You, Me and a Thousand Strangers: Popular Mass Direct Action in Oakland after Ferguson

Posted on December 30, 2014

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Interstate 80 freeway blocked in both directions by thousands of protesters on Monday, December 8 in Berkeley.

Interstate 80 freeway blocked in both directions by thousands of protesters on Monday, December 8 in Berkeley.

Over the years, especially in Oakland, critical periods of political resistance have taken on a pretty predictable character, with radicals, liberals, progressives, media and politicians all playing what seem to be ever more concretized roles.

Protests are ignored until something is broken or a trashcan set alight, liberals cry over the shards and ash, politicians and their media denounce the “violence”. Liberals and non-profits whitewash the protests as a Caucasian tantrum, out of sync with people of color and progressive organizing.

These roles have existed for years for the simple reason that people have become used to them, and even proactive in assuming them. Entire odes have been written in the radical and anarchist zines and online listening posts as songs of glass and fire. Liberals for some time have been unable to envision anything more than a compulsory phone-in protest , mostly meant to prove to any community that even knows they exist that they are relevant, while they work the phones for handouts or nothing and call it victory—they spend the rest of their time looking for ways to denounce and invalidate more robust actions, “violence” giving them an easy way to do so. And politicians are generally insulated from pressure or having to take responsibility for police violence they order with the violence narrative, which seems to have a hypnotic effect on the mainstream, narcotizing them into acceptance of minor vandalism as a hurricane of death and destruction that’s stopped short of their doorstep only because of the thin blue line.

Out of this hazy murk of groundhog-day protests, however, the freeway blockade has begun to emerge as an increasingly attractive option in the protest arsenal.  Freeway targets have probably been at the edge of the collective consciousness since the days of the Rodney King protests, when student protesters took the freeway and occupied the Bay Bridge. There have also been relatively limited bursts of freeway blockades that seem to disappear as abruptly as they appear. I wrote last year about an ad-hoc takeover of the 880 overpass that overlooks the OPD headquarters during the anti-racism actions that occurred around the Zimmerman acquittal. The tactic was again attempted later that same night on Lakeshore, but in contrast to recent momentum on the street, there was a definite collective fear of pushing the target too far and drawing violence and arrests from the police. The tactic did not have a popular character, and was poorly populated and deemed too radical for general audiences.

I’m not interested in retreading the [so-called] “violence” issue, nor in presenting direct action blockades of chokepoints like highways in direct competition with the tactic of spectacle vandalism. This is simply meant to be a cataloguing and characterization of some of the many attempts I witnessed by protesters to break out of the confines of this narrative and flip the script with direct action. As such, I won’t pay much attention to acts of property damage, though they typically occurred in the immediate aftermath of the direct actions I’ll describe. Many, if not most, of these protesters I saw leading marches on to freeways, are men and women I’ve never seen before in the well-worn activist circles I know in Oakland. My personal feeling is that a new emerging group of POC and Black street protesters are no longer satisfied with political action as usual, and are rejecting the narrative that they have seen played out on their TV screens over the past few years. They know what direct action is, and they realize that there are a multitude of convenient chokepoints all around them that are too ubiquitous for authorities to defend.

The movement to occupy these chokepoints is embodied quite elegantly with the hashtag and chant #shutitdown, a term d’art that had been drained of meaning for a long while, but is enjoying renewed definition. The tactic no longer seems “too radical” for mainstream protesters who may have thought they were coming out to march for an hour or so, but find themselves being okay with blocking a freeway with a thousand strangers instead. Many of the actions in Oakland had their starting point at Oscar Grant Plaza [aka Frank Ogawa Plaza], a natural convergence point because of its historicity, its location at city hall and as a nexus for North and West Oakland. Actions in Berkeley following police violence, had their start in front of the University, but gathered most of their numbers along meandering marches that inadvertently headed through populated parts of the city and areas close to Oakland.

