A sheriff’s deputy aims a less-lethal firearm at protesters on June 1 shortly after 7:38 p.m. in Oakland. Credit: Frank Sosa

What was likely a pair of water bottles thrown by protesters on the evening of Monday, June 1 in downtown Oakland prompted an overwhelming show of force by law enforcement officers, who fired numerous rounds of tear gas and other less-lethal weapons into a crowd of several hundred people, including some local students, about 20 minutes before the start of an 8 p.m. curfew.

These are the findings of an Oaklandside review of over 50 videos and hundreds of photos taken that evening, as well as social media posts, eyewitness testimonies, and government records. 

Following an intense, at times chaotic weekend of large-scale protests against police brutality across Oakland, as well as widespread looting and destruction, the city had declared an 8 p.m. curfew earlier in the day. But protesters who were fired on by police near 8th and Broadway that evening have claimed—and our review of the available evidence has shown—that the police crackdown began before the curfew did, with little warning or provocation.

“I was in the crowd tear-gassed before eight,” Samuel Getachew, a 17-year-old recent graduate of Oakland Technical High School, told the Oakland Police Commission one week after the protest. “The only thing that has been proven to be thrown was one empty water bottle.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, June 2 about what happened the previous night, Oakland Deputy Chief of Police LeRonne Armstrong said protesters “began to chuck rocks and bottles at Oakland police officers and other outside agencies” before officers fired back. Armstrong also claimed protesters were “preparing Molotov cocktails to throw towards the officers.” A Molotov cocktail is a gas-filled glass bottle with a cloth wick, which is lit before the incendiary device is thrown. Upon impact, the lit wick ignites the gas and causes an explosion of flame. 

At a press conference on Wednesday, June 3, Oakland interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer lumped the protesters from Monday night in with a group she called “violent disruptors, professional agitators.” She said police were justified in cracking down because protesters were preparing a serious attack against police. “They’re donning gas masks. They’re stacking up their bottles,” said Manheimer. “We can read the crowd and see what they are doing. They were making Molotov cocktails. We were clear this was the group we needed to target.”

The scene at 8th and Broadway after police tear-gassed protestors. Credit: Saskia Hatvany

On Thursday, June 4, we asked the Oakland Police Department for evidence backing up Manheimer and Armstrong’s claims about threats posed by protesters against police officers, including their assertion that protesters were preparing Molotov cocktails. OPD’s spokesperson, Officer Johnna Watson, said she would follow up with us about the request, but did not. On June 23, we asked again. Watson responded that OPD was investigating and that she would “follow up to see if any requested material will be released.” 

On July 2, Watson emailed The Oaklandside a response, saying investigations were underway and that “it would be inappropriate to comment or postulate on outcomes of these investigations in advance of their independent determinations.”

The Oaklandside carried out an independent review to determine the facts. We closely examined publicly available evidence, including over 50 videos and hundreds of photographs taken by protesters and onlookers. Most of these photos and videos were posted on social media the night of June 1. We found more in the following days and weeks by talking to the residents of apartment buildings near 8th and Broadway, and by inviting citizens to share verifiable information with us via social media. We examined frame-by-frame the single Oakland Police Department body camera video made public so far by the city. We reviewed police and sheriff’s records, which we obtained through public records requests. We transcribed hours of testimony from eyewitnesses who testified at a meeting of the civilian-led Oakland Police Commission. We returned to the scene the morning after, examined used tear-gas grenades and rubber bullets, and searched for evidence of other weapons used by police or protesters.

Our investigation turned up no evidence that anyone was preparing Molotov cocktails, or that protesters threw more than two items, likely two water bottles, before officers fired on them with less-lethal weapons and tear gas. The Oakland Police Department says it is still investigating the incident, and may have evidence that these threats were real. But the evidence available to the public now—more than one month since that night—reveals a one-sided eruption of violence by local law enforcement.

