Around 400 people gathered in downtown Oakland yesterday to protest police violence as part of a nationwide event, with demonstrations planned for more than 60 cities. Similar events were held across the country including in New York City, Atlanta, and Ferguson, Missouri, the site of recent protests following the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
The event, dubbed the “National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation,” was organized by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, based in New York City and formed in 2011 by Cornel West, the public intellectual and author of Race Matters, and Carl Dix, a spokesperson for the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. They believe that the police, the courts and the US legal system are racially biased, and that black and Latino men are unfairly singled out by police and imprisoned more frequently than white men.
The protestors gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza to hear speeches from student organizers who had organized walk-outs from their schools, then marched up Broadway before coming to a halt in front of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building. The protestors sang and chanted as they marched, while organizers led call-and-response chants played through a loudspeaker taped to the top of a wire trolley.
The protest focused on drawing public awareness to specific incidents of what the speakers characterized as racially-motivated police brutality. The death of Michael Brown and the subsequent riots and police reaction were referenced several times. The families of Richard “Pedie” Perez, shot last month by a police officer in Richmond, and Alan Blueford, who was shot in 2012 by Oakland police, also addressed the crowd and spoke of their frustration that the police officers responsible for the shootings had not faced criminal charges.
“What we hope for is a very vibrant and militant and defiant and determined outpouring,” said Joey Johnson, an organizer and activist with the network, on Tuesday in a phone interview. “There needs to be thousands of people in the streets of Oakland standing up against these new Jim Crow [laws] of mass incarceration and police terror,” he continued, referring to the racial segregation laws that codified the economic, educational and social oppression of African-Americans from the late 19th century to the 1960s.
Johnson also spoke about the wider effect of racism and imprisonment on black and Latino populations. “When you exclude people from the economy, you ban them from employment and housing, you remove them from higher education, you put felony stamps on their job applications,” he said, “it interferes with the ability of a people to thrive.”
Just before 1 pm, protestors began to assemble at Frank Ogawa Plaza, referred to by organizers as the Oscar Grant Plaza, following the tradition of Occupy Oakland. Music blared from a sound system, whistles were handed out to the crowd, and children drummed on upturned plastic buckets. Some protestors were wearing orange jumpsuits in imitation of the garments prisoners frequently wear while in transit. A dozen officers were visible on the periphery of the plaza, along with several unmarked police cars.
Tef Poe, a rapper from St. Louis, addressed the crowd about Ferguson and his part in the demonstrations there: Ferguson residents and protestors from all over Missouri—and some from other states—gathered to protest Brown’s death, leading to clashes with police and rioting. “This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement!” Poe said, and led the crowd in call and response chants, including “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down!”
Rev. Jacqueline Duhart, the minister at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, wore purple and yellow robes as she spoke to the crowd. She led a “Pledge of Resistance,” which described a litany of injustices that the crowd vowed to resist, including “mass incarceration,” “torture in the prisons” and “attacks on immigrants.”
Students from UC Berkeley had organized a walk-out from campus and arrived at the protest at 1.30 pm, where they were joined by students from other educational institutions such as Mills College and the Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy. One of the leaders of the walk-out was Yordanos Dejen, the black community representative to the Associated Students of the University of California Senate. Dejen was already hoarse from shouting and chanting on the journey from the Berkeley campus, but said that it is important that the black community there recognize that the issues being protested affected them as well. “I should not have to be fearful of OPD, nor should I fear that my brothers may die,” she said. Dejen’s brother was killed by police officers in San Jose, her hometown, she said. Around 75 students from Berkeley were present, according to Dejen’s estimate.
“I’m never going to see my son again,” said Richard Pedro Perez Jr, Pedie’s father, as he spoke to the crowd. “The police are getting away with it … They are trained professionals and they need to be held accountable.”
The protest set off up Broadway just after 2 pm as the police shut off traffic from cross streets. Chanting “Power to the people!” and “Can’t stop, won’t stop!” marchers described a slow loop around the downtown area, coming to a halt in front of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building. They were followed by police officers on bicycles, slowly keeping pace with the march, and multiple unmarked police vehicles as well as a small van with a loudspeaker on top which, police said, was for negotiators who were in charge of dealing with the organizers. “Our goal is to facilitate First Amendment rights for freedom of speech and marching,” Officer Johnna Watson, a spokesperson for the police department, said before the protest.
In front of the Dellums building on Clay Street, the protestors staged a “die-in,” lying down on the count of three and then standing up once again. This action was repeated several times over the course of the protest.
Once the march reached the block of 7th Street between Clay Street and Washington Street, a line of police officers formed in front of and behind the protestors. Organizers claimed they had a permit to continue marching, but as more and more officers arrived, and a police helicopter started to circle overhead, the police wouldn’t let anyone through the line.
Protestors accused the police of blocking their right to march, and chanted anti-police slogans through loudspeakers. At least two police officers videotaped the protestors, leading a protestor to shout “Don’t forget to turn off your camera when you brutalize someone!” The police officers, who had gas masks strapped to their thighs, showed no reaction, staring straight ahead into the crowd.
As protestors shouted at police and organizers attempted to argue their right to continue the march, Emani Dawanda, a 24-year-old filmmaker, said that she missed work to attend the protest. “They [the police] have too much power, they don’t need to be armed as much,” she said. However, she said she didn’t think the organizers, several of whom identified themselves to the crowd as revolutionaries calling for the overthrow of capitalism, represented her point of view. “The mothers of the people who have died represent me,” she said, referring to the family members of Perez and Blueford. “These people [the organizers] have a personal agenda, they’re trying to get their names out there.”
After roughly an hour on 7th Street, during which time the size of the crowd dwindled to around 100 protestors, organizers directed the crowd to walk in the other direction and head back towards the plaza. Several members of the crowd by this point were wearing the Guy Fawkes masks familiar to those used during the Occupy protests, or were otherwise disguising their faces.
By 5 pm, the protest was almost completely dispersed, with perhaps 15 people left in the plaza. Traffic was speeding down Broadway once more, but a handful of police officers still stood around the outskirts of the plaza. While the protest ended without any violent incidents, police later confirmed that two arrests had been made for vandalism.
Speaking the following day, Johnson said he felt the police reaction in preventing the march from progressing down 7th Street was “completely outrageous.” Still, he thought, as a whole, the demonstration “went tremendous.” The number of protests around the country is not yet confirmed, but his group has had reports of events in close to 80 cities, more than the 63 planned. “It’s not a local problem,” said Johnson of the disparities his group was protesting. “It’s very much a problem that is national.”