Dark Night of the Stole 

How looters and vandals derailed peaceful protests and the police accountability movement

click to enlarge IT STARTED OUT PEACEFULLY: A solitary man faces police in Old Oakland

PHOTOS BY ERIC SAEVI

IT STARTED OUT PEACEFULLY: A solitary man faces police in Old Oakland

On Thursday, May 28, a flier calling for "vengeance" in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police made its rounds through the East Bay's social media channels. It called for a Friday 8pm "Minneapolis Solidarity Demo" at Oakland's Frank G. Ogawa Plaza, also known to locals as Oscar Grant Plaza. The flier was unusual, and not just for its odd juxtaposition of an incitement to riot with the warning: "Be Safe Wear a Mask."

The headline emblazoned across the top of the flier, "Fuck the Police," was set in same typeface as the one used on the album cover for Purple Rain, by the beloved Minneapolis recording artist Prince. Superimposed atop the flower arrangement from that album cover was a photo of a seemingly exultant looter in front of a blazing Minneapolis AutoZone store. That was problematic, because video footage had previously depicted a mysterious white man with a hammer smashing the windows of that AutoZone while a peaceful protest had been going on earlier in the day, to shouts of black bystanders asking him to stop. The flier's racially ambiguous image was a clear celebration of vandalism and an obvious attempt to transform the rage regarding Floyd's tragic death away from peaceful protest and into violence.

Immediately after the flier was released, Oakland's Anti-Police Terror Project issued a statement that called into question the wisdom of joining the demonstration. "An anonymous group has called for a display of 'vengeance' Friday night beginning at Oscar Grant Plaza at 8pm in response to the murder of George Floyd," it began. After expressing concern for the safety of the potential protestors in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the organization addressed the anonymous organizers of the protest, "To the organizers behind Friday's 8pm demonstration, we ask that you consider the potential impact of setting fires. In all neighborhoods of Oakland, there are people with vulnerable conditions who have contracted, or are likely to contract, Covid-19 and whose lives hang in the balance. Even if they do not attend your rally, smoke from what you burn will travel and it will do harm."

The ominous distancing of Oakland's own organizers of protests against police brutality from this visible demonstration foreshadowed the confusing days and nights that would follow.

Rage Turns to Violence

Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin planted his knee into the neck of Floyd for eight minutes on May 25, killing him by asphyxiation. Protests the likes of which have not been seen in this country since the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 sprouted angrily across the country. A few days of peaceful protests in Oakland were transformed on Friday into a night and weekend of mayhem across the city and region.

In an era when Oaklanders have routinely spoken out against injustice, whether it be the Oscar Grant demonstrations of 2009-10, Occupy Oakland, or the subsequent Black Lives Matters movement, none of those moments matched the sheer chaos and devastation that started on Friday.

The initial "Minneapolis Solidarity Demo" gathering was peaceful and colorful, most notably when Brianna Noble, owner of Mulatto Meadows Riding Center in Martinez, rode her horse, Dapper Dan, down Broadway at the beginning of the rally. But by 10pm, police had begun to clash with a second wave of protesters, firing volleys of rubber bullets and tear gas as the looting and burning of downtown Oakland began.

Oakland has awoken before to broken windows, damaged storefronts and graffiti scrawled on walls along Broadway, but this time the damage appeared exponentially worse and in a much larger area of downtown. Protesters smashed the windows of banking institutions, vandalized bus stops and walls and expanded from main drags to side streets. Fires were also notably present throughout the night. A small Starbucks frequented by state and federal workers on Clay Street was set ablaze. Down the street, the now-defunct Specialtys Bakery & Cafe was ransacked. Protesters briefly commandeered Interstate 880, which temporarily halted traffic.

The looting began on a scale that dwarfed any previous Oakland protests to date. The Walgreens at the corner of 14th and Broadway was vandalized as looters rushed in to steal as many items as they could carry. Soon the store was billowing with smoke. Other downtown businesses faced a similar fate.

As with that AutoZone in Minneapolis, some attendees shared footage on Twitter of mostly white looters and spray-painters defacing property and breaking windows, while black protesters attempted to stop them. Footage showing a young black woman asking a white man not to smash a window of the Target on 27th and Broadway, who looked at her dismissively before doing it, went viral along with several others.

Several protestors captured video of the majority-white vandalism of Target and the many car-dealerships along Broadway Auto-Row, where vehicles were hot-wired and stolen. On Broadway near 34th Street, demonstrators broke large panes of glass at a Honda dealership and poured in for joyrides. A viral video of the break-in showed one individual driving an SUV back-and-forth inside the showroom before crashing the vehicle through a partially broken window to the delight of a large group of onlookers. The Mercedes-Benz dealership on Broadway and 29th Street was similarly vandalized, with signs of small fires visible on video.

Another protester, perhaps fated for Oakland-protest immortality, hot-wired a small bulldozer and drove it around the downtown area. Numerous social-media videos later featured the vehicle doing donuts in the streets.

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