We also examined OPD records showing which officers were responsible for using tear gas and other less-lethal weapons that night. They included several officers who have been accused of using excessive force and engaging in other misconduct, in some cases resulting in lawsuits and expensive settlements paid by the city.

The stakes are high. Several dozen civilian complaints against the police in relation to that night are currently being investigated by the Oakland Police Department and the Oakland Police Commission, a civilian-led police watchdog group. Some protesters have gone a step further, filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city alleging that OPD violated its own policies that night. Past lawsuits related to OPD’s handling of other protests have resulted in the city paying millions of dollars to settle allegations of police brutality.

The facts about June 1 are important to discern as protests against police killings of Black Americans and wider racial injustice continue in Oakland and beyond. Local civil rights attorneys say that what we saw on June 1 appears to be part of a larger national pattern of excessive police violence against lawful protests, similar to what occurred in early June in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park and in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence that tear gas and other less-lethal weapons used that night, like rubber bullets, can cause serious and lasting injuries.

After we completed our review of publicly available evidence, we shared our findings with interim Police Chief Manheimer and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, asking for comment. Manheimer did not respond. 

Schaaf’s spokesperson Justin Berton sent us a statement: “As the Mayor made clear, any use of tear gas or force is extremely disturbing and unfortunate. She welcomes ongoing scrutiny and re-examination of our policies, which we’ve appropriately entrusted to our Citizen Police Commission to lead…The allegations in these complaints are extremely disconcerting and serious. If any Oakland officer is found to have violated our current policies as the complaints assert, they will be held accountable.”   

What follows is a breakdown of events on June 1, including a close examination of the minutes immediately preceding police attacks on protesters.

What happened Monday, June 1 in downtown Oakland?

Protesters and police at 8th and Broadway at 7:16 p.m., June 1, 2020. Credit: Scott Forman

The weekend had seen widespread civil unrest and property destruction, starting downtown on Friday, May 29, four nights after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and spreading to East Oakland on Saturday and Sunday. Police officers were attacked on all three nights, and a federal protective officer was murdered Friday night by a right-wing extremist who appears to have acted under cover of the protests.

At 12:57 a.m. in the very early hours of Monday morning, Manheimer sent an email to Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, high-ranking local officials with the FBI and U.S. Justice Department, and every police chief in Alameda County. She said the county “experienced unprecedented criminal activity this weekend and ran out of Mutual Aid resources last night to address the widespread looting.” Manheimer called for an emergency 9:30 a.m. meeting to discuss bringing more officers into the city and the region.

Other law enforcement officials were worried, too. On Friday night, sheriff’s deputies who were assisting OPD in downtown Oakland had run out of less-lethal munitions like tear gas and rubber bullets. “We are taking heavy crowd engagements,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Office commander Colby Staysa emailed his office’s command staff that night. “Out of munitions. Code 3 resupply coming from SRJ, APS, ETS and DPS,” he warned, using the code for an emergency situation, and referring to Santa Rita Jail and other divisions within the sheriff’s office. By Monday night, the sheriff’s office had replenished its supply, but law enforcement considered the situation far from under control.

By 2 p.m. on Monday, sheriff’s commanders notified OPD that they would be sending officers from other police agencies to assist Oakland. In the afternoon, 222 law enforcement officials, including Alameda and Kings County sheriff’s deputies and officers from Berkeley, U.C. Berkeley, California Highway Patrol, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and San Mateo County mustered outside OPD’s headquarters at 7th Street and Broadway.

Meanwhile, 15,000 people, including thousands of students, were rallying at Oakland Technical High School and preparing to march downtown, calling for cuts to police budgets and the end of the Oakland Unified School District’s campus police force. At 4:27 p.m., during the youth-led rally, the sheriff sent a mass cell-phone alert notifying the public that a countywide curfew would go into effect at 8 p.m. A citywide curfew had been announced earlier in the day.

At around 6 p.m., the student-led march reached Frank Ogawa Plaza. By 7 p.m., the rally ended and the vast majority of those marchers left the area, including Oakland resident Lupe Rodriguez Palacio, who attended with her two student sons.

