What follows is an account of what I saw and experienced last night, and an account from my friend, Susan Harman, who experienced police brutality and arrest at the demonstration and afterwards. She was not released until late this morning.
First off, as many have documented, even in the mainstream media, the gathering was peaceful if not happy from 5:30 p.m. until much later in the evening. I saw and heard young person after young person get up on the podium and speak with their full hearts and minds. Some of them I knew, most I did not.
I saw council members Jean Quan, Rebecca Kaplan, Nancy Nadel, Desley Brooks, Larry Reid, and Jane Brunner and many local lawyers who were monitoring or protesting: Walter Riley (subsequently arrested), Dan Siegel and Anne Weills, and their son, Michael Siegel. The group from Bikes 4 Life put on the event and it was positive and hopeful — a real speak-out.
Most of the speakers, while angry, called for unity and a peaceful response to the daunting task of demanding justice yet again. Most were not satisfied with the verdict and recalled the types of penalties others have received for much lesser offenses than murder.
As soon as the official demonstration was over (although music and some speeches continued at the City Hall plaza amphitheatre), an incident occurred somewhere down Broadway a block or so away and the crowd broke into a run.
I headed down the street to see if any more trouble could be headed off and saw the council members still in the area. When I got up to the police phalanx, I could see that they were in riot gear. I turned onto 13th Street and attempted go down it away from the gathering crowd. Having lived through the Sixties, I’ll admit I don’t like getting cornered by police in riot gear. I always check my escape route, including from a stampeding crowd.
The police blocked my escape saying that I had to go up Broadway. The police at that point started announcing that this was an unlawful assembly and issuing instructions to move up Broadway. After purchasing a snack at DeLauer’s, I rested for a minute in a bus stop enclosure where I met two teachers (another government teacher, don’t know if she was laid off like me). I then sought an exit from the closing police ranks.
All of the streets were blocked. Finally, I located a small opening in the plaza and circumvented the box the police had been forming around the demonstration. I ended up behind police lines and remained in that area during the period when the looting of the Foot Locker was apparently taking place.
I began to see some small groups of onlookers, some of them excited by the impending violence converge on the area but by the next hour, most were gone. Since then, I’ve become aware that some professional looters did arrive with window smashing implements — sickening, but not really shocking.
By the time I reached 14th Street, a few minutes before 10 p.m., my friend, Susan Harman, a retired principal of an East Oakland charter school, called me to tell me that she was in an ambulance on her way to Highland Hospital, having been injured by the police.
Now, let me tell you, my friend, despite being 69 years old, a cancer survivor (quite small), and diabetic is very feisty. She had linked arms with some young people and Councilmembers Quan and Kaplan, in hopes of keeping the protestors separated from the police phalanx. She told me the young men linking arms with her were actually trembling as they stood in front of the police in riot gear but they held firm.
The police line was pushing slowly forward and she was conversing with the officer opposite her who said that he was trying to respect her age and move her slowly down the street. At that time (and at no time) did she see any bottles or rocks thrown but she was aware of the tension building on both sides.
When they reached the chess game that had been going on in the street since early in the evening, they insisted that she keep moving. She protested that she was not willing to walk on them.
There was a momentary pause in the action, and suddenly, the police line surged forward and she went down as she fell — or was shoved — into the chess game. She was hit on the head by a police baton and her hands were roughly yanked behind her as an officer clamped handcuffs on her wrists. She tried to tell them that she had an old shoulder injury but no one heard or no one cared.
They dragged her across the pavement — she has the bruises and scrapes to prove it — yanked her onto her feet and put her in an ambulance after Jumoke Hinton Hodge, the West Oakland School Board Director also under arrest, yelled, “Your head; you’re bleeding.”
She called me repeatedly from the hospital, saying she did not know whether she was under arrest. However, since her shoulder was causing her pain and her head had begun to hurt, she told me that she wished to be seen by a doctor. I offered to pick her up when she was through, but, once again, she did not know if she was under arrest. However, no one had been monitoring her as she sat in the ER waiting room so we assumed that she was free to go.
At some point she got concerned about her growing headache and got up to inquire at the desk about seeing the doctor. An officer (county sheriff) was there a heartbeat later and grabbed her wrist, twisting it as he shoved her into a seat. She asked him to stop hurting her and said, “I’m doing what you’re asking.” Other patients objected as they could see she was a gray-haired lady, but at that point police handcuffed her to the chair and left her there.
Susan told me that there were two other patients in the hospital with her from the demonstration. One was a young white man, who had been taking pictures, and a young black man. The black man had an open wound on his forehead but she never saw him get any treatment. He was also handcuffed to a chair and repeatedly asked for water but the officers only taunted him, Susan told me.
I had gone to wait at Highland as I was hoping that she would be released; but on the way, I got a call from Susan’s cell which turned out to be from a deputy from the Sheriff’s Office who told me not to come, that she was in custody, and I could not see her. I told him about some of her medical conditions and that I hoped she would be able to remain the hospital, but he hung up.
As a result of a call from Dr. Floyd Huen, the doctors at Highland were made aware of her medical status and provide care; but later at the city jail, she asked for her nightly insulin shot and was refused, she told me. They left her in a small holding tank for hours with twelve others, among then Hinton Hodge. Later they moved them to a larger cell that contained twenty prisoners and no beds.
Still sitting up in the crowded cell, she was released at 10 a.m. this morning, her blood sugar level dangerously high. At this writing, activists, lawyers, and council members are still trying to get Hinton Hodge released.
My question remains: Who was in charge last night? The city policy makers — the council — clearly was not. Was Mayor Dellums the commander-in-chief? If so, did he order the police to advance on the crowd? Was it necessary to force a confrontation? Were the troublemakers out-of-towners, crazed anarchists, angry youth, criminals out to grab some goodies, or did it really have to happen this way, really, folks?
I don’t know the answers to those questions but we must ask all of them. We can’t stop everyone from dangerous or irresponsible behavior but such behavior should not be perpetrated by those who are empowered to serve and protect.
Pamela Drake is a former Oakland teacher and longtime Oakland activist.