Boots on the ground at the protests in Oakland, CA.

08 December 2014

Disclaimer: I will attempt to be as unemotional and dispassionate as I can. I will undoubtedly fail for many reasons but I think I need to make the attempt anyway. I will make strive to comment only on what I witnessed personally, and keep what I (over-)heard to a minimum. I admit that I am an outsider and will do my best to not seem as if I am not. Nevertheless, compassion and conscience require me to speak out.

Disclaimer the second: I've probably forgotten details even though I have several pages of notes and will have to edit this document periodically. I'll flag those edits as clearly as I can in this post.

Disclaimer the third: The Android version of the Twitter app doesn't seem to store pictures locally on the user's phone when posting to one's Twitter feed, so I went back and pulled those pictures out of my feed also. If I accidentally grabbed someone else's image, please let me know and I'll remove it or credit you appropriately.

Unless you've been living in a faraday cage for the past couple of weeks or you're the kind of person who goes to incredible lengths to not pay attention to the world around you, chances are you've heard about the protests around the United States that began as a result of the grand jury that declared that Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown. I'm not going to rehash any of that case, it's already been done so much that I don't think anybody actually cares what's being said anymore out of sheer burnout. You can look up as many documents and as much rhetoric as you wish, I'll only link to the the testimony and evidence given to the Ferguson grand jury as it stands on the official record. If anybody wants a copy of the leaked autopsy report, I have it and will put it up. I also will not rehash the case of the death by strangulation at the hands of police of Eric Garner in New York (WARNING: REALLY FUCKING BRUTAL - DON'T WATCH IF YOU'RE SQUEAMISH) (original video footage (local mirror); rest of the video footage not really shown anywhere (local mirror)), nor will I rehash the grand jury's decision there. I will take a moment to state that the grand jury chose to indict the person who shot the video instead.

Users of social media monitored their information feeds intently to see and relay word of what the respective decisions would be. I suspect that the more cynical of us felt fairly certain of what the outcomes would be, though many of us would enjoy being wrong from time to time. Families called for minutes of silence in memoriam, and soundbites from video footage became protest catchphrases, for example, "Hands up, don't shoot!" and "I can't breathe!". The protests began almost immediately; the first few seemed to be hastily organized but later ones appear better organized, more closely knit, and with a better sense of desired outcomes.

The rest is behind the cut. One of my regional search agents started picking up word of protests organizing in Oakland, California on 4 December 2014. One began around 1700 hours PST8PDT and was scheduled to meet up with a second one starting at 1900 hours local time in a slightly different location to traverse the length and breadth of the Oakland area. I happened to be in that geographic area and chose to join the protest as an observer to see what I could see and document what I could. As they say, this is history in the making. To that end I stripped myself of much of my EDC kit out of concern that it could be misrepresented as weapons, wrote the phone number of the San Francisco National Lawyer's Guild on my forearm (415-285-1011), charged my phone and camera, laced up my sturdiest trainers, grabbed my warmest sweater and hit the bricks. There had been more rain in the Bay Area in the previous couple of days then there had been over the previous couple of months so the one thing I'd never seen in the Bay Area in my times here - the fog coming off of the Bay - gave the street, the buildings, and the sky a hazy, fuzzy, almost surreal appearance.

On my way to where the protest was supposed to form I noticed a group of four Oakland Police Department patrol cars parked along the highway and the officers appeared to be in conference on the thin sidewalk. At a distance an OPD SUV cruiser parked on the other side of the highway appeared to have outward-facing video cameras; whether or not it really was a camera, and whether or not it was recording I do not know. Parked behind the SUV was a group of unmarked white vans with windows along the sides and back that some of the protestors later identified as "the wagons," as in paddy wagons. I saw a motorcycle cop gassing up and patrolling one of the less residential areas of the part of town I was walking through. I also saw a Department of Homeland Security Federal Protective Service (who are in their charter empowered to carry out criminal investigations and maintain a duly authorized and operating law enforcement field presence) field operations SUV parked near the protest site. When I arrived at the corner of 14th and Broadway there were already a few dozen people there, with more trickling in every minute. I didn't see very many people talking to one another, just small groups of two or three people each who apparently knew one another already. I didn't listen in. The earlier protest group could be heard before it was in visual range, a group of what looked to be several hundred people who'd been on the march for a while. That group and ours merged seamlessly when the two met as if they'd never been apart. Bringing up the rear behind the other group of protestors was a group of Oakland Police Department patrol vehicles, what looked like a stubby jeep with a large, yellow box mounted on top that I cannot identify (it could have been an LRAD vehicle, it could have been a spotlight, it could have been something else) and a squad of armed and armored riot police. Either hanging out of the driver's side window of or leaning against the driver's side of one of the squad cars was a police officer pointing what appeared to be a high-def video camera at us. There were also several journalists (professional and otherwise) carrying sufficient kit to cover the protest and running around recording things.