“I had a gut feeling that something was gonna go wrong, so we left,” Palacio said in testimony to the Police Commission a week after.

Around 7:10 p.m., a group of several hundred people marched south on Broadway toward the police department. When the protesters reached 8th and Broadway, they were met by a line of about 50 Oakland police officers and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies clad in helmets and armed with tear gas launchers, batons, and firearms blocking their way. The protesters filled the intersection and stood chanting as police looked on.

Oakland resident Khatharine Rad recorded much of the scene in a Facebook live video. For a long stretch, the officers appear calm while protesters chant “Quit your job” and other slogans.

“It’s going to be pretty mellow for a minute, I think,” Rad says into the camera at approximately 7:26 p.m. “But when the curfew happens around eight, hopefully it won’t get really fucked up. But there’s a possibility.”

Two OPD officers look east in apparent reaction to an object thrown from the crowd at a group of sheriff’s deputies. Credit: Screenshot of video by Khatharine Rad

At 7:37 p.m., Rad’s video captures what appears to be several police officers reacting to an object thrown at them by someone in the crowd off-camera. Immediately after that, all of the police officers and sheriff’s deputies begin to take off their helmets and start putting on gas masks.

It’s unclear from Rad’s video what the thrown object is, and no officers appear to be injured by it. Last week, OPD released a single video from a body camera worn by an officer that shed more light on that object. In the video, the officer activates his body camera at 7:38 p.m. and states, “Just took our first bottle. All officers on the line are masking up.” 

In Rad’s video, while police are putting on gas masks, Alameda County Sheriff’s Captain James McGrail walks to the front of the police line and pulls the pin on a grenade while facing the protesters. It’s unclear what kind of grenade it was, but county records show that sheriff’s deputies used smoke, tear-gas, and Stinger rubber-ball grenades that night. Rad asks him, “Why are you doing that?” and adds, “One person threw a bottle of water.” McGrail does not reply to Rad.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Captain James McGrail holding some type of grenade in his left hand while OPD officers behind him put on gas masks. Credit: Screenshot of video by Khatharine Rad

A police officer begins making a public announcement over a loudspeaker declaring the protest an unlawful assembly. Seconds later, police on the front line react to a second object thrown at them from the crowd by pointing into the air and turning their heads. In the body-cam video, that object, which several protesters who were at the scene that night described to us as a water bottle, hits a sheriff’s deputy and bounces on the ground without shattering. 

The same minute of the standoff, around 7:38 p.m., was filmed from above by Jibril Mosley, from the window of an apartment building at 777 Broadway. In Mosley’s video, which he shared with The Oaklandside, the protesters appear peaceful, but toward the back of the crowd, a person throws an object, seen in the photo below, toward the police line. Seconds later, police throw the first grenade in the direction of this person. The blast goes off in the crowd.

A person toward the back of the crowd (yellow circle at left) threw an object (smaller yellow circle) at the police just before tear gas was used. July 1, 2020. Credit: Screenshot from video by Jibril Mosley
An Oakland police officer throws a tear gas or smoke canister at protesters. July 1, 2020. Credit: Screenshot from OPD body camera video

The intersection quickly fills with gas, and the OPD body-cam video records several more objects thrown toward the police line, including what may be a tear gas canister lobbed back by a protester. Rad runs west down 8th Street to escape the volley.

Scott Forman, who was at the protest and shared video and photos with The Oaklandside, told us the majority of protesters were peaceful. “I did not hear the warning to disperse and do not believe it was adequate, and I do not think the use of force was justified,” Forman wrote in an email. “Also, even if someone did throw something, the tear gas and flash-bang grenades were a disproportionate escalation. There was no justification for that.”

