After a grand jury in Missouri voted last week not to indict the officer responsible for the death of Michael Brown, protesters took to the streets throughout the nation as well as in Oakland, which, according to Oakland police Chief Sean Whent, had the highest number of arrests for protest activity in the country. According to Whent, 170 people were arrested over the course of three nights for crimes relating to vandalism in the Temescal and downtown areas, as well as attempts to shut down local freeways.
Whent, speaking to a packed room at Tuesday evening’s Public Safety Committee meeting at Oakland City Hall, said about 48 percent of the people arrested claimed to be Oakland residents: However, he said, his department has found that some people did not provide real addresses.
Protests began on November 24, when the decision that the grand jury would not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was announced. Wilson, who has since resigned, shot and killed Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on August 9. Brown’s death sparked protests in Ferguson and around the world. In Oakland, 2,000 people gathered on the evening of November 24, marching through downtown Oakland and onto the 580 freeway, stopping traffic. Smaller crowds met on Tuesday and Wednesday, when vandalism and looting occurred in the Temescal area as well as in nearby Emeryville.
On Monday, Alameda County prosecutors charged three men with second-degree commercial burglary. According to a criminal complaint filed by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, Davontae Smith, 25, of Oakland, Shawn Dominique Gatison, 26, of Berkeley, and Tony Casey, 51, were charged with breaking into the Smart and Final grocery store on Broadway, one of the stores that was vandalized on November 24.
According to the District Attorney’s Office’s probable cause statements, Gatison was seen by an officer opening a locked front door at the Smart and Final. He was then seen leaving with store property, as was Smith, according to another statement. Casey, according to the statements, left the store with a garbage bag full of liquor. Officers reported that when he was approached, he dropped the garbage bag, breaking the liquor bottles, and then ran west on 9th Street before officers caught and arrested him. More alcohol bottles were allegedly found in his backpack.
The District Attorney’s Office may still file charges against other individuals later. “It’s going to take some time,” said Oakland police spokesperson Officer Johnna Watson, speaking by phone on Thursday. “Typically in past large-scale arrests, [preparing charging packets] is time consuming. It can often take anywhere from a week into a second week.” The police have designated a video team that is combing through video shot by officers to include in the charging packets.
“On Tuesday night, a man on the 4600 block of Telegraph Avenue [complained that] a group of protestors assaulted him,” said Watson. She said the department has received a number of other complaints from citizens for a variety of reasons, but did not have a fixed number.
Watson said that she was unable to discuss police tactics or strategies used during last week’s protests due to ongoing unrest. But she did say that “There are individuals who we want to focus on and remove from the crowd. They often use [the crowd] to hide in and will move around then break away to throw a bottle or break a window.” Watson said it is the goal of the police to enable peaceful protests and protect First Amendment rights.
Protests have continued for more than a week, including a demonstration at the West Oakland BART Station last Friday, and a separate one this Wednesday night in reaction to a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner. “Last night was a really good example” of a peaceful protest, Watson said, referring to the demonstration in support of Garner.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, an anti-Black Friday protest, which was combined with demonstrations against the Ferguson shooting and grand jury decision, made its way through the city on the night of November 26. San Francisco police spokeswoman Sgt. Monica Macdonald said there were 79 arrests, including six juveniles, stemming from the protests and ensuing vandalism. Four of those arrested were booked, Macdonald said, one on suspicion of possession of stolen property, two for outstanding warrants and a fourth for not having proper identification. The rest were cited and released.
The arrests came after the march started around 5 p.m. at the Embarcadero and went down Market Street. According to Macdonald, when the group attempted to interrupt the tree lighting ceremony at Union Square, police intervened, which led to a violent scuffle. Three officers were injured and buildings were vandalized.
The protest then continued into the Mission District. After police attempted to control the crowd around 9 p.m., more officers responded to reports of vandalism. Two officers were injured in separate instances. In one, a protester threw a glass tequila bottle at a police car, and in the other, a softball-sized rock hit the police car window. Both officers were cut; one required four stitches, Macdonald said. A majority of the arrests in were made in the Mission District after people started smashing storefronts of businesses and restaurants throughout the neighborhood. Macdonald said the violent aspect of the protest appeared to be connected to a group of people who joined the demonstration “intent on causing problems and destruction.”
Whent said Oakland had 350 officers involved in policing last week’s Oakland protests, and they received mutual aid from the Alameda County and Contra Costa County Sheriff’s offices, and the California Highway Patrol (CHP).
CHP spokesman Officer Daniel Hill said that CHP officers were active on November 24 through 26, and were on standby the next two nights as well. CHP involvement was limited to attempting to prevent protesters from entering the freeway. “Understandably, it’s a huge political statement to be able to stop a freeway,” Hill said. “But it’s no place for a pedestrian.”
Cars on I-580, a freeway that dissects Oakland and which protesters targeted, travel at 65 mph, he said. The initial moments of a pedestrian walking onto the freeway, Hill said, are “incredibly dangerous” for that pedestrian and for anyone around them, including drivers and passengers. The CHP’s first response to protesters entering onto the freeway was to use vehicle mounted officers to shut down traffic. “Our primary concern is to stop traffic for protester safety,” Hill said.
Although Hill could not estimate how many people got onto the freeway during the protests, he said it was “a fair amount.” On Monday, November 24, the CHP made four arrests: three of the four were for failure to obey a lawful order, and one was for unlawful assembly. The latter protester was then turned over to the OPD, but the other three were cited and released at the scene.
Oakland’s freeways are peculiarly accessible to protesters, said Hill, because there are many on- and off-ramps in the urban area. Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, where the protesters began to gather each night, is just seven blocks from the on-ramp to I-580, he pointed out.
After last week’s protests, a total of 23 businesses had broken windows and five were looted, Whent said at Tuesday’s public safety meeting. Four arrests were made for burglary, 10 for vandalism, and 10 to 12 arrests for battery of a police officer or for resisting arrest. “The biggest lesson I would say we learned last week, is that we have to move faster,” he said. “These groups move very, very quickly.”
Calls to the National Lawyer’s Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, two groups that have in the past offered legal representation to arrested Oakland protesters, were not returned by press time.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Arvizu (text) and Tom Goulding (videos).