The small group who organized the protest did much of the talking to us with bullhorns for a few minutes. People carrying signs, banners and noisemakers (mostly drums) seemed to arrange themselves around the edges of the protest, where they were most visible and audible. The rest of us stuck somewhat closer to the center as its body mass. After a few minutes during which the speaker/organizers addressed the massed protestors the suddenly larger group of people began its long trek through Oakland, California. I have no idea how many people were there. Probably several hundred, but if you want a more precise figure than that I honestly can't give you one. That evening I saw a few people who appeared to be adherents of the Anonymous meme participating in the protests. To the best of my knowledge, they didn't do any destructive, crazy, or even weird (in case you're wondering). They seemed to be there in solidarity, like everyone else at the protest. I didn't see anything like what are popularly called "professional protestors" - I saw people from all walks of life united in common purpose. Grieving. Mourning. Demanding change. Demanding justice.

The route the protest used was long, twisting, always changing, and took us past Lake Merritt, Lakeside Park, Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building, the Oakland Fire Department (where the fire-fighters on duty stood outside and raised their arms in the "Hands up, don't shoot" position that many adopted that night) and other places that I neither recognized nor recall. I recall hearing later that the protest spent some time outside of the Glenn Dyer Detention Facility and the inmates alternately pounded on their windows and adopted the "Hands up, don't shoot" salute. I noticed that the windows of some larger stores and a few banks were protected by sheets of plywood ala hurricane protection; for what it's worth, I personally didn't see any overt signs of vandalism the entire evening. I noted one trashcan that could have been overturned by a protestor or could have been overturned earlier, before the protest reached that intersection. Much later I observed one individual make a valiant attempt to break a storefront window for no readily discernable reason, but aside from making quite a racket, vis a vis loud booming noises, he was unsuccessful unless his goal was to wake people up in their nearby apartments.

I don't understand the whole "damage stuff during a protest" thing. Perhaps I was born too late, or maybe I didn't read the right barely legible photocopied pamphlets in high school, but if a peaceful protest is organized against something (and it was touted as this by all and sundry - the hashtags are still on Twitter, you can read the public dialogue yourself) common sense would dictate that vandalism a) isn't actually peaceful, and b) is very likely to get the protest broken up (which lessens its impact because the people being protested to would see many fewer people exercising their First Amendment rights and would take the claims or demands of the people less seriously). It also helps discredit claims of the protest having been peaceful in the first place, and does not seem as if it would change anything in a positive manner; the powers being protested to would certainly be less likely to change course than before. This would also seem to lead to c) people getting arrested because they happened to be at the protest and not if they actually damaged anything because, when you get right down to it, things turn into a hairball fast and police seem to go into "just arrest people and try to grab as many of the ones we think might be wrecking stuff" mode. In good conscience I can't say I blame them for using such a strategy under those circumstances. This also brings the train of thought to point d) where fewer people might be likely to participate in the next protest because they saw police arresting people, which both limits the effectiveness of protests as a way of influencing policy and limits the changes that can actually be made to society that may right wrongs.

At certain points during the protest we saw lines of riot police blocking off certain streets and constraining us to certain directions through the topology of the city. Police cruisers shadowed us a block or two left and right of where we happened to be marching at any time. It seemed pretty obvious that they were, if not herding than guiding us in certain directions or along a particular path through Oakland. To or away from what I can't say, to what end I speculate has to do with minimizing potential risk. Thinking about it a little more, they could also have been playing cat and mouse with us. The police block one street, we took another. They block another turn, we take a different side street, in that bizarre fashion that only emergent hive-minds seem capable of right now. There was a time somewhere near Oakland's Chinatown (I think) where the protest group tried to go to two different destinations: Toward Piedmont and toward East Oakland. I believe the protest split at this point, with some people going one way, and some going the other. I opted to join the group headed for East Oakland.

