Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




January 22, 2009

It is somewhat ironic, isn’t it, that it is the City of Oakland that is mostly being tested in these days following the shooting death of Oscar Grant, more so than the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, the BART Police Department, or the Alameda County Office of the District Attorney.

Oakland, after all, had nothing to do with Mr. Grant’s death, nor any responsibility for the administration of justice in the case, and is only in the center of the storm because of an accident of geography. Mr. Grant was shot to death by a BART police officer on New Years Day on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station, and the headquarters of both BART and the District Attorney’s office are both located in the city. Because of this, demonstrations protesting Mr. Grant’s death, as well as the accompanying vandalism, violence, and arrests, have all been centered in Oakland.

But there is nothing wrong with this type of periodic shakeup and testing in the life of a city. In fact, it’s a good thing. It’s one of the ways that we can measure ourselves, see who we actually are—under pressure—instead of what we imagine ourselves or would like ourselves to be, one of the ways we can see what our leaders, organizations, and citizens actually stand for. It can be a revealing time, if one pays close attention.

There have been some extraordinary moments to pay attention to.

On the Wednesday night of the second downtown Grant march and rally, in that tense time along Broadway between the end of the rally at Oakland City Hall and the first incidents of vandalism at 12th Street, I came across Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks standing in the middle of the street and grumbling—as only Ms. Brooks can grumble—that she was tired, she was cold, and that she wanted everybody to go home now that the march and rally were over so that she could, herself. Small crowds had gathered on all four corners of 14th and Broadway, and security from the protest march and rally were trying to keep them from a confrontation with Oakland Police. Ms. Brooks could have gone home. Downtown is not her district, and she has no direct responsibility there. But, fussing, she decided to stay.

About a half hour or so later, after a small group had run across the street from the east side of Broadway at 12th and broken out the windows at the AC Transit bus stop kiosk and the Wells Fargo building on the corner, I saw a muscular young (late 20’s to mid-30’s) African-American man walking up and down the street, working himself up towards his own personal confrontation with the police. He had attacked the door to the Wells Fargo building several times—unaccountably—with a book, and seemed angered and puzzled and frustrated that he could do no damage with it. He then walked north on Broadway towards CityCenter with a march protest sign stapled to a wooden stake in his hands, muttering to himself, louder and louder as he walked, about the police, and how it wasn’t right, and how he wasn’t going to take it any more. Desley Brooks saw him and stopped him somewhere around 13th Street, standing with him by herself for the longest, talking with him, absorbing his anger, and trying to calm him down, the Councilmember some 12 inches shorter than the man himself.

For a while, it looked like she was succeeding, but then the Oakland riot police—booted and helmeted—appeared on the opposite side of Broadway in response to the vandalism at 12th and began walking up the street to clear it. The man talking to Ms. Brooks may have seen them and shouted something at them, or the riot police may have noticed his agitation with the Councilmember, and decided to intervene. Whatever the case, a contingent about ten of them broke off from the main group and walked across the street towards Ms. Brooks and the man. Shouting now, the man turned and walked into the street to meet them. Ms. Brooks grabbed one of his arms to try to stop him and he lurched his arm away, so powerfully that he jerked her with him, spinning her and almost literally lifting her off the ground. The riot police rushed forward, batons raised, but Ms. Brooks—along with some members of the march and rally security—somehow got around between them, and for a moment it was all confusion. I don’t know what was said or done in the middle of that crowd, but it must have been awesome, because in a minute or so, Ms. Brooks emerged, dragging the man back up by his arm onto the sidewalk away from the riot police, and the riot police themselves stood for a moment and did not follow, some of them talking with the march and rally security team, finally turning and walking back across Broadway.

I saw Ms. Brooks standing and talking with the man for another fifteen minutes or so, off the street and down among the storefront shops at CityCenter.