That is to say, many claimed to be in leadership positions throughout this period, but in most cases, the highway takeovers were spontaneous acts spearheaded by people who probably didn’t know who’d called the march and weren’t listening to the megaphones. I don’t recall hearing a call to rush the onramp ever coming from a megaphone throughout this entire period, in fact.  Rather in every case, it was a sudden cacophony of voices and chaotic momentum of bodies that rapidly became uniform and organized as targets of opportunity came into focus, and these inspired the movement of the larger crowd behind them. I’m only discussing what I heard and witnessed, with the obvious corollary that in protests that often numbered in the thousands, there are only so many events that one person in the middle of it all can be aware of. It’s clear that this moment, like any other, has a logical point of exhaustion. To have a complete conversation about efficacy as well, one would have to include goals, and I’m certainly not going to open that chest.  Rather, this essay is meant to encourage people to keep thinking critically along these lines, while keeping the idea of direct action foremost, as well as maintaining and increasing its popular nature while avoiding the consecration of any particular tactic or target.

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Monday, November 24, 2014: The 580 Blockade OGP was the logical ignition point for Oakland’s protests around the Ferguson Grand Jury decision, so much so that more than one standing organization had planned an event in anticipation of the verdict on the 24th, whatever it might be. An early evening action by a vanguardist group had made a half-hearted attempt at taking the 880 earlier in downtown Oakland, but were blocked by police. The group returned to OGP and fed into a much larger agglomeration that was coalescing around the verdict’s release, which keep getting pushed back. People began marching again, initially with no clear direction or agenda. The verdict was released. The energy was palpable. It soon became clear, as the group marched down Grand Avenue to Lakeshore that a highway takeover was at hand. Whether this was the actual goal of the people who’d placed themselves in front of the march, whether it began to form organically based on the trajectory and the obvious goal, or whether it simply happened spontaneously, is hard to say. But when the huge march reached the police line that had been called out to guard the off-ramp on Grand, a vanguardist organizer was shouting “Piedmont, Piedmont” into their megaphone. The march began to amble into Lakeshore, again with no clear focus. But seconds later, some people at the front of a splinter contingent sprinted toward the long off-ramp behind the Lakeshore Shopping Center—police had left it completely unattended.

The off-ramp was perfect for a large crowd: long and meandering, lacking barriers of any kind to the street with only a small island of ivy between it and the adjoining.  There was a massive roar as the group began sprinting toward the entrance. The much larger crowd of thousands followed. Many stayed on the sidelines around the off-ramp, inadvertently blocking police and other traffic. But hundreds began marching up 580, in between cars, hopelessly clogging the freeway. Police and CHP were on the scene, but the unbelievable mass of people prevented any real action on their part.  For at least an hour the group held the west bound freeway, although a smaller group barely escaped arrest when trying to take the East bound lanes. Police gave dispersal warnings that had variable effects. Although many people made their way off the highway, the crowd’s sheer size blocked the off ramps and protected those that remained in the lanes.

After a while, many from the crowd split off without a clear goal, perhaps intending to head back to OGP. But as the group again made their way to Grand, it became clear that the other ramp off of Grand Ave. for Eastbound 580 that had been previously guarded by police was now unattended. The group again moved up, immediately blocking the off-ramp and adjoining street by sheer force of numbers. The actual highway takeover had less success. The police were able to respond much more quickly and stage on the freeway itself, preventing the bulk of the group from making their way on. They then began to swing their batons, which knocked some people over the railing at one point to the ground a dozen feet below—clearly, the safety of the protesters, which is always the McGuffin of police violence, was of no concern to the police. The sea of people was truly inspiring.

