Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reportback From The Oscar Grant Protests/Riots.

Wednesday, Jan 7th. Oscar Grant Protest/Riots, Downtown Oakland

(This post contains some strong language and imagery of violence. May not be appropriate for minors.)

The news about how Oscar Grant was killed by the police weighed heavily on me, and the video footage looped in my head.

after wheeling my records home from my gig, i wash my face and call a taxi. i walk outside to wait, and the sky is buzzing with helicopters. (at 10:33pm, it still is... i can see searchlights crawl over the Tribune building) my head is turned skyward, approximating the helicopters to be somewhere by the lake. maybe by International.

an older black man stops and says
"They protestin' Oscar Grant you know."
i tell him that's where i want to go.
he says
"This ain't nothin new you know, cops killing black people.
They usually say that the man was resisting arrest or sumpn.
This one just got caught."
I nod in agreement.

The taxi pulls up, i recognize the driver from lifts to dj gigs. i greet him and smile, and then look upwards. looking back at him, i say "could you follow the helicopters?"
and we're off.
for a moment i enjoy the fact that i just asked a taxi to follow helicopters.
we talk, he shares his outrage, shakes his head in grief. soon, we are at a police blockade, and i can see the crowd swelling behind them. we pull over, i pay and tip the driver.
he looks me in the eyes.
"Thank you. Be safe."
"You too."

I walk past the blockade without interference.
i approach the crowd
they are chanting





i join in.

and i light my white seven day candle
in its glass sleeve.

soon, i see people i know.

there are smiles and hugs,
and also shaking of heads.

There are Korean drummers beating out poongmul rhythms, lots of bicyclists, huge banners indicting killer cops, bullhorns shouting chants of No Justice, No Peace.

i notice that the crowd is mixed, but with a lot of white folks.

some young white kids are in full black with hoodies and bandanas covering their faces.
One is carrying a black flag.

Black Bloc. "Anarchists."

They keep trying to set fire to stuff, and others keep trying to put em out.

i feel anger because i know that the media will racialize the unrest to not look like these suburbanites who use protests as an excuse to smash stuff. Not very radical seeming to me.

We converge on the BART Police station.
A police car is in the middle of the road.
The chants turn into

No Justice No Peace, Fuck The Police!

Some of us look at each other, not chanting.

Then the rocks started being thrown.

And then someone was jumping on the police car.

And then a dumpster was on fire.

And then the dumpster was pushed towards the now rocking police car, as people attempted to turn it over.

I am starting to buzz with adrenaline. I reach for my face towel, awaiting what had to be inevitable. I looked around to see if i could see them-

There they were. Riot cops blocking off one street walking towards the intersection.

I started backing away, and seconds later came the tear gas.

I only smelled a little of it thanks to my towel, and i was far enough for it not to get in my eyes.

I am still holding my candle.
I am the only one holding a candle.
I feel strangely out of place
and also that this is the most important place for me to be
with a lone candle.

even police have been smiling and nodding at me.
somehow, this candle has transformed me from being
a racially profiled target
into the one person that maybe they aren't so worried about.

more kids show up, i am also no longer sure who is genuinely angry, and who is just ready to wreck shit.

trash cans are pulled into the road, cars are now being walked and stomped on.

as a protestor, and not a rioter, i figure its now time to go home.

i text friends letting them know they can come over if things get hectic. I text other friends to let them know that Downtown Oakland is going crazy.

i am stopped by an older black man on the way home. His name is Charles DuBois. We talk about grassroots movements, Obama, and politicization of youth, his amber brown eyes lit by my candle. People walk by, smile and salute us.

When i get home, i am on edge. I can't sit still. The outside sounds of copters, sirens and breaking glass permeate my apartment. I feel stir crazy, unsettled, unfinished. I have to get out again. In my head I imagine friends and family thinking I am crazy. I drink water, and text Mahfam and Kendal to let them know that i am heading out again.
I pick my candle back up and head into the night.

There are police blockades everywhere now.

i try to meet up with folks, but things are looking hectic. My candle still seems to encase me in a cocoon of light that police and others smile at.

a sista around my age stops me, says she recognizes me from earlier on in the protest. she thanks me for walking with a candle, and keeping alive what this should really be about. I thank her as well.

