June 4, 2020

The March in Oaklanda flyover, firsthand account of rally and march

On Monday I joined a crowd estimated at 15,000 at a rally and march in Oakland. I have a lot to say about how the media, the police, and Oakland politicians responded to that event. Those thoughts are still fraught with too much emotion and, frankly, anger. But for now, I’d just like to put a few facts and impressions of the event down.

The rally assembled at Oakland Technical High school, near my home. My apartment has a deck facing the school, so I took in the music and speeches from there. I was unsure about joining the march, especially as the crowd grew and folks packed in tighter. But when the crowd got so large that I could no longer guess how large it was, I decided to grab my first aid kit, toss in a few water bottles, and follow.

The rally and march were organized by local young people. Several of the speakers at the high school were also young. Some were clearly learning and developing as public speakers, but all did well. I didn’t agree with everything said, but that’s crucial. If you go to a protest with 15,000 people, hear a half dozen speakers, and agree with everything you hear, likelier than not folks weren’t speaking freely.

The speakers and the crowd were, at times, palpably angry. There was no incitement to violence or damage. There was a lot of clearly vented rage about violence and damage done by police and a broader system of violence, named and articulated variously.

During the rally, I received an alert on my phone about the Alameda Country sheriff imposing a curfew. This made me very angry. But to their credit, the organizers, having checked in with mentors, decided to proceed with the march but also end at city hall, rather than the police station.

Facilitators repeatedly urged the crowd to keep social distance as possible. Water, masks, and even refreshments were provided throughout the lawn. The crowd blocked Broadway in both directions.

After the rally, the organizers led a march down Broadway. The crowd first cleared way for the flatbed truck they’d brought with sound equipment, then followed.

My first aid kit turned out to be totally unnecessary. Several street medics—I saw at least ten—both walked with the crowd and stood at intervals along Broadway, offering water, masks, sunscreen, and tear gas remedies. EMTs in marked vehicles also accompanied marchers at intervals. A few trucks and vans traveling alongside offered cold water, fruit, and rides to those needing assistance.

The mood, up and down Broadway, was overwhelmingly positive. There was chanting. There was drumming. There was music. There was dancing. There were signs and banners and decorated bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles. There were young people, old people, and children, of every description.

Several neighbors cheered the marchers from rooftops, windows, balconies, and side streets along the way. The most memorable for me were probably the crowd of healthcare workers in scrubs on the sidewalk next to Kaiser hospital. Lots of applause on both sides there.

At least during the march, folks were visibly trying to keep more distance than usual. It wasn’t perfect, as things have been on sidewalks and crosswalks before the protest. Especially toward the end of the march, as people tired. I don’t remember anyone without a mask. People were thinking about it.

Signs of broken windows and other damage from previous nights was there to be seen. The new Target in particular stood out. Many businesses, large and small, were boarded up. But the street was oddly clean, free of glass and debris. I’d read about the volunteers going out to clean downtown in the daytime, but hadn’t appreciated the scale of their work.

More speeches followed at city hall. And it was harder to keep distance in the relatively confined space of the plaza. I couldn’t make out all the words. A few that I did make out, about the curfew and what it meant, will stick with me for quite some time. The speaker and the crowd made clear they knew exactly what the curfew order meant: new license for the police to act even more preemptively. At least some attendees were encouraged to get home safe to their families, rather than face a notorious police department emboldened by the curfew.

When the program of speeches ended, the crowd began to split. A sizable group immediately turned down Broadway again, heading toward the police station. A few of those I’d seen dressed for a conflict went that way. So did one deranged looking man, dressed in a costume and a clown mask, egging people on to burn the police station down. The people I saw on the receiving end did their best to ignore him, until he left and joined the group heading south.

A larger number of people trickled back up Broadway the way they’d come, or otherwise went their own ways, in small groups.

I didn’t stay for the inevitable this time. I understand from reporting that the police deployed tear gas at 7:40, twenty minutes before curfew, and arrested many. I certainly heard when that began, even several blocks away.

Heading back up Broadway, I ran into a parade of cars honking and hollering and acknowledging marchers walking back. Turned out to be the tail end of a car protest, a long motorcade of people expressing support that way. There were also street medics in vehicles distributing information about informal ambulance services for any wounded protesters to come, and staging their vehicles.

At one point on the way home, things got a lot louder. People were yelling, from the street and the surrounding neighborhoods. The cars all started honking. It only occurred to me later that it happened at eight o’clock sharp. The start of the sheriff’s curfew.

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