He Walked, So We Walked

Families came with their children, and police showed up with their riot gear. This was in Oakland on July 15th, the third day of protests over the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, whose killer had just been found “Not Guilty.”

I arrived at 6:21 p.m. There were about five hundred people gathered in the plaza at 14th and Broadway, and more were arriving. The rally was already in progress. “The whole damn system is guilty,” a speaker was saying. That’s clearly the way people felt. This is a city where young blacks have been murdered by police.

A couple dozen people started occupying the intersection, blocking Broadway. This is the usual thing at rallies in Oakland; and the police normally expect that and reroute traffic. This time they didn’t, and the immediate result was a huge traffic jam. So having failed to do what normally works quite well, a team of 6 or 8 cops set out to remedy the situation by stepping into the intersection and attempting to force people back to the sidewalk. People stepped back, so there was no real confrontation. It was a minor incident, low key, and wouldn’t seem worth mentioning except that it did raise tensions, since it seemed to hint at police intentions to interfere with us that night.

The cops were still trying to untangle the traffic jam when, a few minutes later, our march began. Chanting “No Justice, No Peace,” seven hundred and fifty people poured out of the plaza, marched past the cops who this time made no attempt to interfere, and headed down Broadway, soon taking up both lanes of this wide street. This event looked like it was going to be similar to our previous day’s march where our route took us through the neighborhoods of west Oakland. That had been a two-hour march, and as my legs still ached from it, I was really hoping that tonight’s march would be shorter.

We proceeded south on Broadway without incident until we attempted to turn west on 7th street, which goes past the police station and out to the neighborhoods of West Oakland. But a phalanx of riot police in Darth Vader helmets were blocking that street. So we continued on Broadway to 6th, which goes behind the police station, but riot cops were also blocking this route. There was a brief impasse, then, I saw a stream of people with banners heading the opposite direction, east on 6th.

A contingent of us followed. We were soon on a freeway off ramp, heading up to Highway 880. People were cheering and laughing. “Scary!” I scribbled in my notebook along with the time, 7:16 p.m., as I hurried up the ramp, weaving in and out between the stalled autos and wondering if my companions weren’t also a bit scared. Nevertheless, it was amusing the way the OPD had prevented us from marching around their sacrosanct station on a relatively quiet street, but left the freeway entrance unguarded. Finally reaching the top, I saw a hundred or more of our people blocking a long, long line of rush hour traffic. More people were coming up the ramp behind me, and soon we had both north and south bound lanes blocked. It was now 7:20 p.m.

“Justice for Trayvon!” we chanted. “Justice for Trayvon!”

Some were talking with drivers and passengers of the autos, explaining to them what this demonstration was about. I wasn’t close enough to hear what the responses were, but in other places during our march I saw many drivers of blocked vehicles cheering us.

Suddenly people were rushing to leave, and in the distance, coming up the ramp, were the riot police. Yes, this was a good time to leave. We’d been up here about 5 or 10 minutes, long enough to make our point. Even if we could’ve stayed longer it would’ve seriously inconvenienced the motorists.

But where could we go? Looking over the edge of the freeway, most of our comrades were on the street below, and some were climbing down the slope towards the bottom. That didn’t look like an easy climb, and I hesitated, as did many others.

Then the CHP rolled up, about five patrolmen. They told us we could continue on eastward and descend from there. They also said they were talking with the OPD who would not bother us as long as we were leaving.

However, if we continued on eastward, we’d be split off from the rest of our demonstration, winding up a mile or more apart. So we said to the patrolmen, “We want to rejoin our friends. Let us go back down the ramp towards Broadway.” The patrolmen got back on the phone, and a moment later told us we could go that way.

So we called out for the rest to join us, and we headed down the ramp, past the OPD riot police, cheering loudly and chanting, “No justice, No peace!” My companions were in high spirits; I was shaken from the experience (which I found a bit frightful). We’d barely returned to Broadway and rejoined the rest of our demonstration when a friend came and told me, “The OPD arrested Daniel Arauz!”

It seemed that he was the only one they’d arrested, so far at least, but we didn’t know how it happened. Daniel Arauz is a photographer, a mature, level-headed person and seemed like the last person the police would ever arrest. But then I remembered that during the previous day’s march he’d photographed a guy whom we suspected of being an agent provocateur. Could that be the reason for the arrest?

There wasn’t much we could do right then. I spoke with Laura of the National Lawyer’s Guild, and she told me they already had his name.