I head down 14th street towards Webster... and that's as far as i get. A couple blocks further down, the crowd looms, and its a riot crowd. i can smell something burning, and Broadway is obscured with smoke that could be the source of the smell, or tear gas. A metal hulk slowly rolls out of a backlit cloud of smoke. it is a paramilitary tank with a mounted water cannon. Is this my neighborhood?

I rest my back against a corner streetlight, and watch, the candle flame flickering slightly under my face. neighbors from my building join me, we stand there and take in the mayhem that our block has become.

there are more people of color now. young kids of various backgrounds are smashing cars, and at least one car is burning. Store windows are getting smashed now too. At first i thought black kids were targeting Korean stores, but then an African hair braiding store got smashed. Later, friends would tell me that they saw the immigrant African family in the store, asking why, why, why? Another friend said that an older Asian man-- on crutches no less-- pleaded with rioting youth not to smash his car up. But they did. Right in front of him. And i saw a middle aged Asian woman running, screaming because her bag had been snatched. I shouted for people to leave her alone, but i had no idea where her assailants were.

This was officially out of control.

Then the crowd started running full tilt up the street towards me. Some people look terrified, but most actually were smiling, looking at each other like "awww shit! hee!" I know you aren't supposed to run in situations like this, but i really didn't feel like getting hosed, gassed or rubber bulleted. Or hanging out with rioters. So i kept close to the buildings, and jogged back towards my house. A thrown bottle broke on the wall near my knee.

I get to my stoop, and see other neighbors. One woman, a mother of two, comes out in her pajamas, asking what is going on. The tank rolls by. she is incredulous. I ask if she knew about Oscar Grant. She didn't. I tell her that an unarmed black man was handcuffed, put on his stomach, and then was shot in the back and killed by a cop. Her eyes widen, her jaw drops in horror. She says with a Philippine trill on her tongue, "No wonder they are so angry!"

The helicopters are everywhere, their buzzing drone bouncing off buildings and rolling down the canyons of streets. searchlights lit up windows and intersections.

Somebody walks by my stoop, looks at us and says what sounds like "The mayor is coming around the corner."


It seems that the crowd and riot cops have moved on, so i walk from my stoop to Harrison and 14th, and lean against that lightpost.

Coming up 14th, is indeed Mayor Dellums. He is surrounded by an anxious looking suited entourage and media. He himself looks distraught. He sees me. He looks at my candle. And he simply reaches out and holds my arm for a second, and then he and the entourage keep moving.

It occurs to me that cops are probably not going to tear gas, hose, or rubber bullet the mayor. And now i run into Newman, who is also curious to see where this mayoral train is heading. We fall in step behind the entourage.

The mayor stops on 14th and Madison and starts talking to people and press. Madison is absolutely lit up with rotating police lights. I can't hear what Dellums is saying, but he seems to be unintentionally pissing people off.
"Be patient?? Be patient?? Be patient while they keep killing us??" One sista shouts.

At some point, we are completely encircled by riot cops, but they are a decent distance away from us. Everyone is ignoring them, and focusing on the mayor. A paramilitary tank rolls up. A brotha shouts "Oh look, democracy has arrived!"

The mayor breaks the circle, walking towards the tank. Riot police scurry and reposition themselves. Dellums talks to an officer. Moments later, the tank and riot police dissolve back into the troubled night. Dellums announces on a bullhorn that he has asked them to leave. He is drowned out by people demanding the release of arrested supporters, reform of Oakland police, and streams of curses that basically refer to him as an @%#* Uncle Tom and worse. Whew. Though I must say, I am curious as to what he is going to do and say besides wave some cops away.

So yeah, at this point I think i'm about ready to head back home now. I see friends Bea and Inez, and tell them that I have seen enough for tonight, and that i'm going home. A young sista overhears me, and says with a half joking voice "you should give me your candle then." I turn and look at her.
"Do you really want my candle?" I can see that she has been crying all night.
"Blessings." I reach out and give it to her, and she looks into my eyes and smiles in a way that warmed my whole soul.

I watch her walk away, see how she now looks transformed, serene and angelic in that candlelight. I understand a bit more why people smiled at me. She and the flickering candle disappear in the crowd.

I walk home, the idea of the candle continuing on in the streets touching me deeply.

When i get inside, I don't feel unsettled anymore.

Just the need to write.


This just in:

Rally for Justice for Oscar Grant
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
4:00pm - 7:00pm
Oakland City Hall
1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA


ks said...

Richard, I followed your link from Ta-Nehisi's blog, and I just had to tell you THANK YOU for posting this.

It was simultaneously beautiful and upsetting. Too many people let their anger blaze in a short and violent moment rather than taking that anger and using it -- letting it light hundreds of small candles that can shine all night. Hundreds of candles can light a path toward change while the blaze of a riot just leaves scorched earth, changing nothing except for the worst.

I hope you don't mind if I point others toward your post. Many people I know will be moved to 'lighting their own candles' in response and peaceful protest after reading what you shared. Thanks again for writing this.

Anonymous said...

I live and work in Oakland, but I didn't get as close to what happened last night as you did. Our office is very near to the BART headquarters at the Kaiser building. Our company's founder encouraged us all to work from home today, so I'm sitting at home wondering what's going to happen today and tonight.

I love this city, and I hope the violence stops, because I don't want anyone to get hurt.

Thank you for sharing your perspective.

Tim Looney said...

thanks for this report - i am many miles away in michigan and will keep the candle lit until we know justice - i hope that the riots start transform into an uprising

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.

ewee said...

thank you for this post. it's a well-written, thoughtful antidote to the sensationalist coverage out there...

richard said...

ks:Thanks for your words! I appreciate your love for non-violence. I also appreciate that when people are systematically murdered without justice, that sometimes... candles aren't gonna cut it. I wrote on another blog (Racialiscious) that riots are subsets of uprisings, and sometimes, uprisings are necessary. otherwise South Africa would still be under apartheid. It saddens me to see anger used to wreck personal property of innocents, but it is clear to me that is also about access, and cycles of insitutional abuse. an abused kid kicks the dog. What's the dog got to do with this? Nothing. But the dog is accessible, and lashing at the source of abuse is not.

All that said, i am glad that no one was hurt, that i could represent more of a peaceful and contemplative side, and that folks seems so moved by what i wrote.

peggyluwhoi hope no one gets hurt too. i hear the copters already, and i am texting friends to see if they want a walk home from BART.... hope you had a good day working at home!

Tim Looney if a real bonafide uprising starts, there better be salient leadership with an agenda of the most humanist, anti-oppression kind.

cuz at this point... wildin' kids ain't really gonna cut it!

kiita & ewee: thank you both so much! i definitely put a lot of heart into this. i've written a lot of posts before but the response to this one through clicks alone is a record. Thanks again.

Salty said...

Hi. I was at another blog and randomly clicked you from her blogroll. After reading your post, I was irritated that this wasn't a major feature when I turned my computer on. I went looking, and at Comcast News about halfway down the screen under In the News in small type (6th on the list): Shooting by Oakland California officer sparks anger. At the top of the screen:Biggest Loser Contestant Arrested / Cruise chokes up about Travolta's son.
Please tell me that this was a major news story and I just missed it by not looking at tv? I occasionally listen to MSNBC and may have missed it (doubting it was mentioned or only briefly).
Thank you for your reporting what you actually witnessed. It's a better account than the article I found by searching for it.

NeilK said...

Thanks for your story. I'm spreading it to everyone I know. We need to counter the image of the protests as being only about violence.

Geneveve Levin said...

All I can say is that in this time of great sadness, grief, and anger, this was absolutely beautiful. Thank you for writing...

Anonymous said...

Richard, thank you for your post. Holding both, holding it all, the power of uprising, the power of nonviolence, the fire of the moment.

There is a great need for salient leadership... I'd like to talk with you sometime on this. (I was reading Gene Sharp's analysis on the ANC's decision to give up nonviolence in the early 60's after the massacre at Sharpeville - just as the world got behind them...)

Anonymous said...

thanks richard. <3

ks said...

Richard, I totally agree. I'm not against the anger, and I'm not against the uprising. And I hope the uprising continues to swell -- news of the Tolan shooting in BelAir (another "police shot an unarmed man in his own driveway" story) is evidence that something must change.

So many problems, though, arise from people "protesting to protest" and the coverage of the situation turns sensationalist (terms like "race riots" get thrown around), when the focus should be instead on honoring the victims and challenging/changing our 'shoot first-apologize later' culture.

However, I totally understand your point on institutional abuse. Good point, well taken. I look forward to reading more on this and your other blog. Thanks again for sharing!

Model Minority said...

When i get home, i am on edge. I can't sit still. The outside sounds of copters, sirens and breaking glass permeate my apartment. I feel stir crazy, unsettled, unfinished. I have to get out again. In my head I imagine friends and family thinking I am crazy.
I hate this shit about Oakland violence.
Like the moment before it pops off the air crackles. Unmistakable.
I learning how to survive in East Oakland as a kid, I learned attune my heart to this moment, my survival depended on it.

Thank you for writing.

You have more courage than most.


Anonymous said...

I was particularly saddened to hear about the damage to POC-owned (and employed, as in the MacDonalds) were affected. And then it occurred to me that such is the nature of riots.

I think what has changed, however, is the nature in which we get our information. I found out about the shooting very shortly after it happened thanks to Twitter. And then saw word of it on Facebook, Myspace, and personal blogs. I got more news of it on IndyBay, and saw that people had uploaded footage on YouTube. (Gone are the days when video and camera will be confiscated.) People are gaining their power via technology.

At the same time that negative images are being portrayed via media, positive ones (and still critical) are coming from individual/personal sources* such as Fem.Men.Ist.

So again comes back to 'Thank You' for posting this blog, and lending more coverage to the conscious and considerate aspects of the event and the protests and riots that followed.

One question I have: Do you or anyone here know, if the officer is sentenced for murder, would that be a historical first? I'm curious to hear people's thoughts on the significance of justice.

*Note, I see small media is just as capable of focusing on the negative, for example sensationalized photo sets on flickr

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated reading this and I'm glad it was written so plainly. Thanks from one saddened and concerned Oakland resident to another.

Thomas Hawk said...

Well written and heartfelt. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Mantan Calaveras said...

Very well said.

Violence: muscles tensed and relaxed in rhythm as a result of chemical signals.

Violence is an obvious reaction to this society. Perhaps on the verge of collapse, perhaps on the verge of totalitarianism.

It's not strategic, and that is why it may not be constructive. Violence only works when it is populous and absolute. Leave a canvas of clean rubble to build a new and better world.

There are other ways, more rational and constructive ways, to react. But those ways are not for man, they are for the few who can see beyond the veil. The apocalypse is an event but also a realization. Let's hope it is coming shortly, if you know what I mean.

richard said...

Salty: Thanks for the kudos. The mainstream media is very frustrating. i was glad to represent an alternative simply by writing what i saw and experienced. You got a pretty sweet blog yourself!

NeilK:Wow. Thanks for spreading the word!! And thanks for the love. For real.

Christine: i am glad to know that my piece touched you.I hope that i brought some solace.

Jeff: i always appreciate your comments! thanks as always for the kudos, and really being able to see where i am coming from on this. Also, is there a link to Sharp's analysis? Sharp's.... Sharpeville analysis...?

catrina!: sweet to see you up in here! thanks for the kudos... feelin your blog too! bless up

ks:thanks again for your response, it seems we see pretty much eye to eye :) and indeed, the coverage of these events have not been helpful.

I forgot to mention last time, thanks for spreading the candle idea. i've been seeing similar ripples in the blogosphere coming from this piece, it really means a lot :)

Renina: whew. tellin you. its a crazy making feeling. i felt that kinda crackling, spidey sense & adrenaline buzz kicking in right before the cops started rubber bulleting and tear gassing too.

