Cutting to the Chase on the Streets of Oakland

Practicing freedom of assembly is an ongoing struggle, and it can get scary, as was our experience in Oakland on Saturday, December 13th, on the evening of which six or seven hundred of us gathered at the Oscar Grant Plaza for a march, setting out shortly before dark. Notebook in hand, I jotted down that it was 4:59 p.m. and joined in, scribbling a timeline as we marched out on 14th, then south on Jackson towards the freeway, chanting “Black lives matter!” and “Shut it down! Shut it down!” Arriving at the on ramp, we found that the police were blocking it, so we turned west on 7th Street, continuing on to Harrison till we came to the Posey Tunnel (which connects Oakland with Alameda). We shut it down.

“Eric Garner! Michael Brown!” we were chanting, “Shut it down! Shut it down!”

Cars were backed up solid as far as the eye could see. As during freeway shutdowns on previous days, inconvenienced drivers applauded our efforts. (The next day’s SF Chronicle had a photo of a driver shaking hands with protesters.) I doubt that all the drivers applauded us, but the fact that many did indicates the widespread popularity of our cause.

We stayed there 20 minutes, with the police making no attempt to push us away from the tunnel. Finally, feeling that we’d made our point and that to remain longer would only cause massive inconvenience to hundreds (perhaps thousands) of motorists, we withdrew, marching north on Harrison.

It puzzled me that the cops made no effort to push us away from the tunnel, despite the truly massive numbers of riot police they’d brought into town (cops from eleven agencies). Can it be that the police had orders to keep the freeways open, but that their orders said nothing about tunnels? I know that sounds bizarre, but it totally fits with what I saw of police tactics on other days as well. The cops would set up impenetrable barriers, which we would just walk around, despite their vastly superior mobility and observation helicopters.

So, feeling that we’d accomplished that part of our mission, we marched northward, festive music playing on our mobile PA system (mounted on a cart, pushed along by three people). This sound system was a veteran of Occupy Oakland days where it had accompanied us on many a march, had been repeatedly confiscated by the police, who had each time returned it to us. Most, perhaps all, of the people marching this evening were comrades from the Occupy Movement; there was a banner reading “Fuck the Police” — this evening’s event (in addition to being a protest against police impunity in Ferguson and Staten Island) was also a response to a local incident. An infiltrator from the CHP had pulled a gun on protesters who unmasked him. That was on Wednesday, December 10th, and a photo of the officer waving his gun had gone viral. Several witnesses reported that, before being outed, the officer banged on windows, an attempt to incite the crowd to vandalism.

We were marching to the scene of the unmasking, though by a rather lengthy and indirect route which took us up Telegraph. Most of the people on this march were quite young and seemed to have infinite amounts of energy for these long walks. I’d already had a busy day, felt pretty tired and worn out, and despite that had yet another item on my schedule for that evening — a 7 p.m. forum on the history of the dockworkers’ struggle. At 6:15 p.m. I glanced at my watch, thinking I’d have to leave soon. Maybe I’d stay with the demonstration just a bit longer.

The police seemed to be leaving us alone, keeping their distance, except for a helicopter rattling around overhead, flashing a spotlight now and then. We were heading east on 27th, and minutes later arrived at the intersection of Harrison where we paused. This was where the undercover CHP officer had pulled his gun after being unmasked a few days earlier.

It was 6:32 p.m. — time for me to leave if I were to make the forum. Presumably, the demonstration would soon be returning to the plaza (OGP), call it a night, and go home, but I didn’t have time to stay any longer. Then, at that moment, there seemed to be some commotion. I glanced around and behind us on 27th there were several dozen riot police. “Unlawful assembly!” they were blaring out over a loudspeaker, ordering us to disperse.

At the same time I saw a bonfire in the middle of the intersection. A pile of trash was blazing away; presumably someone had hauled a trashcan out into the street, dumped the contents and set it afire. Could that have been what ignited the police indignation, or perhaps gave them an excuse to do what they’d probably been wanting to do all evening, to declare our assembly unlawful? People had lit bonfires in the middle of streets on previous evenings with the police just standing nearby, not intervening.