“My interpretation of it was that they were looking for any excuse to deploy gas,” Frank Sosa told The Oaklandside in an email. Sosa was at the protest and took photos. “The moment the first bottle was thrown a bunch of the cops took a knee. For a second I thought it was an act of solidarity but then I realized they got on their knee to prepare for the gas (put on the masks, ready their weapons). No sooner than the second bottle was thrown, they were firing on us.”

From another angle, in a residential building on the east side of Broadway overlooking the intersection, more neighbors watched the situation unfold. Oakland resident Erik Karki filmed the standoff from his apartment’s balcony and later posted the video to Reddit. Karki’s video shows that several tear gas canisters landed in a rooftop garden atop the Buffet Fortuna restaurant. Multiple people were in the garden at the time, including at least one elderly person who had to be escorted away. We contacted Karki, and he sent us a second video showing that police munitions started a fire on the roof. Residents of the building worked together to put it out.

According to city records, OPD officers used 31 tear gas canisters or grenades that night, but it’s unclear whether all of these were used at the intersection of 8th and Broadway.

Most protesters left the area after being gassed and shot with rubber bullets and Stinger rubber balls. A much smaller group gathered at 14th and Broadway around 8 p.m. Police surrounded this group and carried out a mass arrest at approximately 8:26 p.m., according to a Twitter post by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Matthias Gafni.

Elliott Brecht was among those cited for violating the curfew. In Gafni’s video, police can be seen grabbing Brecht and pushing him to the ground while restraining his right arm. One officer drops a grenade next to Brecht and appears to inadvertently kick it towards Brecht’s head before picking it up.

“Thankfully it didn’t go off,” Brecht told The Oaklandside. “It’s definitely something that is going to stick with me.”

According to text messages sent to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf that night and obtained by The Oaklandside via a public records request, some in Schaaf’s circle found the police response troubling.

“Just flagging that I’m watching perhaps twenty or thirty students (?) surrounded by at least double that number of police,” one person, whose identity was redacted, wrote in a text message to the mayor at 8:27 p.m. “This is ridiculous.”

Did OPD violate its crowd control policies on June 1?

Before the police crackdown on protestors began on June 1. Credit: Saskia Hatvany

The Oakland Police Department has a strict policy determining when and how officers can use force against crowds or arrest people who are taking part in a protest. Oakland’s police officers are required to adhere to this crowd control policy under the terms of three separate federal court settlements agreed to by the city in the wake of three previous police responses to protests.

In April 2003, a squad of OPD officers attacked anti-war protesters who were blocking an entrance to a marine terminal at the Port of Oakland. Police also used force against dockworkers. Among the weapons OPD used were wooden bullets “skip-fired” from shotguns off the ground into the legs and bodies of protesters, beanbag rounds filled with lead balls fired from shotguns straight into the group, and Stinger grenades that scatter tiny rubber balls in all directions along with chemical irritants.

Protesters sued Oakland, and in November of that year, the city settled by agreeing to never again allow police to use wooden shotgun rounds or Stinger grenades.

In response to the 2003 police crackdown at the port, OPD also developed a comprehensive crowd control policy. Among its rules was a directive that OPD officers should only use force as a last resort, and never punish groups of people for the actions of a few who might be throwing objects at police or breaking other laws.

But OPD has violated its crowd control policy several times over the years. In 2010, ex-BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in jail for killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant. Many were outraged at what they felt was a lenient sentence, and took to the streets. In November 2010, OPD carried out a mass arrest of 150 protesters. The protesters sued, alleging they hadn’t been given a warning to disperse and were not allowed to leave the area, and that OPD used improper force against some people, quashing their First Amendment rights.

Oakland settled the case by paying the protesters $1,025,000 and destroying their arrest records. OPD agreed to abide by its own crowd control policy going forward, and to update the policy with a new requirement that protesters arrested on misdemeanor charges be cited and released in the field instead of taken to jail.

