.

    Today we heard the news that Officer Johannes Mehserle resigned from the police force. This is no consolation.

    The problem is bigger than Oakland. The relationship between officer and civilian is perverse: an unelected authority enacting an unencumbered power of life and death over a population.

    Last month, San Francisco saw a confrontational solidarity action against the murder of a young man on the other side of the world, yet there has been no response to the murder of a young man on the other side of the bay.

    On Monday, January 12 at 5pm meet at the Civic Center BART station for a demonstration against the police murder of Oscar Grant.

    The young people of Oakland have refused to take this lightly. Let’s show them that they are not alone.

  8. inadvertentgardener January 8, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    Becks, thanks for posting Santiago’s report — it’s interesting to hear what it was like on the other side of the police wall. I am totally on edge today, after spending just 20 minutes at 14th and Broadway documenting what I saw.

  9. ScottPark January 8, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    This whole situation is completely sad: an unarmed man shot and killed by BART police and young people so alienated and ignorant that they tear down their own city in protest. I was in EndGame in Old Oakland today and they took two calls while I was there from people wondering if the place is open today.

    Pimp TV, Police Chief corruption, BART shooting, no Mayor, $42 million deficit, and now a youth riot. Oakland’s getting me down.

  10. Max Allstadt January 8, 2009 at 5:33 pm #

    Peter and Bobby,

    Just so you guys know: BART police do not answer to any authority in the city of Oakland. Not OPD. Not the Mayor. Not the Council.

    The kids do not “know what’s up” if they knew what was up, and they still wanted to be violent about it, they would have headed for BART headquarters. Instead a bunch of angry young men tore up parts of a city that’s already struggling, and didn’t hurt anyone responsible for the killing of Oscar Grant.

    Bobby, if you want to change something, demand that BART police be made accountable to someone. There are Citizens Police Review Boards in SF and Oakland that BART police can ignore. There are all sorts of ways in which this problem can be fixed without breaking random windows.

    What’s really pathetic about your rhetoric is that it implies that it’s OK to destroy small businesses and cars that belong to working class and middle class Oaklanders. Protest violence against a working class black man by committing violence against working class black, latino, white and asian businesses and random vehicles? Shithead.

    Look past your anger to the big picture. Educate yourself about how the government actually works and you’ll be able to change it for the better instead of throwing a tantrum in the street and making everything worse.

  11. richard January 8, 2009 at 7:38 pm #

    hey Becks thanks for sharing! this is so far the only other eyewitness blog report i have seen besides mine. and clearly we were in the same spaces too, cuz i saw the whole police car/burning dumpster bit go down. maybe we even saw each other. i was the brotha with the candle.

    glad your friend got home safe too.

    Thanks again. hope Oakland sleeps better tonite.

    bless up,

  12. SA January 9, 2009 at 1:16 am #

    At least some of the pictures and reports I’ve seen suggest that the destruction of property was, in some part, done by white kids from Berkeley. Anarchy is fun in someone else’s neighborhood!

  13. Stay out of Civic Center January 10, 2009 at 8:21 pm #

    Hi Bobby,
    I know you are probably really excited at the prospect of breaking some glass and yelling obscenities at cops at little “protest” you have planned for the civic center.

  14. JD January 11, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    Let’s see, destruction of unrelated cars and businesses to protest this horrific act by a BART cop? Really? Because it may feel like a good release to those perpetrating the destruction, but what does it achieve? I have marched and protested and stood in solidarity with those fighting for many forms of civil rights, against violence and war, and more and can tell you that the story in situations like this always ends up being about unruly kids thinking they are smashing the state. It calls no attention to the institutional racism, the prison-industrial complex and its hoarding of lives. It deflects attention from the problem, sucks up ink from the newspapers, airtime from the radio, and more. It’s selfish. Many of those affected know Oakland. They are Oakland folks who have dealt with the police. Many have dealt with the racism of our society, not to mention many of these folks have said they are going to do business in Oakland anyway. Serve us food, give us access to clothing, services, and more. They are trying to thrive in a city that has made consistently bad choices for development, in leadership, and more. And you attack them? Let’s organize ourselves to speak truth to power and hold BART accountable. Let’s put our best actions and words and thinking into making sure BART police have some accountability to the people. And yes, let’s make large, powerful protests and marches a part of those strategies but remember to be mission-focused. Loud, brash, angry, belligerent, incensed, pissed off, and all, but do we really want the story to be about destroying windows and not about the destruction of life. I get it. People were pissed. I’m pissed. People at the protest were pissed. But march into Oakland and destroy that which is being held onto by our allies? What a waste.

    Of course we should help figure out how to help these people. It’s ridiculous to think we can’t do that AND support Oscar Grant’s family and fight the violence.

    Take your hammers and let’s build a movement together.

  15. Lindsay January 13, 2009 at 10:19 am #

    I’m more than a little heartbroken to see the refrains of “what will trashing your own neighborhood accomplish?” throughout these comments.

    Maybe we should look at it a different way. Maybe these folks are so hurt, so angry, so tired of the system that claims equality but practices outright oppression that they are beyond productivity.

    These are people. They’re not monsters and they’re not different from you. Imagine how angry you would have to be in order to spontaneously begin destroying anything in your grasp.

    Just to be clear, I’m not condoning their actions, and I have certainly spent more than a few moments of my life shaking my head in sorrow, disgust, or disbelief at these kinds of events in my beloved Oakland.

    Still, I felt it was important to point out that sometimes things are so bad that the capacity for rational action is lost. Recognizing that may shed some light on exactly how damaged these communities are, which is the only way we can start to help.


  1. Oakland is Angry « Peggy Lu Who’s Just Sayin’! - January 8, 2009

    […] folks were there – Richard and Becks wrote great blogs about being […]

  2. Turning Tragedy Into an Opportunity To Help Community Is Made of Happy - January 9, 2009

    […] Oscar Grant in Oakland and the subsequent protests that turned into vandalism (see some info here: Perspective from a Protester). Becks of the blog Living in the O decided not just to talk about how awful that is, but to do […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: