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.

While nearly 8,000 people protested Floyd's murder in Downtown Oakland, at 9:45pm a white van pulled up to Oakland's Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building on Clay and 12th, and opened fire on two officers of the Federal Protection Service of the Department of Homeland Security, killing one. Patrick Underwood of Pinole, 53, died on the scene. The FBI said the other officer is in critical condition.

The incident had political ramifications. Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, called the Oakland shooting an act of domestic terrorism.

"Let me be clear," Cuccinelli said, in a statement. "When someone targets a police officer or a police station with an intention to do harm and intimidate, that is an act of domestic terrorism. Fighting terrorism was the very reason for the founding of the Department of Homeland Security. And, I said earlier, we will stand behind our law-enforcement officers here in the department and all over America."

Acting department secretary Chad Wolf called the shooting an assassination.

"As of late we have witnessed an outright assault on our law-enforcement community," Wolf said, while standing outside the White House. "Last night in Oakland, California, an assassin cowardly shot two Federal Protective Service contractors as they stood watch over a protest."

At first, Oakland police said they did not consider the shooting to be connected with the protest. They later deleted that tweet.

"Our intentions were to update it," said Oakland police spokeswoman Officer Johnna Watson, speaking to The Mercury News on 5/30. "After more clarification, it was unknown at the time if it was related or not."

As of this writing, no suspects have been named and no arrests have been made.

One Theory Emerged

As reports from all over the country trickled in, white instigators looting, breaking windows and setting fires became a surprising theme of the day. Although vandalism and looting are part-and-parcel of urban protest, the skewed racial composition confused both protesters and officials alike.

It wasn't until the following day that theories began to be advanced. On Saturday, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz shared unconfirmed reports that white supremacists had infiltrated protests in Minneapolis. In Tennessee, a known white supremacist was arrested for setting fire to the courthouse during a protest there, and Black Lives Matter San Diego had to issue a statement warning of a fake BLMSD Twitter page announcing another protest, which they suspected had been made by white supremacists.

Though difficult to confirm, officials and police chiefs are reporting that May 29 saw an explosion of white-supremacist activity during protests on that day, and are considering if an organized effort to disrupt peaceful protests and incite violence between black communities and the police all over the country had been planned beforehand.

By Saturday morning, the damage to downtown Oakland was seen in stark relief. Broken windows, some already boarded up by business owners and volunteers, were visible, while charred garbage cans and plywood littered the streets. In addition, excessive amounts of graffiti covered walls, sidewalks and pavement.

"We want to make clear that this will not be tolerated," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said during a press conference on Saturday, urging residents and protesters to stay home.

Amid the growing violence, protesters attempted to take back the narrative and refocus it on police brutality and accountability. A large number of protesters marched near Lake Merritt, while on Saturday evening a caravan in memory of Floyd traveled across the city.

Yet not only did various levels of lawlessness return to Oakland, some of the focus shifted to nearby Emeryville. Caravans of looters descended on Bay Street mall Saturday evening. Uniqlo and H&M were vandalized. Local television stations captured images of looters streaming in and out of Uniqlo, with excess clothing falling to the ground. Bursts of fireworks exploded above. Other businesses in the vicinity also were damaged, including Best Buy.

Retaking the Narrative?

On Sunday, May 31, Oakland's Anti-Police Terror Project created a Covid-19-conscious form of protest with a car caravan to protest the murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Steven Taylor at the hands of police.

Gathering at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park near the Port of Oakland, hundreds of cars, vans and trucks waved signs and honked horns in solidarity. As the multi-racial coalition made its way through the streets of Oakland, it gained momentum and followers. Signs showing solidarity from Latinx, Asian American, South Asian, Palestinian and others were coupled with synchronized music and bull-horns stating support for the action.

By the time the event ended, thousands had joined, providing a much-needed counter-balance to the violence in the streets days before.

Yet Sunday brought no respite from the violence. Instead, it entered an entirely new phase. Walnut Creek oddly started trending on Twitter late Sunday morning. A growing number of tweets directed protesters to focus their ire on the tony suburb, instead of destroying Oakland. Other tweets soon suggested taking the protest to Pleasanton, Dublin, Danville and unincorporated Castro Valley. Looters caught on. Soon the mayhem visited Broadway Plaza, an upscale outdoor mall in downtown Walnut Creek. Looting occurred at several stores, leading to the sight of police in riot gear walking the streets of the affluent city. The nearby BART station was soon closed, as were stations in Concord and Lafayette. Walnut Creek officials imposed an immediate curfew.

Never before in this era of protests had the street heat moved to the suburbs. The move drastically changed the game and set the stage for a destructive Sunday night all over Alameda County. Soon the violence came to San Leandro, where a similar scene played out, with looters carrying orange shoe boxes and athletic gear from the Nike outlet store on Marina Boulevard. Other stores at the Marina Square strip mall were also hit. The Dodge dealership across the street suffered significant damage. Video on social media showed people burning out the vehicle's tires in a thick cloud of gray smoke. The owner of the dealership later said 70 automobiles were stolen or damaged by looters on Sunday evening, including several sports cars worth $100,000 each.

Back in Oakland, looters took advantage of a pre-occupied police force in Downtown to smash-and-grab several chain stores on Lakeshore Avenue. At least three separate caravans of multi-racial youth broke into the T-Mobile on Rand and Lake Park Avenues between the hours of 11pm and midnight. After the initial group had cleaned out the store, two more groups were informed to not bother removing the wood that had been installed to protect the store because it had already been emptied. The AT&T store on Lakeshore Avenue shared the same fate, with a smashed window and stolen merchandise.

In what might have seemed like a poorly timed joke, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department's twitter account mentioned reports of a tiger on the loose near the Oakland Zoo. An ominous video posted earlier in the day showed a man cryptically issuing a warning before revealing he was parked at the Oakland Zoo. But the report was soon rescinded by the sheriff's department. "Tigers are all accounted for at the Oakland Zoo," the department tweeted. "They just checked and confirmed."

San Leandro's Twitter Storm

San Leandro, in particular, experienced the brunt of the Sunday night violence. Like the suspicious tweets earlier in the day seeming to direct protesters to Walnut Creek, bulk activity on the social-media site catapulted San Leandro to the top of the local trending list. At one point, San Leandro was receiving up to 45,000 tweets an hour.

While violence appeared to be growing in the city on Sunday night, the reason for increased Twitter activity was an online petition being tweeted every 15 seconds. The petition called attention to a lawsuit filed last week alleging that San Leandro Police stomped on a pregnant African-American woman during a traffic stop in June 2019 and caused her to have a miscarriage. Mixed into the barrage of tweets were repeated reports of home invasions occurring in the city. Those reports turned out to be erroneous. But the message could also be found on Twitter with the name of San Leandro swapped for those of other suburbs such as Pleasanton, Dublin, Fremont or Walnut Creek, clearly with the intent of sowing fear.

During a Sunday night drive from Oakland to San Leandro, small packs of cars traveling at high speeds routinely passed a reporter on southbound Interstate 880. Several Oakland police were tending to a matter on the Embarcadero. Dark smoke billowed from a warehouse near High Street, just behind the Home Depot. Reports on Twitter of looting at the Walmart on Hesperian Boulevard in San Leandro appeared to be false. Employees had created a makeshift barricade of merchandise at the front door. However, a portion of its parking lot was being used as a staging area for various law-enforcement entities.

But the story was much different at San Leandro's other Walmart location, across town on Davis Street. As a reporter approached a small side street that runs next to the big box store, it was immediately apparent that looting had already begun. A stream of items coming from a back door littered the streets. White smoke was visible inside. In front of the building, debris covered the parking lot, and shopping carts piled in a heap resembled the aftermath of an explosion. Local police and fire had not yet arrived. Looters could be seen pouring out of the Home Depot up the street.

Traveling down Davis Street toward downtown San Leandro, sirens echoed throughout the city, with the beat of helicopters above. The sounds and ominous tension gave San Leandro the surreal feel of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood film set. At first glance, downtown San Leandro appeared untouched by the violence. But on East 14th Street, a pack of looters had ransacked a GameStop store of nearly all of its merchandise. This area, too, showed no police presence.

Looters in hooded sweatshirts and facemasks appeared oddly calm, standing like sentinels on both sides of the narrow streets in front of the store. They appeared highly organized, and did not appear to be common street punks or protesters concerned about police brutality. Further away from the GameStop, looters appeared to be stationed at every block, possibly as lookouts. Two black sedans were parked haphazardly on Juana Avenue, positioned so the drivers could speak with one another. A second visit to the burning Walmart showed that police and fire had arrived. Back at Gamestop, a number of looters in cars had returned to the scene. A third pass at the Walmart again showed no signs of police or firefighters. Looters, though, had returned to Walmart and Home Depot, and the fire inside of Walmart had been reignited into a conflagration much larger than before.

Whether by design or not, the looters were stretching local law enforcement thin. In a general sense, the same strategy was employed across the entire East Bay, when the violence visited Walnut Creek and then spread across Alameda County. In the past, when protests and violence were centered in Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco, mutual aid agreements between neighboring police departments allowed for large demonstrations to be quelled more easily by borrowing manpower. But with the activity spread out in multiple cities, each city was left to defend itself with limited resources on Sunday night.

Meanwhile, reports of looting and violence continued to arrive from Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, Fremont and Union City, among others. In the early morning hours on Monday, Hayward Police shot and wounded a suspect believed to be looting a CVS Pharmacy on Foothill Boulevard. It would be the department's third officer-involved shooting in the past 10 days.

The Children Shall Lead Us

On Monday, local leaders responded by shutting down the streets at night and instituting curfews. Walnut Creek announced a week-long curfew from 8pm to 5am. It was soon followed by San Leandro and Hayward. Based on the amount of damage San Leandro suffered the night before, city officials chose to begin their curfew at 6pm. More cities followed suit throughout the day; Oakland being noticeably absent from the expanding list, before finally relenting. Mayor Schaaf told MSNBC that she did not take issuing a curfew lightly, in part, because of the city's rich tradition of political protests. The move toward curfews would soon be moot, after Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern used his authority to declare a countywide curfew, starting at 8pm, that will run through June 5.

Not everyone appreciated Ahern's blanket curfew, especially progressives, who fumed that he overstepped his authority. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin criticized Ahern on Twitter, saying he made the move despite comments from local mayors who wanted to tailor their own curfews.

"We're a Charter City and are subject to emergency orders we issue," Arreguin tweeted. "I will ask the City Attorney to provide further legal clarification, but our order is different from the Sheriff. He issued this order despite other cities saying that they were going to make their own decisions."

Berkeley would later assert its independence and declare a two-day curfew through Wednesday morning.

As the sun set on Monday, a peaceful, student-led rally at Oakland Tech attracted an estimated 15,000 people. The Anti-Police Terror Project partnered with a group of teenagers to create a youth-led protest for the teen and tween set. Meeting at Tech at 4pm, thousands of young students packed the four lanes of Broadway in front of the school for speeches and first-hand accounts before marching to Oscar Grant Plaza as a show of support and solidarity. The energy and love of Oakland's youth for their radical history was a satisfying coda to a stressful and harrowing weekend.

At least for a moment, the focus had returned to George Floyd.

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