I’d been hoping that it would be the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center from the beginning. This is a beautiful, historic building on the lake’s south shore, whose only reason for vacancy is former mayor Jerry Brown’s unsuccessful attempt to sell it. Occupy Oakland’s taking Henry J. Kaiser would have changed the landscape of the city, and would have highlighted the so poorly concealed rift between the needs of the city, and the ability of the city to meet them. That in itself would have been a worthy statement. If only it had worked out that way.
This was the first action with Occupy Oakland that I spent a lot of time and effort on. I was on the Outreach and Messaging subcommittees, which meant I spent a lot of time arguing, and dealing with language and political vocabulary. It often seems like everything in OO is an argument or a battle, but this action was especially contentious. It highlighted splits between those who advocated a pure form of “non-violence”, and those who held the line for a “diversity of tactics.” Meanwhile, tensions between OO and the police continued to intensify, as those Occupiers holding the 24 hour vigil at the plaza were systematically targeted and repressed, and each Saturday up to 100 protesters held “Fuck the Police” marches in response. The manic energy, anger and passion within OO always seems on the brink of spinning itself apart. And yet, at least so far, somehow the protest keeps on, and people keep showing up. Though, in recent months, in sadly dwindling numbers.
After about a month of planning, flyering, press conferences, and controversial press releases (threatening retaliatory action against the city, a stance many OOers disagreed with), the big day came. At noon on January 28th, the crowd was small, but by 1:30, the North side of the plaza was packed. When we took to the street, we blocked all four lanes and the sidewalks for at least three blocks. The sound truck played punk and hip-hop alternately. We snaked through downtown, and from what I could see, we were peaceful. There was music, and an upbeat atmosphere, a feeling of power and elation. It felt like it had on November 2nd, the final march of the general strike, when we had numbers and support and good will. We didn’t even seem to stop that much traffic — but this was partly because we were flanked and trailed by a handful of motorcycle cops, who kept their distance, and helped motorists to do the same. I didn’t see any greater police presence downtown, not until we were within blocks of the Convention Center.
But there they were, at 10th and Oak Streets, waiting in front of the museum, as if they had been there the whole time. Instead of charging them, we circled around and cut through the Laney College campus. But when we tried to go up onto 10th, the police lines had arrived ahead of us. At one passageway by the Laney tennis courts, a few of the shield-bearing protesters, approached the police line, up to within striking distance. But neither side struck, and after a few minutes the protesters pulled back (in an extra touch of surrealism, the tennis players kept on playing the whole time, and didn’t even stop to watch). We decided to go around, and cut through a short bit of construction onto the passage connecting the lake’s shores.
This is where the first tear gas was thrown, while we faced off with the police across the construction zone, after one Sergeant Batista declared our march an “unlawful assembly.” This was the only time I heard unlawful assembly declared, though the police made no arrests here. The passageway connects to 14th and 12th streets, and the police had also charged down from 12th Street, and there was a fracas there, which I could barely see. We took flight onto 14th Street.
When we turned down Oak, back towards the convention center, the police were there again, and when the front line of protesters approached, they fired more tear gas, at 10th and Oak, between the Oakland Museum and a block of apartment buildings. The wind was against them, though, and most of the gas didn’t reach the protesters. We retreated down 12th, and with some confusion and frustration, decided to go back to Oscar Grant Plaza to re-assemble and decide on our next step.
There was a sense of elation, at the sheer numbers and positive energy in the crowd, but there was also frustration, and anger. I for one was disappointed. I was surprised that the police had stood up to us. I’d expected that they wouldn’t stand up to the whole march, that they’d let us take the building for the weekend at least. It seemed a break from their usual, effective formula: wait until the numbers dwindle and the more mainstream citizens go home, and then swoop in and evict under cover of early morning dark. With all these people now idling at the Plaza, it was clear that the day was far from over. The planners had assured us that, should the primary target prove unattainable, there were contingency buildings in mind. Surely we would march on these. At about 6:00 that evening, we set off again, to do just that.
There was something different about this march from the beginning. Something more aimless and emotional. We started down Telegraph Avenue, and then took a right at 16th Street. The natural assumption was that we were marching on the Travelers Aid building, which had been briefly, and unsuccessfully, occupied the night of the general strike. But we passed by. There was a small crew of workers inside, putting up boards, though whether it was because of them that we didn’t enter, or because the Travelers Aid building wasn’t the intended target at all, I don’t know. We turned onto San Pablo Avenue, and began marching West, drawing further from downtown. We turned again at Grand, entering into the Uptown condo developments. I was getting tired. I was wondering what we were doing. But I stuck with it. I don’t know why. I didn’t want the day to be over, I suppose it was simple as that.