Jez!:always great to see your presence on my blog :) And really, thank you so much for all the love you give me and my blog. accepted and reflected :) You just enlightened me a bit too, cuz i remember thinking like "if you are gonna smash a store, smash up McDonald's, not the mom and pops places!" but you are right, POC jobs are affected that way. oh capitalism.

I said on Racialiscious that maybe if some kinda emergency Riot Carnaval were created, a contained space where angry people could punch and (toy gun) shoot likenesses of the killer cop, have opportunities to safely smash glass, etc... and have grassroots media be there so people could be heard... that would be great!! I wonder if the city would give me a grant for this....

And speaking of media, yes, this is an amazing age. ironically, so many of the rioters have also been arrested because there are YouTube videos of them stomping through peoples cars and stuff. As for myself, I am glad to represent some of the indie media contingency in the way i do.

you also raise a good question. i have never heard of a police officer being arrested for murder.
Definitely not for killing a black man. Perhaps if the racial dynamic is switched around, there is a slim possibility of finding such a case... i would for sure also be curious to know if there is such a case, and what the race, class, gender, sexuality etc positionalities were

*re: images and indie media, gotta say, Indymedia is pretty good at emphasizing police presence and violence.

Skinny: Thank you. Oakland love in the house!!

sorcha sometimes said...

great post, beautifully written as well (though I know that wasn't the point). like ewee said, it's good to see something aside from the sensationalist coverage that skimps on providing real information.

anyway, while it is disappointing that the riot might overshadow the protest, i am glad that people are actually speaking out about something. It’s not often you can get us off of our asses and away from our reality t.v. we can be quite unmotivated, and there is a lack of concern for our common man.

This story is somewhat similar to something happening in Greece right now (a wrongful shooting leading to riots) -

indus17 said...

Richard, Thanks so much for writing this. I think I saw the girl you gave your candle to, and was glad to see it. I wished I had had a candle. I will let people know what a good idea it is. There were a lot of us out there not breaking stuff, and simply trying to express our grief and anger peacefully. However, I can't help but wonder what attention (if any) a totally peaceful rally would have gotten from the media, and local officials.
Again, thanks for your work.

I posted a bit about my experience of the night here:

Anonymous said...

this brought tears to my eyes all over again. powerful stuff. thanks for reminding how these events get shrunk down to their most destructively volatile instead of productively powerful moments.

Tavdy said...

"This story is somewhat similar to something happening in Greece right now (a wrongful shooting leading to riots)" -- sorcha sometimes

It's also very similar to the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell Tube station in London.

Arroyoribera said...

This is an extra-judicial execution by police. It requires investigation locally but also at state and federal as well as international levels. The United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, should be informed of this situation and asked to investigate and report on the situation. I am a 50 year old white male. This is intolerable, that white police execute black males in broad daylight. In Spokane we have been dealing with police who lie, brutally kill innocent citizens, withhold evidence, and engage in spying on citizens.

Scrimshaw said...

Richard, your reportback brought me back to that night. Your accounts of a screaming woman being robbed, and a car being smashed right in front of its pleading owner - on crutches, no less! - especially infuriates and saddens me. I, too, saw too much misplaced destruction that night, done mostly by angry black young men and (predominantly) white youth in all black waving black flags and bandanas.

"Revolutionaries"? "Anarchists"? As a self-identified anarchist activist (who also has a few black bandanas), this is embarrassing. It leads me to wonder, when the shit hits the fan, will we remember why we are fighting? It seems that the reasons we were out there fighting in the first place were largely brushed aside in favor of a free-for-all excuse to smash things.

In this context, this kind of blind reactionary violence may be cathartic, but ultimately, it is counterproductive, I feel.

Thanks for posting, and thanks for your comment on my reportback too! Keep on fighting, with blessings comrade!


Anonymous said...

oh, richard.
thank you for your cuenta/documentation of such an important moment of history. you made me feel as though i was there.

while i did not attend the protest, i have listened & watched/listened; watched to KPFA and other media accounts of Oscar Grant's murder and the community response. i have shed many tears. Oscar's death is an immense tragedy. TERRIBLE. humbling. i am somewhat speechless.

i wanted to reiterate a paragraph of your writing, which stood out to me so much; meant so much:

"I am still holding my candle.
I am the only one holding a candle.
I feel strangely out of place
and also that this is the most important place for me to be
with a lone candle."


richard said...