And within even this more modest action that experienced far less spectacular results, some incredible acts of direct action occurred. Some tore down a fence separating the street from the off-ramp, as a way of providing access to those still on the shoulder if the police rushed them. The fenced pedestrian overpass was lined with people grasping the chain link fence as witnesses and testament to the reserves this group could bring to the ready.  Hundreds more lined the freeway shoulder. Below on the street and off-ramp a squad of police cruisers tried to make their way up the off-ramp to help clear protesters. They turned on their sirens and lights, with the expectation that people would scatter before the traditional signal of potential violence. But people did not move. A small group in front of the cars refused to yield. And a larger group of hundreds behind them were vocal about their resolve as well, some even moved off the street and into the off-ramp to help. A group of young women of color wearing masks linked arms in front of me at the mouth of the off-ramp—they then began to move forward with a resolve I still find extremely moving.

Before this awesome display of popular power and solidarity, it was the police that yielded, to the cheers and amazement of the crowd—to me, it was the most palpable and direct victory in the evening despite being one of the least reported. The effect and its larger symbolism could not be ignored. Finally, another group of hundreds that had still been contesting the other side of the freeway made their way to the other freeway off-ramp. Taking advantage of the support, the groups linked and moved back down Grand toward OGP. There were few arrests throughout the entire action—the power of the people prevailed.  Altogether, the 580 was paralyzed for about 3 hours.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014: The 980/580 Blockades Early in the evening, a small group of about 200 marchers managed to catch the police off-guard and walked right on to a 980 onramp on Castro street in downtown Oakland [the last time police would be caught flat-footed on this street].  After a brief blockade of about 30 minutes, the group moved off the freeway which is completely open on the West Oakland side, just a few steps ahead of charging police. The group marched briefly through the West and returned to OGP where hundreds more protesters who’d gathered for a 7pm callout greeted them with cheers. The larger group that departed on a subsequent march from OGP found less luck at first. Police were way ahead in blocking all logical on and off-ramps adjacent to downtown. After a long meandering march that led the group up Telegraph, some in the group noticed a break in the chain link fence, and a short climb up a moderately steep ivy-covered hill to the 24/580 exchange.

The two sets of barriers, however, created a barrier—more psychological than physical—for all but a few. The action was one of a handful during this period in which a majority of those blocking the freeway were arrested. A subsequent street melee with police ensued that went on till the early morning hours on the streets of Berkeley and Emeryville.

Friday, December 5, 2014: 880 Blockade and West Oakland BART Shutdown An action had been planned on Facebook to coincide with First Fridays—a monthly spectacle sponsored by the city and elite art galleries that have gentrified the Uptown and downtown areas, heavily policed and mediated.  Despite all this, the relatively free of charge monthly street festival attracts thousands, and is a destination for many people of color from the city’s poorest neighborhoods taking advantage of an affordable night out in their price range. Fearing a reality where disaffected black and brown people mixed it up with the more politicized actors out on the streets, the city publicly cancelled First Friday, using a laughable pretext of inclement weather. In an obvious tip of their hand, the city also cancelled January’s First Friday—a month away. The cancellation of one of the key attractions of Oakland’s  gentrification Wurlitzer for two months running is a significant testament to the power of December’s protests. The protest occurred anyway.

A solidarity protest that disrupted the Jack London Square Christmas tree event, joined a disparate crowd of protesters and the not-necessarily disposed groups of people unaware of the city’s cancellation of First Friday.  With no plan whatsoever, the group marched toward the police station on Broadway and sixth, and was blocked by a double row of OPD  blocks away. While some at the front engaged police verbally, the group, probably exceeding a thousand people at this point, began to lose cohesion and drift. Many had simply come out to party and got caught up in the excitement, some had followed the march either out of genuine concern for the issue, or simple curiosity or some mixture of both. And others had joined when they saw action on the streets, in the same way others had in previous marches.  Despite the aimlessness which began to take hold, the crowd was still large enough to block several blocks of traffic on Broadway.