The police were approaching. Confusion. People were looking around. “This way! This way!” some were shouting, heading south on Harrison. Others followed, myself among them. Many were running. “Don’t run!” others were yelling, “Don’t run! Stick together!”

The momentary panic subsided. People slowed down to a brisk walk, heading south. Soon we were at Lake Merritt, crossing Grand. Which way now? The police were following us. There was heavy traffic coming towards us on Harrison. That was the right way to go, so we slipped in between the cars — normally an unsafe thing to do, but right now it seemed to be the safest alternative. Motorists beeped for us; they and their passengers waved to us, cheering us as we hurried past them.

At 20th we turned west, towards Broadway. The police had fallen back a bit, but only momentarily. Now they were catching up again. There were hardly any cars here on 20th; our march was still together, perhaps 500 of us altogether.

I was near the rear of our march and kept looking back to see what the police were doing. There were fifty to a hundred of them, forming a line from curb to curb, now walking, now halting, now moving again, coming at a trot.

It’s disconcerting to see a cordon of club-waving figures coming towards you at a run. Believe me, it’s scary! The street was dark, but it wouldn’t have been different in the daylight. Nevertheless, marchers were keeping their cool, walking briskly but not running. Nothing in USMC training had prepared me for this. I was terrified. At the same time, the people ahead and around me were staying calm. I had to admire them. Their participation in Occupy Oakland had conditioned them to deal calmly with tense situations like this. (Maybe the Marine Corps should send its troops to Occupy Oakland for advanced training.)

“No justice! — No peace!” people were chanting, and, “Whose street? — Our street!”

Whenever the police got close, they would halt, and their leader would blare out over a loudspeaker “Unlawful assembly! Unlawful assembly!” ordering us to disperse, and verbally threatening us with “chemical agents” and “physical injury.” I wondered if they’d let us enter the BART station, which was a only few blocks up ahead. I really wanted to get to the forum. Most of all, I wanted to get away from the police.

Physical injury was not to be taken lightly. The OPD had injured protesters in the past, among them Iraq war veterans Scott Olsen and Kayvan Sabeghi, as well as Vietnam veteran Russell Bates. And in 2003 the police attacked us in the Port of Oakland, injuring 59 persons including protesters, longshore workers and journalists. A United Nations commission investigated that incident, and the City of Oakland got itself on the list of human rights abusers, along with Indonesia, Columbia and Saudi Arabia. When it came to violence, the OPD had credibility.

Broadway! At last, and nearing a BART station.

I thought of getting on a train, of getting out of there, away from the bull horns and the orders to disperse. Which way? The bizarre notion of all five hundred of us squeezing through the relatively narrow BART entrance flashed through my mind, but the cops might not want that either. I couldn’t imagine the police allowing a massive demonstration to even enter a BART station.

We didn’t stop to find out. We hurried on past, reaching 12th Street and turning right, then south on Jefferson. It was 7:02 p.m.; they’d been on our heels for half an hour now. I looked around, but at that moment I didn’t see them. Whew!

There were several videographers and live streamers in our march, interviewing people as we went. The street here was badly broken up and full of potholes, rather dangerous to be walking on in the dark, it seemed to me. Festive music was playing over our PA system which was somehow being navigated in and out, over and between potholes. It’s incredible that a city lacking money to fix the streets can nevertheless afford to pay overtime to have cops from eleven agencies come out and chase protesters across town. (The police responses were costing the city an average of nearly $100,000 a night, perhaps more for this evening.) A more reasonable approach might’ve been for the mayor and city council to stand up to Homeland Security or whoever was behind it all, and demand justice for Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It would be cheaper too.

