Police As Agent Provocateurs: Oakland Cops Set Violent Tone at Grant Protest

By Steven Tavares

Over the course of two hours Thursday night a line of Oakland police clad in riot gear creeped towards the vast majority of people protesting the involuntary manslaughter verdict against BART cop Johannes Mehserle in the death of Oscar Grant as the sun began to fall on Downtown Oakland.

Around 6 p.m. Thursday, police emerged as far down Broadway as 11th Avenue and began assembling on adjacent streets on Franklin and Washington where very few people were actually milling about. From the time of the announcement of the verdict at 4 p.m. to six there was no incidence of problems. In fact, every instance of unrest later on was precipitated by sly provocation from the Oakland Police Department.

Just after 6 p.m., protesters took over the intersection of 14th Avenue and Broadway, placed a small platform in the middle of the street and place speakers around. Plans by protesters to voice their opinions on the Grant and the verdict were expected, but organizers may have acted earlier than planned as traffic on Broadway was blocked for about five minutes before police cordoned off the area on both sides. Cars with a desire to pass honked horns and haphazardly switched lanes searching for a way out. Two buses travelling north on Broadway were blocked though. One man with the group rose to the platform and yelled at protesters to let the bus pass. The actions of those blocking the bus were not violent, but possibly characterized as briefly defiant. As the buses began slowly moving in reverse, the speakers continued. Most called for calm, asked for the community to come together. A few lamented the struggle of the poor and minorities in regards to the shooting of Grant. Most of the estimated 1,000 on-lookers were trained on the speakers on the platform. What looked like a dune buggy labeled with the seal of the Oakland Police Department rolled upon the southwestern corner of 14th and Broadway. “Can I have your attention,” the speaker placed upon the small vehicle blared. As soon as the sentence was uttered, most of the people in attendance quickly snapped their heads towards the police vehicle. The announcement signaled a rush of protesters to move briskly towards the vehicle. Many yelled angrily at the officers in the dune buggy. The rest of the announcement was never heard since the vehicle moved in reserve, pivoted and revved away. At the same moment two squad cars had driven up between 13th and 14th Avenue possibly to escort the two buses away from the protesters. The cars also attracted a large group of protester to surround them. Protester similarly screamed at the officers inside and forced both to begin moving in reverse in a southerly direction. The scene of law enforcement in retreat delighted many of the protesters. But, because the cars had nearly a block and a half to travel in reverse, many more protesters began surrounding the cars. They banged on the windows and some put a foot to the body work. One squad car travelling no more than five miles per hour–not terribly fast for the circumstances–clipped the body a young deaf woman with the back driver’s side corner. The woman fell to the ground while the car slowly begin to roll over her legs. The squad car stopped. Onlookers pulled the woman a foot away. The squad car again rolled in reverse moving south on Broadway. Predictably, the image of the woman slightly curled and motionless led some to begin kicking the cars more passionately. One young man threw his skateboard at one of the cars as they swung right and pointed their cars to again move forward.

Once gone from the scene, the protest returned to a peaceful, sometimes thought-provoking discussion of just how downtrodden and debilitated the African-American and impoverished community of Oakland currently stands. A jazz marching band calling themselves the Brass Liberation Orchestra (they were quite good) traveled towards the newly amassed line of police officers with one tune eerily emphasizing a booming, bassy and rhythmic war drum. Protesters followed and sometimes encircled the band that featured a white-bearded man playing a mean flute in a green dress and a older woman in long, raggy dreads who raised her laced fingers towards the sky with sensual movements. Intermittently she did this between the solos of the other musicians. Two teenagers jumped on newspaper stands in front of the police line and began dancing, but the earlier move by the police revealed a plan seen throughout Thursday night aiming to provoke and proceed to crack down on the expected response.

For the next two hours, the police line on Broadway slowly moved north on Broadway with every block it added members of the lines blocking side streets, by the time the sun began setting, the line had grown three deep. Behind the armored cops emerged five columns of police cars and vans. Included at each intersection was one police officer manned with either a video camera or a simple point-and-shoot digital camera. The irony of law enforcement recording any possible incident was obvious to many when I showed them a picture I had snapped earlier of one cop. It is universally believed by members of the African American community Mehserle would have never even been charged if not for the plethora of camera phones that captured the shooting of Grant New Year’s Day 2009.

Many I talked to you on the street sensed the Oakland Police, beset by possible layoffs, was attempting to prove its worth Thursday. As the police line inched toward 14th Avenue, many told me much of their presence was overdone while pointing overhead to the existence of police snipers stationed on the high-rises ringing the area surrounding the protesters. Every so often, a black helmet would peek out from atop the buildings. Three helicopters from the highway patrol also hovered stationary high above Broadway for hours. One man joked the police had taken control of the street, the sky and said he wouldn’t be surprised if cops in amphibious gear arose from the sewer.

The vast majority of the plan to control the protest appeared to focus on the areas below 14th Avenue and Broadway. For instance, I walked one block north to appraise the situation. Whereas, I counted nearly 200 officers in battle gear on 12th Avenue, there were only 25 haphazardly dispersed on 15th and characterized by huge gaps. All of the instances of broken windows and theft occurred in this far less fortified area. Many also say they believe police were aware vandalism was about to occur and let it happen before taking action.

Meanwhile, as the yellow hue of the streetlights became more prominent, there was a palpable sense of an inevitable confrontation. It appears the police were attempting box-in the remaining protesters. The platform where people had previously voiced their displeasure with the verdict was gone shortly after 8:15 p.m. Over the course of the early evening the throng grew up to 2,000, but had dissipated quickly as the police presence, pounding their batons to hand, grew larger and larger as they moved in.