The march of our now-reunited demonstration continued. North on Broadway, east on 7th. then north again on Franklin, then turned on another street. Three helicopters circled overhead. Teams of riot police were on some of the corners we passed. Also, we were followed or rather paralleled by two teams of seven cops each, who kept to the sidewalks, one on the right of us and one on the left. These teams didn’t seem to be doing anything provocative, but the very fact that they were there was, to us, an implied threat. The problem is that the OPD is not a neutral entity; it’s an agency whom we do not trust. One of its officers had murdered teenager Alan Blueford — and gotten away with it. So their presence was a provocation, and set a bad tone.

Up one street, down another we went, chanting “Justice for Trayvon!” and “No justice – No Peace!” We took a zigzag course towards Lake Merritt, where we paused to let people catch up and then continued on along the Lake. We seemed to be as numerous as before, actually larger. More than the original 750, at any rate. I estimated 1,000.

The sun had set and in the dimming light I saw an old tall apartment building a mile or so directly ahead of us. A beautiful old building at any hour of day, in the half-light of dusk it took on an almost surreal look — a mystical castle looming in the distance. It was now 8:32 p.m. We continued on, going clockwise around Lake Merritt. Out on the water I saw a pelican, and on the grassy shore were a flock of wild geese who gave us inquisitive looks and a honk or two.

Music boomed out from a PA system mounted on a cart, pushed along by a small group of three or four. People listened to the music or chatted with friends. Most of the marchers were young, with a sprinkling of older persons (like myself); one of these was Russell Bates of Berkeley CopWatch, and we got to talking about our military experiences. He’d been stationed on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam war, and had worked on the flight deck. Many of us from that age group had been in the military; actually, some of these protest events can be as grueling and as intense as anything the military ever put us through.

Other than being predominantly young, it was a diverse group, representing blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos and other ethnic groups. It’s really hard to give precise figures or percentages, but I’d estimate that half of the marchers were African American.

Passing a shopping center, some people pulled a large garbage bin out into the street behind us. Others of our group stopped them, and pushed the bin back to where it belonged.. I wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation, but they were clearly saying that we didn’t want anything that resembled vandalism. It made me really glad to see that we were conducting our march in a disciplined way, policing ourselves. I jotted that down in my small notebook. It was 9:30 p.m.

We were on the southeast side of the lake now, the circumference of which is three miles. We’d nearly completed a circuit of it, and were crossing the bridge over the estuary. Up ahead of us on 12th Street was the silhouette of the large courthouse, on the steps of which we intended to hold a rally.

As we approached, there was suddenly a loud wailing of sirens in the distance. The sound grew louder, and flashing red lights lit up the sides of building.. A string of police cars came into view, racing towards us it seemed, then they swung left on Fallon, coming to a screeching halt in front of the courthouse. It was the Berkeley police, charging in like the cavalry in a wild west movie, coming to the rescue, here to save their sacred citadel of justice from the savage natives of Oakland. It was 9:51 p.m.

We arrived at the same time as the cavalry, making a right onto Fallon Street which forms a plaza below the courthouse steps, just as the police were jumping out in their riot gear. We massed on the opposite side of the street, facing them, hoping to go ahead with our plans for a rally. But what were the cops going to do? Charge into our rally and grab people?

“Link arms!” someone shouted, and others repeated it. “Link arms! Link arms!”

Immediately everyone did just that. We formed two or three ranks, arms linked, and stood there for a few minutes. Facing us was a row of Berkeley police in riot gear, carrying shoulder weapons. In the dark I couldn’t see if they were shotguns or assault rifles. I glanced around, and a woman said to me, “Weren’t you up there with us on the 880 freeway?” She was one of our group who, a few hours before, had successfully negotiated with the CHP patrolmen to get a desirable exit from the freeway. Once again we found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder.

Several minutes had passed and the Berkeley police weren’t making any moves toward us; they seemed to be there for no other reason than to keep us off the steps of the empty courthouse. So we unlinked arms and proceeded with our rally on the flat space below, gathering around closely to hear our speakers.

“Can’t hear!”

“Mic check!” “Mic check!”

A bullhorn was turned on and adjusted. People wishing to speak stepped to the center and spoke, taking turns one after another. These were mostly young blacks, men and women, telling of their experiences with the OPD and the justice system. KPFA’s Frank Sterling was there, recording them, and the next day some of their accounts were broadcast on the air at 94.1 FM.

One of the speakers, about the same age and build as Trayvon Martin, told of how a bullet had grazed his jaw and cheek when an Oakland cop shot him. The teenager had been hanging out with his friends near a store where a robbery occurred. Although he and his friends weren’t involved in the robbery, a cop pulled out his pistol, pointed it at the teenager and fired. (I remembered hearing about that; it happened on April 3, 2013, at 10th and Clay streets.)