At some point, the march again cohered and began marching westward, pausing briefly at the jail, before hesitantly turning toward West Oakland on 7th avenue. Word was spreading around the crowd that they would either take one of the freeway ramps on seventh, or march toward the West Oakland Bart station and shut it down. Several in the lead took advantage of both opportunities, staging a quick turn on to the first 880 ramp that presented itself. Hundreds followed up the ramp. A somewhat higher proportion of the crowd also numbering in the hundreds balked and stayed at the bottom of the ramp. Ironically, those that stayed behind inadvertently created a buffer between police and the action on the freeway, preventing any access of authorities to the ramp. Both sides of the freeway were closed for a half hour before CHP was able to access the freeway from another area and give dispersal orders. This was probably the most contentiously led action I witnessed. Throughout the action, a self-appointed vanguardist megaphone leadership tried again and again, inscrutably, to direct the crowd on a long march to Fruitvale Bart.  This was the most absurd example of these attempts to lead for no apparent reason than to lead, as they were attempting to direct people into a 4 mile walk out of the city center with no clear objective.

Finally, at one point, a young black woman emerged from the crowd to grab the megaphone out of the hands of the self-appointed leadership, and spoke so forcefully that she silenced [for a time] the unfathomable Fruitvale plan. In anticipation of the still huge crowd, numbering close to a thousand,  BART and law enforcement closed the station and shut down the trans-bay tube. A smaller group, chanting the name of Oscar Grant, was not through yet, however, pulling and mangling the security grating and heckling BART police stationed inside the station. This was perhaps the most purposefully coordinated action that showed the potential for the tactics that were being developed on the street—a highway and transit shutdown that occurred with only one arrest that I’m aware of.

Sunday, December 7, 2014: Highway 24 Blockade Berkeley subsumed the Oakland locus due to a, by now, well documented series of extreme acts of police violence during a very ineffective and aimless action in Berkeley on Saturday, December 6.  The Berkeley protests became known for their ability to change with startling quickness from relatively white, university-bound small gatherings, to popular, racially diverse, explosive direct action marches.  Leadership by megaphone remained again a thorny obstacle to efficacy at these actions. As in the example of Friday the sixth, the “leadership’s main objective seemed to be taking burgeoning crowds and grinding them mercilessly into fruitless exhaustion in hare-brained tours of empty administrative buildings. On Monday, after hours of such marching with no particular clue or target, a contingent of 2 to 300 protesters broke off around the Oakland-Berkeley border, intent on blocking a freeway at the next opportunity.

The larger contingent followed the megaphone to the stated destination of the Berkeley Mayor’s home. At the front of the break-away march were mostly young people of color, exasperated with marching in circles, and wanting to shut something down. Many in the larger contingent eventually heard about the smaller group, and rebelled against the megaphone leadership, heading down Telegraph to join the smaller group in the lead. The two groups coordinating in numerous ways, both IRL and text, settled on the freeway entrance on 51st street for Highway 24, which connects Oakland to white-flight affluent suburbs like Walnut Creek. CHP had already arrived to guard the off-ramps on 51st and by the time the smaller leading group arrived, there were half a dozen in a line guarding the parallel on and off ramps. The hundreds that arrived at the intersection of 51st and Shattuck held down the space and waited for the other group to arrive.

Word began to spread of a bold plan to simply steam past the officers with numbers and momentum too great for individual police to actually do anything. The groups merged and after a few minutes of cries to rush the line, hundreds barreled toward the entrances. The CHP immediately began taking giant steps backwards, which only emboldened and inspired the protesters, who surged forward on to the off-ramp as the police line broke apart. The momentum faltered [and according to some, was coopted, again by megaphone leaders], leaving 2 or 300 of what could have been a thousand or more to hold the freeway.  This was enough to do so for about an hour, and was even sufficient to cover the exit off the freeway as well, which again, occurred without an arrest that I’m aware of. [Some well-known property destruction began thereafter, as the crowd swelled to even greater numbers on the way back to Berkeley. That story of course is well known. ]

Monday, December 8, 2014: The 80/Amtrak Blockade The Berkeley actions culminated in a social media advertised event that brought out thousands on Monday. Again, megaphone leaders attempted to lead the march on a series of fool’s errands with no apparent value. But nascent leaders were effective in diverting the gigantic march back down University, aiming the throng at the freeway ramps to 80. When the gigantic crowd arrived at the short overpass before the 80 entrance, two rows of several dozen CHP police in riot gear were there to meet them. The group was stymied. Individuals came up with a series of alternative plans, and though each failed in some sense, the efforts contributed in the end to a spectacular result.

