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Oakland protesters march on the Global Day of Resistance for Rojava

on November 4, 2019

People wrapped themselves in Kurdish flags, held peace signs in the air and chanted “We are Rojava!” during a march on Saturday that started in downtown Oakland, circled Lake Merritt, and briefly stopped traffic on both sides of the I-580 freeway. Kurdish songs blasted on mobile speakers and many of the about 150 demonstrators swayed and shuffled their feet to the music, maintaining the protest’s high energy with sporadic whistles, ululations, claps and smoke bombs that cloaked the march in vibrant red, green and yellow: the colors of the Kurdish flag.

The protest was Oakland’s contribution to the Global Day of Resistance for Rojava, an international call to action by Rise Up 4 Rojava, a loose network of activists who oppose Turkish incursions into northern Syria.

Since 2012, Rojava has been an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria. Speaking by phone before the event, protest organizer Deellan Khanaka said that at its peak the area was home to 2 million people. Rojava has been targeted by Turkish forces since the U.S. started withdrawing its troops from Syria in October.

The Kurds are a stateless ethnic minority who struggle for political rights in Kurdistan, an area that spans Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The Kurdish people have been allies of the U.S. for years in the fight against ISIS, coordinating military attacks and sharing information. The U.S. military presence in northern Syria, in turn, deterred Turkey from invading the area and quashing newfound Kurdish autonomy there. The Turkish government views Kurdish independence as a security threat.

But after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew 1,000 American troops from Syria in October, Turkish and Syrian militaries moved in, resulting in tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of people fleeing the area and allegations of war crimes. At the same time, Kurdish fighters helped U.S. forces kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“We are here to protest Turkish violence against the Kurdish people in northern Syria. It’s genocide and ethnic cleansing, so we have to stand up,” said protester Ajit Kara, who is from northern Kurdistan, which is part of Turkey.

For Kara, the incursion of the Turkish military into Kurdish Rojava is part of a longstanding dynamic between the two parties. “Turkey says if we don’t destroy Kurdish people in northern Syria, then they are going to ask for autonomy in Turkey, too,” Kara said.

Kara added that many ISIS fighters who have been held in Kurdish prison camps are escaping in the chaos.

Many other people in the crowd said that they came to protest for Rojava because they were drawn to the radical form of democracy people in the area practice.

Speaking by phone prior to Saturday’s protest, Andrej Grubačić, a speaker at the event who has travelled to Rojava, said that there is no dominant language, ethnicity or culture in Rojava. Society there is organized by a “bottom-up” system of councils that structure every aspect of life—even kindergartens. “Children go to children’s councils and have representatives in the teachers’ council. Isn’t that wonderful?” he asked with a warm, nostalgic chuckle.

Another fundamental belief, he said, is the idea that democracy can only occur alongside the liberation of women. For example, at the University of Rojava, Grubačić said, people study “Ginology,” which is the interpretation of history from the perspective of women.

During Saturday’s protest, many people said they found hope in Rojava’s progressive political structure. “I believe that the revolution in Rojava represents one of the most advanced forms of democracy in the world. We have to do everything in our power to defend it and to spread its message and say that a women-led directly democratic revolution is something that needs to happen, regardless of what world power wants to destroy it,” said protester Cameron Anarres.

Anarres clutched a large sign with a picture of a man in military attire holding up a peace sign. The caption read “Michael Israel.” Anarres said Israel was a Sacramento resident and member of local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the U.S., and the Industrial Workers of the World, a member-led labor union. Israel went to Syria to volunteer with the YPG, the People’s Protection Unit, a mostly Kurdish leftist militia, Annares said. In 2016, Israel was killed on the battlefield in Syria by a Turkish airstrike.

“He was there, took up the cause of the Kurdish freedom movement, the cause of the revolution in Rojava, and he fought ISIS. And ultimately Turkey killed him,” said Anarres.

Lydia Hirsch, who was visiting the Bay Area from Los Angeles, said the democratic principles of Rojava had attracted her to the protest, too. “I think it’s really cool how in the midst of a war they’ve created this society according to the principals of feminism,” Hirsch said.

The crowd went wild every time the emcee mentioned women’s liberation in Rojava. “We are here to protest the invasion onto sovereign land of northeast Syria, the destruction of the autonomous administration of northeast Syria, and the destruction of the Rojava revolution and what the project stands for: for democracy, for freedom, for women’s liberation!” exclaimed Khanaka, who then led the crowd in a chant of “Women, life, freedom!” in Kurdish and English. 

The protesters blocked both sides of the street as they made their way from downtown Oakland to Lake Merritt and onto the I-580 freeway. A masked person on a bike warded off cars as the group progressed. Other activists handed out flyers to the people enjoying their Saturday on Lake Merritt’s long stretches of green grass and bustling cafes.

Bystanders whipped out their phones to take photos. Some raised their hands above their head in fists, signaling solidarity with the Kurdish cause. Others yelled “Thank you!” A few drivers mouthed curses and shook their heads at the protesters, upset by the disruption of their commute.

As the protesters climbed the ramp onto the freeway, leaders ordered “Stay together!” and “Into the street!” Masked demonstrators jumped onto the freeway and ran towards cars barreling toward Hayward, with no police in sight. They released more smoke grenades and formed a line, bringing traffic to a full stop, before jumping the freeway divider and blocking traffic headed toward San Francisco, too.

After a few minutes California Highway Patrol officers in two cars zoomed onto the scene with their sirens blaring. Most protesters ran at a full sprint off of the freeway. The officers trailed the protest until everyone was off of the freeway, and then disappeared. No one was arrested.

The march progressed back toward downtown Oakland, ending at the plaza in front of the Federal Building. A few people expressed shock at the minimal presence of law enforcement officers. “I was afraid I hadn’t done my job!” one protester joked to another.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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