Oakland May 29, 2020
There’s a lot that I don’t know about Friday night. As I understand it, riots are not often understood well but this one for me was particularly chaotic and disorienting. I’ve been to marches and protests aplenty but none quite like this. I want to provide as much context as I can to give you an idea of my experience but I want to reiterate that what I am producing here is not journalism and is more akin to a diary entry or personal account. Understand that I am conveying personal truth as best as I know it and nothing more. Where context is required I have added text in quote blocks.
When I saw this flier linked from a local subreddit, it didn’t take me long to guess that this wasn’t an earnest invitation to protest and demonstrate. For one thing, not even violent protesters use words like “vengeance” and risk muddying a righteous cause. I had read some speculation about who created the flier and what their intentions were.
Local activist organizations disavowed the event and encouraged people to skip it in favor of peaceful events during the day on Saturday and Sunday. But I knew that people would show up nonetheless. The Chronicle reported on it and there were scattered parades in the street all afternoon. Support it or not, there was going to be some shit going down and in solidarity, I filled my Community Emergency Response Team backpack with a first aid kit, flashlight, bottles of water, a hard hat, and good shatter-proof eye protection. I figured I’d support the protesters and make sure that OPD and the City of Oakland knew that there were consequences for police violence and that even a fairly progressive police department like OPD was not doing enough to call out their colleagues elsewhere.
The Police Unions of the Bay Area are progressive by national standards and they released an important statement condemning the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The reason we say All Cops are Bastards is because “even a few bad apples” are being defended, or worse, protected by their colleagues in an entrenched Us vs Them mentality that is well documented by recent OPD scandals where officers were actively covering up the crimes of their coworkers.
I rode my bicycle downtown to meet two of my friends and a third friend of theirs. We met up at the Walgreens across from the square where the protest was going to begin. I was introduced to their Third and we awkwardly bumped elbows in greeting. My friends had a box of granola bars to hand out. We all had masks and did our best to keep some distance.
I locked up my bike and the four of us crossed the street to Frank Ogawa Plaza (AKA Oscar Grant Plaza) in front of city hall. There was a huge crowd. As we stood around it was hard to hear the bullhorn but we chanted through a few rounds of the classics. “No justice- no peace- no racist- police” and “all cops are bastards.” There were a few more “Fuck the Po-lice” chants than usual and the outfits were of a darker color palette than I usually associate with mass demonstrations. There were fewer instruments, less commotion and less energy like at the Women’ March in 2016. There was a confusing mix of emotions and I had trouble reading the crowd. Several volunteers were passing out plastic face shields and rubber gloves and, while I certainly never got 6 feet of social distance, I got much more space than I would have at any other demonstration. I got a robo text from the Oakland Police Department: Police activity in 1400 Broadway. Thanks for the head’s up, I thought.
I was eager to get walking. The crowd marched down Broadway onto 7th and passed through Chinatown where I heard that some protesters had managed to get onto the freeway. This seemed like a good idea. At some point, I lost track of my two friends who, as a couple, were sticking together. The Third and I walked to the 880 on-ramp at Oak St. Police officers were already chasing protesters off the road. A small brush fire was ignited and extinguished quickly. There was a cloud of smoke and what I think was also tear gas. In the absence of my two friends, the Third and I shrugged and figured there wasn’t much more to do. The evening seemed quiet. A woman and her toddler in a stroller went by. I still needed to get my bicycle which was left downtown so the Third and I followed the crowd as it looped back towards the Plaza, up on Jackson and then West on 12th St. Along the way, we passed the Post Office. All of the USPS trucks were tagged. I blocked an intersection to auto traffic to keep the crosswalk safe for pedestrians. At some point I saw a car enter the intersection with its headlights out. I gestured to the driver and suggested he turn his lights on. He told me to fuck myself and fuck the cops. About 100 feet later I saw him turn his lights on. I was watching folks deface property while I blocked an intersection and here I was acting like a boy scout. I had to laugh.
My new friend the Third had to go home so I approached Broadway alone. I could feel my eyes water from diffuse tear gas. I could hear the police announce that the gathering was unlawful and that we were ordered to disperse. Some white men were lighting quarter sticks off a bus stop structure. The loud booms were hard to distinguish from tear gas canisters. They made me jumpy.
