It was the forty-eighth day of the Prisoners’ Hunger Strike. Thirty thousand inmates of prisons throughout California had launched a mass hunger strike, probably the largest in history, to oppose cruel and unusual punishments, such as the very common practice of locking people in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, for years and even decades. At this time, several hundred were still refusing food. People we normally think of as criminals were taking a heroic stand in the face of oppression. Here in Oakland, on the Saturday afternoon of August 24th, we were gathering to demonstrate our support for their struggle.
This was at the Oscar Grant Plaza at 14th and Broadway, the gathering place for rallies in downtown Oakland. The day’s event was organized by the Bay Area Anti-Repression Committee and the rally began at 5:30 p.m., Laleh Behbehanian facilitating. Several speakers told about the inhumane conditions in California prisons, particularly the use of solitary confinement.
This hasn’t happened just to people we don’t know. One of the speakers was Tiffany Tran. Our Tiffany is a petite Asian woman in her twenties whom many of us came to know during the Occupy events. She related her own experience of having been locked up in the basement of the Oakland jail, a pretrial situation. A cold cell with only a tiny blanket, no mattress, just the concrete floor to sleep on with the lights on day and night, hearing the screams and groans of unseen prisoners in adjacent cells.
The rally was followed by a march to the jail, which is at 7th & Clay streets. There we intended to hold a short rally and let the prisoners hear our voices. We hoped to give them a feeling of support, to let them know they were not forgotten.
About 250 of us set off down Broadway, banners flying and music booming out. Our music came from a PA system mounted on a cart, pushed along by a team of two or three. We crossed 11th street, then 10th, and 9th. Up ahead and at the cross streets the police were re-routing traffic. At times the police are actually helpful; just the same, we can never know when they might start interfering or even attack us. It’s not comfortable, never reassuring, to see police around a demonstration. Behind us, five squad cars were following.
As we approached 8th Street, we saw a row of police across Broadway. Without pausing, we turned right, marching west on 8th. Minutes later we came to Washington Street, which was also blocked by a line of cops standing between us and the police station.
From there on it was march and countermarch, up one street, down another. Police blocked some streets, not others. We came to Jefferson street, where police were suddenly in front and on all sides of us. We paused, collectively took a deep breath and glanced around. Our music stopped and for an instant all was quiet.
” Oakland!” it was Laleh’s voice over the PA. “Oakland!” she called out again. “Oakland!” we echoed back and cheered. “Oakland! Oakland!”
“We’re going to hold a rally right here,” Laleh announced. “A moving rally.” As we retraced our steps back up Jefferson, she introduced a speaker who spoke as we marched. But I guess I wasn’t really listening, being somewhat distracted by the situation around us. I didn’t think the police would attack us, but even so, it was scary. Or at least I was scared, and I suspect others were too. I could feel the tension in the air. Nevertheless, everybody was calm, marching in good order. These people had been through many tense situations during the Occupy movement, Justice 4 Alan Blueford, and other struggles. At that moment I felt very proud of these people, glad to be among them.
There appeared to be 60 to 80 cops in the area. Why so many? Did they have nothing else to do? Had this town suddenly become a low-crime area where the police were no longer needed? We commented on that as we marched, feeling it was sad state of affairs when a city that can hardly afford to fix potholes in its streets will spend taxpayer money to intimidate peaceful protesters, as if silencing the messengers could resolve the problems which beset this world.
We went north on Jefferson and west on 8th. Then, as we were about to cross Clay, the police seemed to have disappeared. No police. And there was the jail, just a short block away! We did a right-turn, and in the street below the jail we held our rally, shouting to the prisoners, cheering and beating drums, making a sound that they could hear.
“Outside! Inside! We’re all on the same side!” we chanted and held up our banners.
From the tall, narrow windows several floors above us, I could see an arm waving to us. At least one, perhaps several or even many of the prisoners heard us and knew we were there for them.
Having accomplished our mission, we marched back to Oscar Grant Plaza, and from there began leaving to go home. But there was one more incident; it happened just after I left the plaza at about 7:15 p.m. Someone spotted Officer Miguel Masso — the cop who shot and killed teenager Alan Blueford on May 6, 2012.
People still at the plaza crowded around, “Murderer!” they shouted. “Murderer! Murderer!” Seeing this, the police higher-ups immediately came and withdrew Officer Masso from the scene, but left us wondering why that killer-cop had been put in front of us that day.
Justice is what our protest was about, and Officer Miguel Masso is a homicidal, gun-toting, badge-carrying symptom of something that’s gone terribly wrong. While relatively minor offenders get lengthy prison sentences, commonly spending years in solitary, uniformed killers are rarely ever charged with a crime. Why? Because they are the defenders of the current neoliberal system where banksters, polluters, and war criminals are rewarded and honored as elder statesmen.