I don't know how much longer we marched through the streets of Oakland. A long time indeed is all I can say with any certainty. I vividly recall seeing after some time a pink taco truck parked on the left-hand side of the street, a marble building of some kind on the other side of the street (with a low marble decorative wall next to the sidewalk). I also vividly recall immediately thereafter seeing a line of riot cops festooned with large bundles of zip-tie handcuffs blocking further movement at the end of the block, instead of a few blocks farther away. Turning around, there was another line of riot cops boxing us in. By the definition of the word we were not kettled; the police did not charge us, did not discharge projectile weapons of any kind, and were certainly recording us with a video camera hoisted six or seven feet above the crowd on an extensible monopod. We were also not detained as a group for hours on end while I was present, nor were we screamed at through bullhorns or tormented with batons beaten against riot shields. I do not recall seeing any riot shields, and flipping back and forth through media posted to various socnets in the past three days for Oakland, CA I do not see any photographs taken in the area that depict any. I may be wrong, I may be missing a few but I do not believe this to be the case.

"This is it," I thought. "Busted."

I posted a few last pictures to Twitter, sent a couple of text messages, checked that the NLG's contact number was still legible on my forearm, and transmitted a couple of commands to some of my constructs to execute in the event that I did not phone home to them by a certain time. Then I powered down my phone. A few feet away a woman, perhaps one of the organizers, was passing out feltpens and telling people to write the NLG's contact number on their arms. I don't know how long we stood there - ten minutes? Fifteen? Twenty? Some people sat down on the pavement defiantly - it seemed to me they weren't going anywhere but forward to continue the protest along the current path, and were angry that forward motion was halted. Some people got angry and began to hurl abuse and invective at the police for penning everyone in and bringing the protest to a halt. Nothing else was hurled that I could tell, which would probably have caused things to turn out very differently. One protestor was wearing body armor of his own - it looked like green military surplus armor and pretty thin at that, probably type I, which did little to reassure me. One does not wear body armor to a protest unless one expects projectile weapons to come into play. Did the OPD have weapons handy? Maybe. I couldn't tell.

I was close enough to the eastmost rank of riot police that I could see that their badges were uncovered, the badge numbers matched the numbers stencilled on their helmets, and most if not all of them wore bodycams, miniature audio/video recorders that write footage on local flash storage very similar to this one. Incidentally, I've seen BART Police wear bodycams very much like this one, now that I think about it. I don't know what, if any surveillance gear the DC Metro cops are wearing these days. I don't know if their bodycams were actually recording or not. I saw no lit telltales on the devices, nor do I know if that particular unit even has them.

As the minutes passed I gradually realized that the crowd was thinning around me. Had arrests begun? Were people going quietly? The riot police were letting small groups of protestors leave westward, down the sidewalk. Was it a trap? Were they grabbing everyone who walked through as having surrendered? Were they going to grab me because I made no bones about recording things? There was only one way to find out.

I walked to the sidewalk and then to the north-west corner at riot cops, protesters and brickwork. After standing around nervously for a few minutes I was told "You are free to go" and one of the riot cops stepped to one side to let another small group of us through. Were we being arrested? Was it a trap?

As it turned out, no, we weren't and no, it wasn't.

The OPD showed remarkable restraint the evening of 4 December 2014. As I walked between the chainlink fence and the row of armored and armed Oakland police, I noticed that most of them had their face shields up. Not mirrored visors, transparent lexan face shields attached to reinforced polymer riot helmets. Most of them met my gaze for longer than a second; a few refused to do so and studiously looked away. A couple had their eyes closed. One said softly to me, "Have a good night" as I walked by.

I'll admit that I was quite frightened at this point. If any one of those cops had chosen, a single blow would have flattened me and "assaulting a police officer" would have been a legally valid charge against me even though I had done nothing at all. All it would have taken was a moment of ire, or not enough coffee that afternoon, or a fight with one's partner before going on duty, or just being pissed about the rain earlier that day... the end of the corridor formed by police and the wall could have been a detention area, for all we knew. At the end of another block of walking, the streets were open (sort of). Freedom. At this time I took inventory of my situation - I'd been walking for hours, I wasn't wearing my brace (I'd optimized my evening kit for mass because I didn't know how long I'd be on my feet), it was cold, very foggy... and there were more Oakland police farther down the block away from me and a block to the south, both directions that would start me on the direction of home. I'll admit to being somewhat paranoid by nature. However, even after being let go I was still concerned that the police units arrayed around the area might try to arrest some of us on any number of pretenses. So, with a "Fuck it!" I took to the fog and shadows until I found my way back to familiar territory (and thank you, Pathfinder, for all your help).

This text and accompanying photographs and video footage created by The Doctor [412/724/301/703/415][ZS] are published under a Creative Commons By Attribution / Noncommercial / Share Alike v3.0 License.