I unlocked my bike from the railing outside the Walgreens. The crowd wasn’t moving and there were many people in the street so I walked my bike around and tried to stay vigilant. There was no line of police of officers, no standoff and no immediate conflict that could use my help. Most people on the street were wandering aimlessly or chatting. For every person tagging there were ten live streaming a feed on Snapchat. There was a faint whiff of tear gas but it was a fairly calm scene. I watched a teenager or young man surreptitiously pull the plywood sheathing off the Walgreens window to gauge the reaction of the crowd. Insufficiently deterred, he and others pulled the other boards off and about a dozen people broke through the windows and a couple people could soon be seen inside the store on top of the shelves.
The large concrete planters that were installed as traffic calming devices last summer were tipped or moved into the street. A dumpster was moved, a stack of plywood from the windows sat in a heap. I saw a white guy with a big box of cigarettes dump the cartons on the ground and announce that they were free, presumably after having looted them. I saw a young man with khaki pants, a belt and a tucked in red Aloha shirt standing alone on the sidewalk near the 12th Street Bart stop. Was I being paranoid or was this a white nationalist? I don’t know why I didn’t get a picture of the guy- I just thought he looked strange as hell in a sea of black sweatshirts.
Internet agitators on 4Chan have been chatting feverishly in favor of a “Boogaloo” or second American Civil War for years now and they code their intentions with ambiguous symbols. Boogaloo sounds like “Big Igloo” and “Big Luau” and now igloos and Aloha shirts are the mainstreamed in-jokes that are so irony-steeped that users have plausible deniability as to what they actually mean and represent, not vastly different from when alt-right activists used the “AOK” hand signal to both make fun of people who think that an innocuous gesture was racist and also identify other people who dislike anti-racist people (ie racists) and thus made the symbol meta- racist in itself. It’s hard to tell what a memelord actually believes and that has been the point since 2015. This is a good breakdown of right wing internet culture in 2020.
I support riots of angry people who want to be taken seriously after their peaceful protests don’t work. I don’t condemn anger. But I am also deeply skeptical of many of the acts of vandalism and destruction. Oakland has a long history of violent protest that is often driven by folks from out of town who want to stir shit up. Many are white anarcho-punks. Some are straight up white nationalists. Is rioting by Black people ok but not by white people? Is the justification important? Must I stare into the soul of every teenager throwing bricks before passing judgment to ensure they’re righteous and not just a shithead? I’m still trying to decipher my emotions on this.
I watched a group of people break the windows of the Chase Bank and light a small fire. The emergency sprinklers turned on. I can’t imagine there’s much to loot inside of a bank and it was abandoned pretty quickly. I felt very self conscious taking this photo after the fact- there were many people taking pictures from phones and even some very elaborate looking cameras with attached microphones. I didn’t see any members of the press but people were documenting a great deal on their own. I was running out of reasons to stick around. I couldn’t stop things. I wasn’t sure if there was anything happening that I wanted to stop. This part of town was mostly corporate offices and I wasn’t too worried about what was being broken. A kid with a scooter spent a couple minutes breaking the door down to Citi Bank while a Black man in his thirties or forties and I struck up a conversation. We both felt strange. He seemed sad.
I didn’t know what I was doing there any more. I wasn’t going to join in the riot and there wasn’t any need for first aid. There was no standoff that needed my body to shield others. I’m not sure I got within 100 yards of a cop the whole night. I had my suspicions that many of the rioters were agitators but I couldn’t be sure and I wasn’t going to make any interventions without friends or back up.
Meanwhile the fireworks being set off were very close and I was feeling out of my depth. I decided to call it a night so I walked my bike past Chase and crossed Broadway to head home. The fireworks charges were very large and very close so I walked my bike quickly through the crowd. As I threw my leg over the frame and kicked off, the tin used to launch the fireworks straight up into the air fell over and two charges skittered across the pavement past me, exploding in front of me and two my right. I rode through the sparks and managed to dodge the blast. It felt like a close call and I was grateful to be on my way towards safety. Those safety glasses suddenly felt less dorky. I got home and texted a few friends to check in at 10:32. Once inside, I took off all my clothes and did my best to decontaminate everything. I checked my photos and discovered that Snapchat Map functions were a great way to see where the most activity was. I had been at the downtown cluster but I only then realized that there was a second aggregation uptown that I was completely ignorant of at the time. In some ways I was prepared, in others I was truly clueless. I don’t know if I helped. I don’t know if George Floyd’s memory or cause was served. I went to sleep.