Clearly, nobody in government seemed to be thinking of cost-effective solutions. But why this police chase, which was so different from their response to protests of previous nights? My guess is that the city brought all those cops into town to keep us off the freeways, but finding that we weren’t really trying to block the freeways, they had to give the police something else to do. Anyway, they didn’t seem to be following us any more; hopefully, they were going to leave us alone now.

Where were we now? It was hard to read street signs in the murk. Market Street, heading north. Actually, we were heading northeast; streets in Oakland do not closely fit a north-south grid. It was 7:20 p.m., and the forum would’ve started twenty minutes ago. Too late to get there now. I was tired, worn out, and thinking about going home; as much as I may pretend to be 25, it’s sometimes hard to deny that I was born 73 years go. Hopefully, we’d come to a stopping place soon.

Cops up ahead? Yes. “Unlawful assembly!” blared a police loudspeaker, ordering us to disperse and threatening to use tear gas. “You must disperse in small groups!”

“Stick together!” people were shouting to each other, “Stick together!”

The police were closing in from behind again, ordering us to disperse in small groups.

Disperse? But where to? There were cross streets, many of them along the way, but somehow, those dark side streets didn’t look very inviting. Safest to be together with the march, with this assemblage of people who kept their heads and didn’t panic easily. I knew quite a few people in this march; we’d been through a lot together and had a strong sense of solidarity; “We had each other’s back,” as the saying goes. Those seemed to be the dynamics holding the march together — loyalty to each other, and to the cause, which included defense of 1st Amendment rights as well as police accountability and opposition to the police state.

People were hurrying along, but not running, not panicking. Everybody keeping calm. Cops behind us. Cops up ahead of us. Cops to the left of us. “Get on the sidewalk!” they yelled at us. We did.

We crowded onto the sidewalk, then onto a lawn belonging to an apartment complex. Crossing the lawn, we found ourselves on a driveway which took us out to the street beyond; there we turned north again. Most of our march seemed to still be with us, but not all; some had been split off. That’s what the police had been trying to do, to break up our march, and to some extant they’d succeeded. They didn’t seem to be on our heels right now.

A couple of blocks later, a hundred or so figures came running towards us out of the darkness. It was our people! – our lost contingent, which had been split off from us a bit earlier. A loud cheer went up as they rejoined our march.

“Whose street? Our street!”

Three or four hundred of us were still in the march, or it could’ve been more, perhaps five hundred of us, as the police told the Associated Press (not undercounting for a change). Our PA system was playing a merry tune; to see us trouping along, you might’ve thought we were on our way to an old time county fair. The police had been chasing us for nearly an hour and a half.

Up one street, down another, some full of heavy traffic, others quiet and empty. We were on Telegraph, approaching 29th when a large cordon of police cut into our march, surrounding about two dozen of us. This was right in front of the Commonwealth Bar; a window of the establishment opened, and there was Bella Eiko with her video recorder, having found an ideal vantage point to live stream the arrests, which took place over the next hour. She and others in the bar sent out water for thirsty people who’d been marching for hours, even treated us to beer.

The National Lawyers Guild was right there on the spot and took our names, necessary info. It was really great to see them there for us.

As far as I could see and hear, no windows were smashed that evening, nobody threw rocks or anything else at the police, and no violence occurred. And I need to say that the police (despite the frightful threats of bodily harm which they made repeatedly while chasing us all over town) did not actually club or physically abuse us. During the arrests the officers of the OPD acted professionally.

They took us to the North County Jail on 7th Street, cited us for alleged “failure to disperse,” and released us that same evening. Our PA system, seized yet once again by police during the arrests, was also returned that night. We were undoubtedly treated much better than many people around the country who’ve stood up to protest police impunity. The truly outrageous thing is that anybody anywhere in this supposedly democratic society could be chased all over town and arrested while peacefully exercising our Freedom to Assemble.

Daniel Borgström is a member of the KPFA Local Station Board Rescue Pacifica Caucus. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Kennedy years, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes on various topics including travel, history, and struggles against corporate dominance.  He can be reached at Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.