The rally took 20 minutes; then we left, marching up 12th Street towards downtown Oakland. “No justice – No peace!” we were chanting. It seemed like our last burst of energy; I was pretty worn out and I imagined the others were too. Several blocks later,we reached Broadway. It was 10:32 p.m.

Just then, a crashing sound, the shattering of glass. Oh, no! Not this! I thought. It was a bank, and though I’m not going to cry for a bank, it wasn’t something I wanted to see happen. Moments later a team of half a dozen cops who’d been following up walked past the broken window, glanced at it, and continued on.

A minute or so later I saw someone pounding on another window, but this time people from our demonstration dashed over and stopped him. We continued on to the Plaza, 14th and Broadway, and in the intersection held a discussion. I was ready to go home, and too tired to listen. But I was curious to see what the others would do; presumably they’d go home, which is the smart thing to do at the end of a demonstration. Especially after a window smashing, the cops might start arresting people.

Then, contrary to my expectations, the march resumed, continuing north on Broadway. It was a smaller group now, many people having remained at the Plaza. I decided that I’d stay with the march as far as the 19th street BART, then go home. It was 10:38 p.m.

There were now 100 or perhaps 150 of us. Before we’d gone much more than a block, I heard a loud thumping. To the left of me a guy (it could’ve been a woman, I’m not sure) was pounding on a very large display window of a clothing store. “Stop that!” I and some others shouted. “Stop that!”

Should I run over and try to stop him? The thought flashed through my mind. Then, glancing back behind us, following us at some distance, was a phalanx of riot police. No, I immediately decided, I had better not be anywhere near that window!! An instant later the window shattered and the glass came cascading down. The guy took off, and riot police dashed up, grabbing an innocent guy near me, almost knocking me over in the process.

An observer from the NLG was trying to get as close as she could, asking the guy what his name was. Several of the legal observers had stayed with this march, just very brave, dedicated people.

I looked again at the broken window. It was part of a huge clothing store, not a mom and pop store, which I would have been more concerned about. Nevertheless, there was something terribly sad about it; I guess I just have a problem with broken windows. Especially in older buildings like that one, which was kind of a nice, handsome building, an historical building. And I don’t see window smashing as a way to build a movement. I’m not alone in that; we had discussions on that at Occupy Oakland, and many people were saying that, asking that windows not be broken.

There was a lull. The police were standing in a row, one of them holding a shotgun. I walked up to the cop with the shotgun and said, “Officer, you know you could put somebody’s eyes out with that. You know that, don’t you?”

The policeman nodded, affirmed that he knew. The cop next to him ordered, “Step back!” I did, then said, “Please don’t shoot anybody.”

Yeah, as if that did any good, but that’s all I could think to do or say. I kept looking around, still jotting things down in my notebook, as I had all evening. It was 10:49 p.m.

Not far away from me, half a dozen guys were arguing, yelling at each other. Very angry. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could easily guess. It was probably over whether or not to smash windows.

The police were now lined up across Broadway, a van behind them. And suddenly there was a loud explosion beside the police van. A flash-bang grenade? Had the police themselves accidentally set it off? Then another one, exploding just behind the row of cops. I wondered where those explosive things were coming from. I couldn’t tell. Then I saw something that looked like fireworks arcing through the sky. Again, I couldn’t see where from.

Till only a few minutes before this, we’d been able to keep some sort of order in our demonstration. All along, I ‘d seen our people keeping others in line. Now there was nothing that anyone among us could do. More windows were broken. We couldn’t stop it. And the police certainly couldn’t stop it either. They weren’t in the least able to prevent people from breaking windows; to the contrary, the people breaking the windows seemed to delight in breaking them right in front of the police.

The marchers marched on, going up 17th street towards Telegraph. I walked over to the BART entrance and watched them go. Garbage cans had been dragged into the street, several set afire. One was burning brightly and gave off a very noxious smoke. I caught a whiff of it and it was awful. Then I went down into the BART station. feeling terribly stressed out, terribly helpless, worn out from the long evening’s march, and that noxious smoke still biting at my lungs. It was 11:04 p.m.

Now, days later as I’m writing this, scenes from that evening continue to keep flashing in front of my eyes. Scary. Traumatic. It’s like I’m still there. Broken windows cascading down in front of me. Police grabbing people. Grenades exploding. Looking at those scenes, revisiting them, as I still am and probably will be for some time to come, I want to say this: If the police hadn’t been there, I think we could’ve stopped at least some of that and had a more peaceful conclusion to this demonstration.

Daniel Borgström is an ex-Marine against the war, a veteran occupier. He writes about progressive actions. He can be reached at: danielfortyone@gmail.com. Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.