On October 25, 2011, OPD officers were sent to another protest, this time the Occupy Oakland encampment on the front lawn of City Hall. With orders to clear out the camp, OPD officers carried out a pre-dawn raid. Police forcibly arrested demonstrators, threw flash-bang grenades and tear gas, and shot people with rubber bullets. Later the same day, protesters rallied to reclaim the downtown space, and OPD responded with overwhelming force. Police threw tear gas and grenades toward protesters at close range, in violation of their crowd control policy, which states officers should throw these weapons at a safe distance from people. Police also shot beanbag rounds and other projectiles into the crowd at head level.

According to court records, videos, and press reports from the time, a single water bottle thrown at the police triggered a “barrage of projectiles that blanketed the assembled group in tear gas” and other weapons. Scott Olsen, a Marine Corps veteran who was at the protest, was shot in the head with a beanbag by an OPD officer, causing permanent brain damage. As protesters rushed to aid Olsen, another officer threw a grenade at them.

Again, protesters sued the Oakland Police Department, alleging violations of its crowd control policy, including the policy’s overarching principle: “To use minimal reliance on the physical use of force and authority needed to address a crowd management or crowd control issue.” The policy prohibits firing prohibited weapons into groups of people, even when one or several members of a group are acting violently or disruptively. The department’s policy also requires OPD to warn members of a group that chemical agents are about to be used, and to give people time to disperse, a requirement Oakland police have ignored.

Two months after the 2011 Occupy Oakland raid, independent expert Thomas Frazier, a former Baltimore police chief, was hired by the Oakland City Council to review OPD’s actions during the Occupy protests. Frazier found that OPD didn’t follow its own policies, and that “the use of force involving less-lethal impact munitions and chemical agents was not synchronized with on-the-ground tactics to achieve public order.”

Civil rights attorneys who helped draft OPD’s crowd-control policy in 2003, and who sued Oakland in 2009 and 2011 over violations of that policy, believe that OPD is once more in violation due to the use of tear gas and other weapons and tactics during the recent George Floyd protests. On Wednesday, June 3, attorneys Rachel Lederman and James Chanin sent a lengthy letter to interim police chief Manheimer, saying police behavior on June 1 was “precipitous, excessive, and endangered innocent people.”

OPD often had help from outside agencies during recent protests. According to records we obtained from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, sheriff’s deputies used numerous Stinger grenades against crowds in Oakland between May 29 and June 1. The sheriff ordered 200 Stinger grenades on June 4 to replenish those they used largely in Oakland, according to an invoice and emails. Rubber balls from these grenades littered lower Broadway after June 1, and we reviewed dozens of them. Some protesters documented wounds they suffered from these weapons.

Does OPD’s crowd-control policy apply to outside law enforcement officers who are assisting Oakland during a protest or other major event? Lederman told The Oaklandside that OPD was responsible not only for its own officers on June 1, but also for the actions of Alameda County sheriff’s deputies. “The sheriff can disagree if he wants to,” she said, “but it’s the Oakland police that are responsible for making sure any mutual aid partners are not only briefed on OPD’s crowd-control policy and use of force policies, but that they agree with it and continue to follow it.”

Lederman referred specifically to Section 9 of OPD’s crowd control policy, which states that OPD commanders must ensure that officers from outside agencies responding to Oakland through mutual aid “do not bring or use any weapons or force that is prohibited under OPD’s policy.”

“This policy is a court order,” added Lederman, who helped draft the revision of OPD’s crowd control policy that addresses “mutual aid,” a system through which various law enforcement agencies help each other in situations like this. “OPD has to follow it.”

Police with controversial histories of using force

In Oakland, only small specialized units made up of about four to six police officers are allowed to use weapons like tear gas, grenades, and rubber bullets. These units are meant to be comprised of more experienced officers with specialized training. The department calls them “Tango Teams.”

On June 1, OPD had five Tango Teams made up of 24 officers active in the city. According to police records, those Tango Teams included several officers who have been accused of excessive force, wrongful arrest, and alleged misconduct.

