Front and Center at the Oakland Protests

The Politics of a Police State

By the time the officer (pictured below) said “OK, everyone here is under arrest!” it was too late. Encircled on three sides by the police and on one side by a tall brick wall, there was seemingly no place to go and nowhere to hide. We were, as they say in protester argot, completely kettled-in. I had been at the protest for about an hour, had committed no crime, and yet there I was: trapped on the corner of 29th and Telegraph in Oakland.

All photos by author.

All photos by author.

The post-Ferguson protests in the Bay Area remain ongoing, and it seems that for every act of civil disobedience—peaceful marching, die-ins, blocking intersections, etc—there’s an increasingly heavy-handed response by the police. Last Saturday was no exception. It was barely 8PM and already the streets were overrun—not by protesters, but by the police themselves. At least three helicopters circled above, their rotors unmistakable and relentless, and there were rumors that the police had dispatched a drone above the crowd to keep (an additional) eye on things.

police2_DVAnd those were only the eyes in the sky. The streets themselves were brimming with officers, all of whom were clad in riot gear (sans shield) and armed with what were presumably riot-guns at the ready. The atmosphere in the protest was one of solidarity and festivity; the atmosphere near the police was one of power and intimidation. By way of example, when I first arrived at the protest, I made the mistake of stepping into the street while still catching up with the protest—I was approximately 200 feet behind the crowd at this point—at a time when the only people in my immediate vicinity were police officers.

Bad idea.

police3_DVOne of the officers glared at me, furrowed his brow, and audibly cocked whatever weapon he was carrying (it was hard to make out precisely what he was holding in the dark, but it seems to have been a riot or bean-bag gun). Shocked and awed, my body froze for an instant before I regained composure and stepped back onto the sidewalk and ran up to join the rest of the demonstrators. There was no time to engage with the officer, no time to ask him what the fuckhe was doing cocking that thing at me, and no time to process whether he would have, in fact, followed-through on what appeared to be an implicit threat.

And after a week of attending various Oakland/Berkeley protests, it’s clear that’s how the (largely) peaceful protesters feel when they come face-to-face with the police: threatened. Many police departments across the country emblazon their cruisers with the slogan To Protect & Serve, but anyone who’s been to a post-Ferguson protest walks away unclear as to who precisely the police are protecting and serving. Are they protecting our 1st Amendment right to assemble peacefully in public? Doesn’t seem like it—indeed, their whole goal seemed to be this: to throttle the protests, to kettle demonstrators, and to arrest those who fail to comply with their orders. (Open question: but where are those orders coming from?) Rather, it seems like the police are primarily concerned with protecting private property and serving the interests of those who would like to see the protesters go home.

police4_DVThe situation is at once unreal, insane, and unsustainable. Take a look at the picture above, in which a row of policemen line the block from one end of Telegraph to the other. Now imagine this line of officers uniformly marching behind the protest, sort of like a combine grazing across a field of grains pulling in everything in its path. This is what democracy looks like? Judging from the number, equipment, and movements of the officers, you’d think they were entering a battle-zone in Fallujah rather than the downtown area of a major American city. Surely there’s a more efficient and humane way to monitor public protests than to enter a city with warlike equipment and a seemingly-infinite number of officers, cruisers, and weapons.

But as the old saying goes: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so it’s no surprise that a militarized police force will respond to acts of civil disobedience with military-style tactics—it’s all they know how to do, it’s what they were trained to do. While the nation’s for-profit media outlets wax surprised and indignant over the heavy-handed response of America’s police forces in the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island, in reality the militarization of American police forces has been happening for quite some time. The end results are not encouraging, as I have witnessed several times now. Body-cams and DOJ investigations in the wake of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner killings will amount to littleunless we change the way policing is handled in America, both at the individual level and at the group level.

police5_DVBecause what’s happening now in Oakland has been happening across the country for years now. Remember the Seattle protests in 1999? Remember Zuccotti Park in 2011? Remember the Orwellian-named “free-speech zones” created for recent Republican and Democratic national conventions? Indeed, the tactics are becoming standardized worldwide. Take a look at recent events in Hong Kong, Ukraine, Greece, and Egypt—just to name a few—and you’ll notice remarkable similarities. In virtually all cases the police are: armed with batons and bean-bag guns; protected with shields, helmets, and body armor; aided by helicopters overhead; endowed with wide discretion; and united behind the same goal—to empty the streets of those with a mind to protest. The tactic isn’t to so much to police “broken windows” as it is to ensure that protesters leave with broken spirits. The implicit message from such overwhelming show-of-force seems to be: the time for protest is over. Please return to your job and/or go home and watch TV. Nothing to see here.

But we aren’t leaving with broken spirits. We don’t want to go home and plug-in to tune-out. What the police don’t seem to understand is that such tactics do not break our spirits—they strengthen them. We return more committed to social justice and civil disobedience than we did before. We return smarter and sharper. We return, in short, educated and united by what we have experienced.

And what we’ve learned should tell us this: these military-style tactics are unsustainable. Simply from a financial perspective, the police cannot keep up such aggressive tactics. The same cities that have been experiencing budgetary woes for years—there were reports Oakland was mulling bankruptcy in 2009—are the same ones who mysteriously can come up with the requisite cash for an overwhelming, militarized police response to protests time and time again. Oakland has recently made cuts to education and the Oakland zoo in response to its financial trouble, but somehow there’s always enough money for police helicopters, body armor, bean-bag rounds, tear gas, police cruisers, police vans, sound cannons, SWAT Teams, armored vehicles, drones, and the like.

That money can’t last forever. Indeed, there were rumors on Saturday that the police had kettled us so early in the night because they couldn’t afford not to. It turns out that after a week-plus of consistent protests, overtime for dozens of cops and fuel for helicopters and cruisers can get expensive. But perhaps I should restate what I said above: it’s not that the police couldn’t afford to keep monitoring the protests for hours, it’s that we couldn’t afford to, because ultimately everything the police had at their disposal—from choppers to drones to riot gear—was paid for using taxpayer money. In a sense, therefore, the protestors had been paying for their own repression.

When the protest on Saturday was over and the arrests had been complete, the block transformed back to business-as-usual. Patrons exiting bars stepped outside for a smoke, passers-by drove in their cars to the club or crib, and stars poked small holes of light into the dark patchwork of the sky above. The night’s vibrant energy had in the end been swept away—or rather, literally corralled and caged—by strong-arm police tactics. As the night wore on I kept looking at the cars rumbling down Telegraph, the passengers inside oblivious to what had happened here just a few hours ago, and I saw their faces whizz past, my mind turned once again to Orwell’s 1984: “They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

Winston Alpha is a a young American who has been independently writing on many social justice issues. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Winston, or visit Winston's website.