The beat of reggae drums pounded out of speakers stacked at the amphitheater of Frank Ogawa Plaza at 1:30 pm on Wednesday, as hundreds of protesters waved their arms to the rhythm of the music. Forty feet away from the celebration, Oakland members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 sat next to their stand, where they invited people to sign a petition to join the union and the Occupy Oakland protests.
“We are here to support our heroes, the occupiers” said Dwight McElroy, the union chapter’s president. “They have endured police brutality, violence, to represent us, the workers.”
McElroy says he didn’t join the Occupy Oakland strike just to support the protesters; he was also there because he has been a victim of what he calls the “downfall of the economy.” He said he has filed for brankrupcy, his wife has been laid off after working in the same office for 15 years, and yesterday he had to ask his 16-year old daughter for twenty bucks to pay for gas. “Look at my teeth,” he said, showing an incomplete smile, with only the front upper and lower teeth remaining. “I don’t have money to fix my teeth, and it’s a problem, because I talk a lot,” he said, then burst into laughter.
His laughter was interrupted by one of his colleagues, who ran frantically toward the SEIU stand. “We need your help,” he said. “People are breaking windows at the Wells Fargo Bank on Webster. Some of them are wearing our uniforms. Things might get nasty.”
McElroy stood up and told the news to a group of four other SEIU members, who walked to the bank, which turned to be out near the intersection of Franklin and Thomas L. Berkeley. There they didn’t find any fellow workers or broken windows, but there were six protesters blocking the entrance of the bank. They had put yellow “caution” tape across the bank’s opaque glass doors.
On the other side of the door, the security guard made a sign to let the protesters know that people were coming out of the bank, which was about to close down because of the protest. The bank employees exited the nearly-empty building one by one. “Have a beautiful day! You are the 99 percent,” protester Mark Phillips said to each employee as they left.
Phillips, who described himself as an unemployed painter from Hayward, stood out from the rest of the protesters around him, who were wearing black sweatshirts and covering their faces with sunglasses and bandanas. Phillips was wearing a chalk-striped suit, a red t-shirt and purple sunglasses. But it wasn’t a coincidence that he was blocking the entrance of a Wells Fargo. “These guys are trying to take away my home,” he said.
Phillips said he received a letter a week ago, the last warning from the bank to pay his debt before it would foreclose on his house. “There are no negotiations,” he said. “I only have one chance.”
But Phillips’ personal history with Wells Fargo was not the reason he joined the Occupy Oakland protest. He said he traveled to Oakland when after seeing videos and photos of police throwing tear gas at protesters last Tuesday. “The violence got me here,” he said. “I’m glad that the police now understand that they are part of the 99 percent. We are not the bad guys, we are just people.”
As Phillips spoke, one of the bank employees pasted a letter on the opaque glass door from the inside: “The location is temporarily closed. We apologize for any inconvenience that it may cause.”
“Success!” Phillips yelled, followed by a chorus of “Yeahs!” from the crowd.
Wells Fargo is only one of the dozens of banks in the area near Lake Merrit. A Chase bank a few steps from the Wells Fargo building also closed early. The bank’s ATM machine had been blocked by six strips of tape pasted across its structure.
Next to the ATM, a person desguised as Darth Vader held a sign that read: “I’m the one percent, I want you to come to the Dark Side.”
“This is my bank,” Darth Vader said, dramatically waving his hands above his head. “What did they do to my bank?”
The Star Wars villain eventually took off his mask and revealed his true identity as Jeff Harris, a 33-year-old teacher from downtown Oakland.
“What better character to represent the one percent than Darth Vader?” Harris said, now wearing his mask pushed up high on the top of his head. “It’s a way to keep the humor in this movement, to laugh a little. Also, Halloween was two days ago. I wanted to wear it again.”
Harris says he didn’t join the protests because of a personal horrorific experience with banks or layoffs. “I’m here to join the masses,” he said simply.
Harris walked away from the Chase building, heading back to Frank Ogawa Plaza to meet with his friends, who like, him have been protesting for Occupy Oakland since October 15. “We have made a city in two weeks, we organized a strike in one week,” he said. “That’s the only goal of Occupy—bringing people together.”
Around the corner from the Wells Fargo on Webster Street, thousands of people marched towards Lake Merritt. Those at the front of the march were holding a sign that read in big red letters: “TAX THE RICH.”
“Our streets, our streets, our streets!” they chanted in unison.
Around 2:20, as the crowd approached the corner near the Chase bank at Webster and 19th Street, three protesters—all wearing black outfits and bandanas across their faces—broke through the march and quickly ran towards the bank building.
With a quick stroke, one of them smashed a wall-sized Chase building window with a thick wooden pole. The sound of the breaking glass interrupted the chants, which turned into a mixture of applause and booing.
“That’s not good,” one of the marchers said as he passed by the broken windows, a few minutes after the bandana-wearing protesters had left the scene.
Shortly afterward, around 3:00 pm, a similar scene repeated itself the Bank of America building at the Kaiser Center on Harrison Street. As protesters marched by chanting “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop,” a few of the protesters broke out of the crowd and began to smash a row of windows. This time three people smashed the first windows and others continued breaking them as they walked by. One of them wrote “This is war” with black spray paint on a concrete wall and then disappeared before the security guards arrived.
“Peaceful protest, peaceful protest, peaceful protest!” the marchers chanted as they stepped onto the particles of glass scattered on the ground.
“That was so uncalled for,” one demonstrator said.
“No way, fuck them, it’s a bank,” another responded.
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.