But there, among the tall apartment buildings of the Uptown development, the cops came back. Down 21st Street in a riot line. We turned right on Williams towards the park on Telegraph and 19th, the development’s central square. This seemed a good idea. There were a lot of exit points, and there was a field. I hadn’t expected the field to be fenced off. It hadn’t been fenced off a few days ago. But it was now. I won’t speculate. And as we entered into the square just south of the field, we saw another line of police, coming up 19th Street from the West, and then another, coming from the East. That made three lines of police. When a few protesters tried to take down the fence surrounding the field, the police rushed them, knocked some of them down, and the rest of them back. We backed onto the square, something of a combination playground and meeting space, with swings, benches, and a large chunk of statue and abstract art. Now we were trapped. We milled around. We were no longer a march, we were a crowd. I started towards one of the perimeters, which approached a line of police on 21st Street. I got near the front. My general strategy throughout the day was to approach near to the line, but not too near, and to stay to the side. My camera had run out of batteries earlier that day, but I wanted to see what was going on, even if I didn’t want to be on the front line myself. I wanted to contribute my calm and my level head, and I wanted to see who hit first. Earlier I’d seen protesters throw bottles and rocks, but I’d seen the police fire rubber bullets and tear gas first. And I’d seen people bulled under by charging lines of masked police, taken down like deers on a train track. The power differential is awesome and terrifying. Even with our numbers, we didn’t stand a chance.
The tear gas went off again, and this surprised me also. I’d was speaking with a woman who said she was an independent journalist, and she told me that, now that they had us trapped, most likely they would start to let us go little by little until the crowd had dispersed and the threat was somewhat neutralized. But, mid-conversation, the tear gas went off, and she disappeared with what seemed the learned self-preservation of a journalist. People started running. Some of us, myself included, started yelling: “don’t run! Don’t run!” But the panic was thick. We were trapped and we were under assault, and we could smell tear gas, and it’s cloying and painful and it sticks in your throat even at a long distance. I hope that everyone in the apartments around us had their windows closed. Those who I’d seen standing on their stairs, watching us, had disappeared.
Some protesters charged the fenced off field again, and, miraculously, this time the police didn’t stop them, and the fence went down. We ran across the field, cheering, and attacked the fence on the other side, forming a thicker line this time, grabbing the poles and rocking forward and backward with all our weight. The fence came down, and we were on Telegraph, and there were no police around us. We’d gotten out. But now we were angry. Now we were shook up. What had just happened? What had they just tried to do? This was the first time I’d heard the term “kettle”. Had they really just tried to trap over 400 people? There was something terrifying in the thought. The police had become an adversary, not merely an impediment. They were out to get us. And indeed, as the march continued now, aimlessly down Telegraph, a line of OPD stalked behind us. Who had trained them to do this? When had their bosses determined that such training was necessary? They were better equipped and they were more skilled. They had ever advantage in experience and no how and intent. But, then again, after this night, a lot of us protesters know a little more about what to expect too.
The march had changed again. Now it was anger and fear alone. Some of the masked marchers were picking up chunks of concrete. One of the marchers said into his megaphone: “Okay, now this is a fuck the police march.” The rhetoric I heard all around me was no longer about the building, or about the 99%, or about fairness or equality or the corruption of the system. It was about the police. Fuck the police. That’s what we said now. I said it too. I was into it too. But I wasn’t. What the hell had just happened to us? Had that really happened? I couldn’t just leave now. I knew that much. Though I also hadn’t thought too hard about what I was getting into by staying.
Because, inevitably, only a few blocks later, this time on Broadway, between 24th and 23rd, a block dominated by the YMCA on one side, and an unbroken line of vacant business space on the other, we saw the police again, coming down Broadway towards us. When we turned around, the line that had been following us was still there. White vans were pulling up behind them, and more police were getting out and joining their fellows. A line of plastic facemasks and batons and rifles, some of them pointed at us. Some protesters started scrambling over a fence. The police charged, and the rest of us retreated. According to stories I heard later, those guys got away. Another group had taken the steps on the YMCA, and were pressed up to the glass doors. I’ve learned later, from first hand account and from videos such as the one above, that the employees inside opened the door and let in about 70 people, many of whom escaped out the back. At the time, I thought the protesters had forced the door, and this had been the last straw. It turns out this was giving the police too much credit. But, whatever the specifics, as soon as that door was open, the police charged again and slammed into the crowd like a fist hitting water, and the crowd broke apart and fell down the steps onto the sidewalk. From the other side, the two riot lines had met and were now forming a semi-circle, pressing us up onto the sidewalk against the YMCA, a thick and dense crowd. There were screams. A girl next to me was crying, saying that she’d been punched in the face, and she had the broken glasses to prove it. Some people were asking the police to let them go, were practically begging. The officers gave little response. It was at this point that I heard a policeman on a megaphone tell us that we were all under arrest.