Sgt. Patrick Gonzales, center, led a Tango Team on June 1, 2020. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

One of the Tango Teams active on June 1 was led by Sergeant Patrick Gonzales, who joined OPD in the late 1990s and has been at the center of several controversial incidents. In 2003, Gonzales was part of the squad of police officers that attacked protesters and dockworkers at the Port of Oakland. Over his career, Gonzales has shot four different people in four separate incidents, killing three of them. In 2011, he was part of the squad of officers who used tear gas against Occupy Oakland protesters in violation of OPD’s crowd control policy.

Gonzales was also identified in a lawsuit filed against the city last year alleging that he and a team of police officers illegally confiscated and destroyed boats that served as several people’s homes. Officer Kaleo Albino, who was part of Gonzales’ Tango Team on June 1, was also identified in the houseboat lawsuit.

Another officer under Gonzales’ command on June 1, Randy Brown, allegedly took part in an improper raid and search of an East Oakland home in 2017. According to an ongoing lawsuit brought by Oakland resident Sindy Padilla against the city, Brown and 18 other officers allegedly used concussion grenades, shot out Padilla’s windows, and entered her residence without a warrant. The officers allegedly detained Padilla and her family members at gunpoint and destroyed some of their belongings. Charges were never filed against Padilla and her family members, according to court records.

A sergeant who took part in the allegedly improper 2017 raid of the Padilla home, Thomas Sotto, also led one of the Tango Teams active on June 1, according to OPD records. One of the officers under Sotto’s command was Anthony Martinelli. In 2016, the city paid a 14-year-old Black girl and her family $60,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that Martinelli slapped the girl while she was detained at the scene of an investigation.

Another Tango Team active on June 1 was led by Sergeant Eriberto Perez-Angeles. In 2011, Perez-Angeles and another officer shot and killed 37-year-old barber Derrick Jones after he ran from them. Jones’ family received a $225,000 wrongful death settlement.

More lawsuits, more costly investigations

Officials say internal investigations of OPD’s actions on June 1 are underway. Credit: Saskia Hatvany

The events of June 1 are currently under investigation by OPD’s internal affairs unit. The civilian Police Commission has also received numerous complaints about police actions that night, and its investigative agency has opened multiple cases that could result in discipline if the Commission finds officers violated OPD’s crowd control policy or other city rules.

The number of complaints made in the aftermath of the June 1 protest was unusually large. According to Oakland Police Commission executive director John Alden, his investigators received more than 25 complaints related to police response that night, about half the agency’s annual workload, in the span of just one week. The City Council allocated an additional $200,000 for the Police Commission to hire more investigators.

So far, the Police Commission has offered the only official public forum where witnesses have been able to present information about what happened in downtown Oakland on June 1. The Commission’s June 8 special hearing on the events of that night included testimony from numerous students and others who contradicted claims made by city officials.

Another fact-finding process is also underway, and may soon answer other questions about what happened that night. On June 11, Bay Area attorneys Dan Siegel, Walter Riley, and James Burch filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Oakland Police Department and the city on behalf of the Anti Police-Terror Project, local students, and other protesters alleging that officers used “constitutionally unlawful crowd control tactics” over the course of several days of recent protest against police violence and racial injustice.

The plaintiffs are asking for an injunction against the city that will prohibit OPD from using tear gas and other less-lethal munitions against crowds. On June 18, federal judge Joseph Spero issued a temporary order restricting OPD from using tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters.

Last week, Judge Spero held another virtual hearing in the case. Beforehand, the city submitted its argument against the injunction, including 372 pages of sworn statements, city policies, police records and reports, and body-camera video. 

The city’s materials did not include photos, videos, or other evidence that protesters were making Molotov cocktails and throwing rocks at police officers at the intersection of 8th and Broadway on the evening of June 1.

Sarah Belle Lin is an independent journalist and photographer based in the East Bay.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.

Jonah Owen Lamb, a Bay Area-based journalist, has worked for newspapers across the West from Salt Lake City and San Luis Obispo, to the Central Valley and San Francisco.