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Today, volunteers and business owners have been cleaning up the aftermath of Friday night’s protest in downtown Oakland, which was sparked by pain and fury over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer. Social media has erupted with conflicting views about who was involved in the massive destruction left behind — especially when it comes to protesters’ race, age and their relationship to Oakland — and what they achieved.
Reporting on the scene, I witnessed a racially diverse gathering of mostly young people who, as night fell deeper and the makeup of the crowd continued to shift, were more and more intent on confronting the police and destroying downtown’s façade.
Tension boiled. Protesters lobbed glass bottles at the police. Officers fired tear gas and flash-bang grenades, which sent demonstrators fleeing and then advancing again to the skirmish line. Around 9 p.m., OPD declared the protest an unlawful assembly. By this point, demonstrators were already marching towards the traditional epicenter of civil unrest in Oakland: 14th and Broadway.
Once there, hundreds of protesters broke into banks, drug stores and office buildings, lighting fires in the streets, burning a Walgreens and Chase Bank, dancing atop cars and scrawling anti-police messages on many surfaces.
Further north on Broadway, a large group of people ransacked the new Target store at 27th Street and raided auto dealerships. Others stole a small bulldozer from a construction site and drove donuts in the streets while fireworks exploded overhead. Lines of police officers in riot gear advanced, throwing gas and explosives in several, mostly futile, attempts to reclaim small parts of downtown. Ultimately, 22 people were arrested, according to OPD.
Two contracted federal security officers were fired upon at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building. One of the officers was killed and the other hospitalized and in critical condition at the time of this report. It remains unclear whether this shooting was connected to the protest.
The chain of events began on Thursday with an anonymous and very brief call for “vengeance” in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project, a leading local organization on issues of police brutality and racial profiling, issued a statement earlier in the day expressing concern about the anonymous call to action and advising people who planned to attend on how to stay safe.
The coronavirus pandemic was on the minds of many who attended Friday night’s mass gathering, but, as one young Black couple put it to a reporter, “We have a three-year-old. Forget COVID-19; we’re willing to risk it for a better place for her in a few years.”
The widespread downtown property destruction has been upsetting for many Oaklanders, in particular the vandalism of community institutions like Youth Radio and small Chinatown businesses.
Conflicting claims and narratives about who was mostly responsible for the vandalism and looting are spreading fast on social media. Videos of young white people smashing windows while Black onlookers criticize their actions have been widely shared. Some observers say white protestors were largely responsible for the destruction last night.
Other observers and reporters who were at the protest say those widely shared videos don’t match the full picture of what they saw on the ground, and that they witnessed white, Black and brown folks involved in the destruction. This was my own observation.
Oakland’s elected officials, police and business leaders have issued statements condemning the property destruction while assuring the public that they stand on the side of protesters in calling for justice for George Floyd. Mayor Libby Schaaf said the city created a “safe space” for protest but that demonstrators’ rage “crossed a line.”
Last night’s events have reminded many of the Oscar Grant rebellion, though, at that time, East Bay leaders were not as direct and immediate in their calls for firing and prosecuting police officers.
Some people I spoke to last night who attended previous protests in Oakland related to the killing of Grant, the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, told me Friday night was unlike any they’ve ever seen. They said something felt different and dangerously new about the crowd’s fury. It’s unclear what, if anything, will happen downtown tonight.