Despite this, the demeanor of protesters was really no different in tone as any other time of the evening. As the main police line nearly reached 14th Avenue it abruptly stopped. About 15 feet away two African American men, one in his forties with a huge mop of graying dreads was sitting, legs crossed, in the middle of the street–the classic pose of a non-violent protester, right? Instead, the two men were engaged in a chess match. In addition, there were accompanied by a short line of people waiting for their chance to play. The man later told me he was losing the match when the police approached. “He had me up against the wall,” he said. Later it would become clear, the statement was a perfect allusion to what was to occur.

As the police line abruptly stopped just before 14th Avenue, I saw Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan behind the line chatting with an officer. A few minutes later she emerged with fellow Councilwoman Jean Quan, arms linked with other protesters in front of the police line. Kaplan was quite giggly and gave the mismatched perception she was both protecting the police from protester at the same time symbolically blocking their path forward. One protester who stood linked with the group later told me he did not appreciate some of Kaplan’s comments. On three occasions, I heard Kaplan quip, “I think the only people left are lawyers and polticians,” she said with a laugh. Next the same dune buggy from earlier rolled up behind the line and began making an announcement. The vehicle, positioned on the eastern side of Broadway could not be heard even from as close as 20 feet away. I saw Quan from in front of the police line squint as if to have difficulty hearing the message. A minute later, Quan broke from the line, grabbed her cellphone and said, “I need to speak to Dellums. Can he moved the line back 10 feet?” This may be a clue to who was in charge Thursday night. As she waited on the line, she said to nobody specifically, “We’re not going to leave until everyone is home safe.”

At this point, over 400 armed police officers had hemmed in protesters on half of the intersection on 14th and Broadway. I moved from Kaplan and Quan west towards on 14th. Just minutes after leaving the two politicians running to be the next mayor Oakland, the police line began breaking off into small hard-charging groups of between 3-5 officers. There was no provocation at this time with most of the remaining protesters beginning to drift away from the two heavily-fortified lines. What occurred next appeared to be an arbitrary assault on whomever was in the path of officers. This fact is bolstered by the odd collection of arrested protesters rounded up. Despite, the local media’s peculiar angle which appears to blindly trumpet the party line of the police department (i.e. the blatantly ridiculous statistic that 75 percent of those arrested were from outside of Oakland meme) nearly all of those arrested were charged with failure to disperse and to illustrate the randomness of the pickup, in contrast to protests over the Grant case last year when most of the arrested were black, this group was a very diverse mix of race, age and social class. While many were from Oakland many were also from Berkeley, Richmond and San Leandro, which can hardly be characterized as outside of the community. By Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts’ rationale, only those living in Gulf Coast states should worry about oil from BP mucking up their shorelines.

Many I talked to say they were told to disperse by law enforcement yet there was nowhere to disperse to. One young man told me he was pulled out of a group of people walking on the sidewalk away from the protest near 17th and Broadway and slammed to the ground by cops. Police also nabbed a prominent Oakland civil rights attorney there to observe the protest just as he was entering his office on Broadway. Another man was arrested while carrying a bag of grocery just purchased at a nearby store. Even my barista from Starbucks was reeled in!

In the fray, police clubbed two elderly protesters, a woman who described herself as a teacher and the likely winner of the ultimately postponed chess match. Earlier, I saw police in the line continually push the older woman up Broadway, but once police were ordered to attack, one young man told me police began wailing on the woman with a baton. I later saw here taken to an ambulance. The other man, tall, thin and sinewy told me the cops dragged him on the ground towards a curb on 14th Avenue and pushed his face against a sewer grate. He later said, “Man, I never thought I would ever get arrested playing chess!”

Many may have seen video and pictures of me getting arrested Thursday night and some have asked why, of all people, were you the one featured on all the news channels? There good reason for that. I was situated with all the other journalists, photographers and the television cameras. Minutes beforehand, I was standing next to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Phil Matier. I suppose it was either me or Phil getting tackled and since he apparently does his reporting without a notepad, it was a better image to have my mine along with my trusty voice recorder fly in the air while I went down. Besides, the guys in the holding tank would not have enjoyed Matier. He talks to himself.

Nearly every person on Broadway Thursday night arrived with the belief something in their community has gone terribly wrong. The killing of an unarmed black man in the back was not accident, according to all in the crowd. I headed to downtown Oakland Thursday afternoon looking for the “why” far more than the “who, what, when and how.” I had a strong feeling the media would label this group “rioters” in the same way they use the word “terrorist” in regards to Middle Eastern men responding to threat. What is the “why” I kept asking myself Thursday. Does it matter that the meme of “outside agitators” was conveniently building in the local media and passed from the mouth of police department? Sure, because this was not the story of what actually occurred, but it was the narrative law enforcement craved and received. Those very few who broke windows and briefly looted stores even had a serious gripe. To portray such people as there merely to make trouble is highly suspicious and insulting. I too arrived with the belief I needed to stand up for what I believe in, although mine is slightly different. I was in Oakland Thursday night to get the story unfortunately not reported by the news media and not polished with a bent of law and order and I think I got that story. The articles delivered on your front porch tell the tale of the protest from view of those in power–law enforcement and business. Mine, though, tells it from the perspective of everyone else.

As they took me away, I told one of the officers I was there as a reporter and told him to look at my identification in my front shirt pocket. “I’m a journalist,” I said to which he replied, “not tonight you are.”

Blogger Zennie Abraham on Quan and Kaplan in front of police line.
First person from Pamela Drake on the older woman clubbed by cops.