Thomas Hawk: Thanks for the props on my post. and thank YOU for reposting on your blog! i got quite a lot of traffic from there!

Jody Sol: Clearly, you have the soul of a poet with a revolutionary vision. Thank you.

scorcha sometimes: thanks for the love. and i am feeling you, it is messed up that the riots are getting more coverage than the shooting itself. It didn't actually reach a national level of media attention UNTIL the riots. booo!! and thanks for the heads up on the Greek situation, been meaning to check that out from seeing references in the blogosphere. my new post references it.

indus 17:.... i got an unexpected welling up of emotion to hear that my candle may have been seen going through the streets with that young woman. Thank you for your kind words, and thank you reporting back to me about the candle, that news affected me on a profound level. Bless up.

prof bw: thank you. i am so feelin you right about now too.

Tavdy: Thanks for the heads up, will peep that link too!

Arroyoibera: Hells yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!! I am hoping that movements around all of these cases of state sponsored extra-judicial executions and brutality can come together, speak truth to power, and pave the way to reform and justice. Please see my newest post. Thank you for the UN strategy too.

Scrimshaw: Yow, i have been digging in your blog, its amazing. I will be re-blogging some of your anti-oppression to-do lists sometime really soon! its interesting, i usually reserve this blog for feminist topics, and though i'm sure i could still look at this through a feminist lens and make commentary on toxic masculinities- i had to publish this in the most easily dispersable way i knew how. I'm glad i did too, i think this is a perspective that needs to be out there. And a lot of people have been seeing this- Freakin hits went from 20 a day to 500!!

To respond to your comment, yes, that paragraph that lists those specific violations was the hardest to write, and for many seems to be the hardest to read. I had to purge that, it was just so sad. I am clear that misplaced anger usually hurts those close by, as in any situation involving abuse. The controversial conversation around WHAT would be appropriate to destroy and where to direct rage (besides organizing, etc) continues....

Thanks for your words as an anarchist too! Much appreciated, i really needed some perspective there! I do also hope people stay present with their actions in these times, and be clear as to what aims are desired. Are there ideological clashes between POC anarchists and white anarchists? Probably, huh? It is in most movements... probably being anarchist isn't about being part of a monolithic idea/movement either...

Thanks again for your comment, and for the consciousness raising work you are doing as well! Gonna dd your blog to my "resources" and "community" blogroll. Bless up comrade!

richard said...

actually, its now under "on point blogs" and "community". one...

richard said...

Therese! so good to see you here! i'm feelin you, you know i'm feelin you 100%. had to write about this. i'm glad that i could help provide alternatives to sensationalist mainstream media.

thank you for your love and support as always FriendTherese :)

Anonymous said...

Peace Richard! We met through Aimee Suzara at some club or another and I got heads up about your blog account of the Oakland protest/riot from Shash Yazhi. So glad I did. As a native Frisco head who had to head back to school in Indiana the day after the riot, my heart ached to leave the Bay in such a state. What do I do with all this anger and sadness way the fuck out in the mid-west far from my community? Your blog entry inspires me to write a story about it. I am in an MFA fiction program, after all. Give thanks for your words and the ripple effects they have. Onelove

Anonymous said...

Hi Richard. I followed this link from a friend. We met in my living room late last year, with Nalo and David.

I was at home with the twins the night of the protest and riot -- I contemplated going down to Fruitvale with the whole family, but the logistics weren't in my favor. It was strange, being up on the hill, knowing that something was going on in my old neighborhood (14th/Jackson), but not sure what. Just helicopters, all night long, and news reports that I knew better than to trust much. We stood in the driveway and watched the lights

I am glad for your account. Thank you. Hope to see you around.

Jeff Pollet said...

One more "thank you" for this. I had a similar impulse to head over there that night, but I didn't. Thanks for your words and actions.

Unknown said...

This is incredibly powerful. Wow. I hope you don't mind if I share this--we all need a few more candles in the world.