Given the certainty that the riot police were ready to arrest the man and take him to the ground, if necessary, and given the man’s obvious determination to make that necessary and to resist arrest, this was an explosive confrontation averted, certainly the most potentially dangerous one I witnessed that night. A violent arrest in the middle of Broadway—and it is hard to see how this would not have turned out violent—in full view of television cameras and crowds of people, would have probably escalated the confrontations and violence and vandalism in Oakland far beyond that which we have already seen. There are a lot of people who would like to see that violence. Ms. Brooks—one of the fiercest critics of the Oakland Police Department on City Council and one of the two public officials to label the killing of Oscar Grant and execution—did not. But she was only one of many officials and citizens who worked in the days following Mr. Grant’s death to walk the line between protesting that death, demanding reform, and keeping Oakland safe and intact for all of its residents.

In a larger sense, props (much props? mad props? forgive the old man if he can’t always keep up with the newspeech) must be given to both the leaders and members of the Wednesday night Oscar Grant march and rally security and the Oakland Police Department for working together—with emphasis on the word together—to defuse the potentially volatile situation on Broadway that came after the end of the rally.
(I know I’m getting criticism in some circles for praising the police in these instances. One young man emailed to say I should get a job as a public relations person for the police department “if you haven't already instead of you doing all of this ‘free’ work for them. I’ll take the knocks, since I think I’ve done more than my share of criticizing the police in the past and will do so again in the future, as the situation warrants. I just believe that if you spend so much time asking—or demanding—that the police do the right thing, you ought to acknowledge it when they do.)

Anyways, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker, and representatives of the Committee Against Police Executions (CAPE, the organization that sponsored the back-to-back Wednesday Grant marches and rallies) said repeatedly between the January 7th and January 14th events that they were working to shore up security following the January 7th vandalism. Oakland police recognized that they were the flashpoint for crowds angered by the BART police shooting death of Oscar Grant, and so avoided confrontation on the night of the 14th as much as possible, in some instances withdrawing completely out of sight from the area after march security had secured the intersection at 14th and Broadway. For their part, the orange vest-clad march security—many of them slender, college-aged kids—put themselves at risk forming lines on the street corners and in the middle of the street, performing their tasks with intelligence and discipline and respect for the crowds out on the street. That some violence eventually ensued was not their fault. But the security actions on Broadway on the 14th showed that someone—both at City Hall, at OPD headquarters on 7th, and among the march organizers—is putting in some careful thought and hard work to continue the rights of citizens to protest the shooting death of Oscar Grant, while at the same time keeping the rest of Oakland’s citizens and its downtown area safe. Whoever they are, they deserve props. Wednesday night could have been very different—very much worse.

I wish I had the time to list all of the extraordinary acts I’ve observed in the last few days surrounding the Grant killing. One of them came during the first BART Board meeting following Mr. Grant’s death, when a group of high school students marched to the BART headquarters and were turned away at the door. A group of them, either led or inspired by a couple of aging members of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) who came out armed with a bullhorn, began chanting something to the effect that “the whole damn system is guilty.” Jumoke Hinton Hodge—newly-elected to the Oakland School Board and no stranger to struggle and advocacy herself—came up and began talking to some of the students, telling them that they needed to be more specific than just “the system,” urging them to continue their advocacy and struggle but giving some suggestions on who and what they might target. There followed one of those marvelous teaching moments that you sometimes see in the midst of struggle in which Hinton Hodge and the students talked strategy and tactics—sometimes heatedly, always passionately and seriously—outside the Kaiser Building. This apparently ticked off the RCP guys, who found themselves at the back of the line they fancied themselves leading, and so they began shouting—over the bullhorn—that Ms. Hinton Hodge was misleading the students, and what was needed—right then—was a real dialogue. A real dialogue was actually taking place. The RCP guys were trying to drown it out.

RCP has been one of the groups trying to mythologize the downtown vandalism, turning it into the beginning act in rebellion/Revolution while criticizing city officials and leaders of CAPE for trying to keep the marches and rallies peaceful. RCP is not by themselves in this. But I’ve run out of space, once more, so that has to be the subject of another column, at another time.

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