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It started with a phone call last week between two childhood friends who grew up together in Oakland. Reeling from the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Xavier Brown and Akil Riley, both 19, said they felt compelled to “disrupt the peace”—a peace in which they feel Black lives are seen as expendable.
Back home in Oakland for summer break from college — Brown just finished his freshman year at UCLA, Riley his first year at Howard University in Washington D.C.—they decided to organize a protest.
“I just had an idea one day and called Xavier,” said Riley. “We put out a call and it spread around.”
Initially, that call was a simple Instagram post asking other students from across the city to rally on the steps of Oakland Technical High School on Monday, June 1 and to march from there to the Oakland Police Department’s headquarters downtown.
“We finna march,” Brown posted on May 27. “It is a march to say: Oakland Stands With You…This is to show we aren’t letting shit slide. There’s an agenda against us. We cannot let incidents like this happen, and move on to the next ‘viral’ social media event.”
Brown and Riley didn’t want to lead an event that resulted in more property destruction, so they were careful about how they described the protest to potential attendees, adding specifically: “No destruction.”
However, they urged militancy. “We are not asking for a change of heart of the people in power,” Riley wrote on Instagram. “What we’re doing is disrupting shit, we’re saying if there’s no justice, we will continue to disrupt.”
The posts caught the attention of organizers with Oakland-based groups like Community Ready Corps, Anti Police-Terror Project, East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Sunrise Movement, and others. With a small coalition suddenly supporting them, the students’ clarion call spread further and faster. In just a couple days, Riley, Brown and their friends managed to summon the largest protest the East Bay has seen since widespread civil disobedience and unrest erupted last Friday. Approximately 15,000 people attended the rally and march, according to Oakland police who observed from a helicopter.
“We out here really just to show solidarity to Minneapolis and to everybody that lost lives to police brutality, at the hands of the brutal police system,” Riley told The Oaklandside before the start of Monday’s march.
“This is a direct response to the murder of George Floyd,” said Brown. “We are disrupting the peace with our words.”
The Instagram post invited people to begin gathering at 4 p.m. By 4:30 p.m., the mass of protesters, including thousands of high school students, parents, teachers and other allies, spilled over Oakland Tech’s lawn and into Broadway. Many attendees held aloft signs with messages calling to “defund the police” and “abolish the police,” and other slogans demanding a radical shift in how public resources are distributed and law enforcement’s relationship to local communities.
Thousands of young people erupted in cheer when Riley bluntly began his speech by saying, “Fuck the police, bruh.” He went on. “Don’t let them tell you that a few bad apples ruin the reputation of the police system,” he said in his remarks. “The police system is not a good one. They thrive on brutalizing the lower class.”
Most of the dozen or so speakers during Monday’s rally were Black youth, including current high school students and recent graduates. Some recited poetry. Others spoke of feeling “tired” of having to endure a seemingly endless loop of Black deaths and empty promises for reform. They spoke urgently about the problem of police brutality, but they also demanded systemic changes far beyond police reform.
“I’m just so tired,” said Oakland student Jacqueline Azah, who spoke at one point. She asked the thousands of attendees, especially other Black women and girls who were present, “Are you tired?”
“Yes!” hundreds shouted back.
Azah spoke about what she feels is an imbalance of images in the media which have disproportionately focused on rioting and fires in major cities, underrepresenting the widespread civil disobedience and the root cause of the unrest.
“Don’t let them fool you because they’re rioting. They want to send pictures of fires and things burning down but they will never show this,” she said, waving her arms at the thousands of youngsters gathered around her. “Not a single fucking fire in the crowd. We’re here. We’re peaceful.”
Organized in just a few short days, Monday’s rally had an impressive focus on COVID-19 safety. Student organizers encouraged the crowd to space out as much as possible, and virtually every attendee wore a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The group Mask Oakland, which formed in the 2017 fire season to distribute protective face masks to vulnerable groups, donated over 500 masks to pass out to protesters in need.
The Common Humanity Collective, a volunteer mutual aid group that works with unhoused people, donated 400 bottles of hand sanitizer. Students with allied groups managed to assemble a sizable cache of bottled water and additional hand sanitizer, which were handed out along with other supplies throughout the day.
Rick Perez, whose son, Richard “Pedie” Perez, was killed by a Richmond police in 2014, heard about the students’ march and showed up with his flatbed truck for students to use as a platform. The socialist group Speak Out Now provided a sound system. Community Ready Corps and members of other organizations volunteered to serve as marshals during the rally and march, offering to help protect the students so they could focus on expressing themselves.
“I think it’s great,” said Yael Friedman, an OUSD teacher who attended the rally. “I’m really happy to support anything that is student-organized.”
In the middle of the rally, a mass-alert text message buzzed the cellphones of attendees notifying them of an 8 p.m. county-wide curfew imposed by the Alameda County Sheriff. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and her City Administrator Ed Reiskin also declared an 8 p.m. curfew, warning that protesters out past that time would be arrested.
Authorities across the nation have started clamping down on the protests after days of civil unrest, rioting and looting that have spread to many cities. President Trump said yesterday he would direct the military to end the protests, and federal police attacked protesters and media near the White House.
After the 15,000-strong rally left Oakland Tech, it spread along Broadway, occupying much of the two-mile distance to downtown Oakland.
Meanwhile, dozens of Oakland police officers mustered at a barrier blocking Broadway. A police armored vehicle was parked nearby as the Police Chief Susan Manheimer walked among officers, thanking them for their work. Manheimer told a group of police officers that the city is considering placing some kind of “buffer” structure around the police building, which has been the target destination of at least two protests so far this week.
But rather than head to O.P.D. for a confrontation with the police, the student leaders of the Oakland Tech march directed the wave of people into Frank Ogawa Plaza for another rally. They spoke again about the urgent need for change. As much as Monday’s protest was directed against the police, organizers said, it was also about showing love for Black people.
“We out here for George Floyd,” Riley said. “We out here to show love to him.”
Shortly after the demonstration largely dispersed around 7 p.m., smaller groups of protesters, including some students, walked around downtown Oakland. As Oakland’s 8 p.m. curfew approached, police moved in with force and ultimately arrested 80 people related to the curfew, unlawful assembly and failure to disperse.
KQED reporter Erin Baldassari reported that police used gas and flash-bang grenades on a group of protesters gathered near the police headquarters at 7:41 p.m., nearly 20 minutes before the curfew took effect.
Darrell Owens, a Berkeley resident who attended the student march, tweeted that Oakland police forced students to disperse before the curfew. “The kids were hanging out in Downtown Oakland, with no instances of any documented violence, but the police got pissy they weren’t confined to ‘where they were allowed to march’ and started tear gassing the entire group,” he also wrote. “Most of the kids were chatting or heading out. No violence.”
Overall, Xavier Brown, one of the two original organizers of the massive youth-led action, told The Oaklandside he hopes what happened on Monday will set an example for other young folks. “I want the youth to know that they have the power to organize and protest just like we did here,” he said.