A breakaway group began agitating to move a block north and go around the blockade, hoping to find the opposite side free. This was much more difficult than it seemed, getting enough people to not only move in a coordinated way, but to move fast enough to outpace the police response. The fact that even 200 or 300 were moved north and around this way, in my view, is remarkable. The move failed, however, and the breakaway group split. One group went toward the adjoining train tracks, and the other toward  the northern end of Aquatic park where there was a foot bridge that led to a ramp on the other side of the freeway that many believed would be unguarded. The police beat the first of the group to the footbridge, but as the rest of the group arrived, a young black man directed people to a jogging path that went through the park and ran parallel to the freeway.

Except for a small sliver at the far northern end of the park, the space between park and freeway was blocked by a short chain link fence—not a great obstacle for most to circumvent individually, but as in previous situations, more of a psychological barrier that broke mass momentum. For a moment, the group seemed routed. About half a dozen young men of color moved further down the jogging path away from the area being occupied and monitored by CHP, where in almost complete darkness they wrestled with the chain link until they successfully pulled a small portion of it off its stakes. A small contingent of no more than ten blocked traffic for a few minutes, but realizing their numbers were nowhere near sufficient, balked at continuing and risking arrest. Minutes later, however, a larger group found the downed fence, and began accessing the freeway. When more people arrived, the crowd took down more of the fence. Then, an even larger crowd—those that had been blocked at the University police blockade and had been led on yet another fool’s errand by people with megaphones, rebelled and returned to lend their numbers to the efforts. The crowd, now numbering in thousands, definitively took and held the northbound 80 lanes.

A smaller group of about 200 broke away and crossed to the other side, and began marching southbound with the ambitious goal of taking the Bay Bridge, zigzagging from north to southbound lanes in a tactic that stymied CHP kettling for an hour, before they were finally forced off in Emeryville, and were detained and arrested using less lethal weapons. During the 80 takeover, the group that had earlier headed toward the tracks blocked an Amtrak train, stopping service on the main north-south track through the east bay area. CHP, Berkeley PD and other police agencies helping through mutual aid were virtually helpless for hours—on social media, those following police scanners recounted confused and bewildered cries of impotence from CHP and other police agencies, unprepared to deal with such huge numbers focused on direct action. The blockades lasted at least 4 hours, with cars backed up in both directions for miles, trains completely halted and with police at one point setting up checkpoints around the area of Aquatic Park in Emeryville to prevent more activists from joining in.

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The large marches of late November and early December have died down again in late December.Given the extraordinary efforts that many within them took, that’s not too surprising. Burnout is an obvious issue. As I wrote earlier, it’s still too early to tell whether the move toward both spectacular and effective direct actions will take root in Oakland’s activist circles, becoming the new baseline. Part of the success of so many freeway blockades, ironically, is that they lose some of their impact on the public screen and become part of the everyday. And the danger of that is that it inclines spectators to tune out, and participants to either up the ante or stay home.

This is, however, an unusual period of dynamism and energy—smaller, more controlled and directed actions in Oakland have no doubt been inspired from the hustle on the street, and are keeping the fire burning in down-periods while protesters collect their strength. This amazing forging of direction, passion and action from the anger and energy of spontaneous gatherings of thousands of strangers may just be the opening salvos of a long continued battle against white supremacy and state violence.

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