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As today’s terrible events unfolded—a mob of extremist Trump supporters broke into the Capitol building to prevent democratic processes—many noted the wholly inadequate law enforcement response. Police were either unprepared or unwilling to use force to stop the mostly white rioters from marauding through Senate and House hallways and chambers. A woman was shot and killed in the Capitol, others were injured, and the work of counting the electoral college votes was delayed as our elected representatives fled from the mob.
When Black and brown Americans engage in disruptive political protest, they’re often met with overwhelming aggression by law enforcement. Today’s events underscored this discrepancy, just one of the ways that Americans of color are treated differently by police.
We asked seven Oaklanders, who all have various experiences with local community organizing, to give us their thoughts about what happened today, why this wasn’t a protest, and what it means for our community and country.
Denis Ivan Perez Bravo, photojournalist who covers local protests
Denis Ivan Perez Bravo is an undocumented Oakland-raised photographer with Richmond Pulse, a youth-led media outlet. He’s covered hunger strikes in Antioch, civil unrest throughout the Bay Area, and a Proud Boys rally at UN Plaza in San Francisco.
Having covered protests led by people on very different sides of the political spectrum, Perez Bravo has noticed a stark contrast in how law enforcement officers approach Black and brown protesters compared to their handling of Trump supporters, who are far more likely to be white.
“I have seen two types of responses, one being very militant and threatening towards protesters,” he said about police responses to Black and brown activists. “When it comes to right-wingers, there’s a lot of leeway. I have seen police officers and Trump supporters take selfies with each other,” a phenomenon seen in D.C. today as well.
“Of course there’s always arrests on both sides, but you can’t negate the fact that they feel comfortable around police officers,” Perez Bravo said, describing the “two Americas” he feels we live in.
He’s been expecting a disturbance like today’s mob takeover of the Capitol. “It’s logical,” he said. “All the events that have transpired since Trump was elected have led up to this moment.”
Cat Brooks, executive director of Justice Teams Network
“If you’re surprised about what’s happening in D.C. right now, you haven’t been paying attention,” said Cat Brooks, executive director of Justice Teams Network and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, in a phone interview today. “Trump has been allowed to run amok within the Republican Party, and allowed to espouse hate and lies. He’s repeatedly used his rhetoric to mobilize violence against marginalized community members, and now that violence has turned on the Capitol.”
Brooks, an Oakland resident, has led protests against police violence in the Bay Area for over a decade. Some of the rallies and direct actions she’s been involved with have caused interruptions of Oakland City Council meetings, freeway shutdowns, and other disruptive moments, all which might seem tactically similar to the takeover of the U.S. Capitol today. But Brooks said the differences are immense.
“What’s different is the not-so-subtle threat of violence,” she said about the protesters in D.C. and their supporters, many who have espoused the use of violence to prevent the transfer of power to the Biden administration later this month.
“What’s different also is the place where it’s coming from,” said Brooks. She said direct actions she’s taken part in may have been disruptive, but they came “from a place of love” meant to undo structural violence and inequality. “White people shutting down Congress are doing it in the name of hate and white supremacist violence,” she said.
Scenes on social media and TV from today’s events concern Brooks. She said it’s a particularly dangerous time for Black people in America as racial hatred is once more stirred up. “I think Black people, even here in Oakland, should be careful.”
But she also sees what’s happening in D.C. as a sign that the nation is changing for the better. “When something is dying, and it knows it’s dying, it fights harder and gasps for breath and kicks and screams, and that’s what we’re watching white supremacy do right now,” said Brooks, adding however that she thinks it’s as important as ever for people to keep organizing for racial justice.
Aishatu Yusuf, criminal justice reform advocate
Aishatu Yusuf is the director of innovation programs at Impact Justice, a criminal justice reform organization headquartered in Oakland. While she’s been an activist here for a number of years, Yusuf also lived and worked previously in Washington, D.C. She was still making sense of the events unfolding in her former home when she spoke with The Oaklandside, but was quick to say what she thinks it boils down to.
“I think this has been such a clear indication of what it means to exhibit white privilege and who gets the privilege of being seen as non-criminal in our nation. In Oakland, people were tear-gassed for peacefully walking down Broadway,” said Yusuf. “But we have white people right now literally breaking windows, climbing buildings, and threatening the lives of our legislative body.”
Watching the mayhem unfold in D.C., Yusuf drew on her experiences as a justice reform advocate. “I’m often talking about people that have committed crimes. What that means is, I have to dig a little deeper to see the humanity in folks that may have caused harm,” she said.
“But this is simple. This is literally like apples to apples: what Black people can do, and what white people can do. When Black people and Colin Kaepernick decided they were going to take a knee, kneeling was too much. But clearly, climbing up the nation’s Capitol while being armed is okay as long as you’re white. There is no greater explanation for it aside from white supremacy.”
Yusuf acknowledged that during protests against police violence in Oakland this year, some chose to break windows or instigate confrontations. The mob she’s been witnessing in D.C., she said, is entirely different. “Their entire purpose was to come out and storm and cause harm. Because this is all about race. This is about Kamala winning. This is about our elected officials saying that Black lives do matter; immigrant lives do matter; COVID-19 relief is important.”
If there’s a silver lining, Yusuf hopes that people who’ve refused to acknowledge the depth of racism and white privilege in America until now “will take a hard look at what’s happening and have a deeper understanding of what privilege looks like.”
George Galvis, founder of CURYJ and an Oakland parent
George Galvis is the executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, a non-profit in Fruitvale. He founded CURYJ to advocate for the end of punitive policies and law enforcement tactics that negatively impact communities of color, particularly youth.
In June, Galvis was one of several prominent Oakland activists who organized a successful anti-curfew demonstration. His daughter also took part in a student-led march from Oakland Technical High School calling for justice for George Floyd; he said she was forcefully arrested by OPD that evening.
Galvis followed the events at the Capitol building in D.C today, and nothing he saw surprised him.
“For many of us who have been on the front lines for demanding human dignity, defunding the police, and saying, ‘Black Lives Matter’, this is not a shock,” Galvis told The Oaklandside. “Any reasonably intelligent person could anticipate this, so the excuse that police were unprepared is a feeble attempt to defend the indefensible.”
He referred to the large mob of pro-Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol as terrorists. “I don’t think I’m being inflammatory using the word ‘terrorist’ because the definition of a terrorist is someone who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
Galvis grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s and remembers having violent run-ins with law enforcement. He was involved in a fight with another student at Herbert Hoover Middle School, which culminated in him being punched in the face by a police officer, who was white. “I was shocked. I looked at the vice principal, another white man, and he just looked away,” Galvis said.
Galvis’ personal encounters with law enforcement officers are in stark contrast to what he witnessed today. “I think if there’s any silver lining in this, it’s that hopefully this pulls the veil off people who want to believe otherwise,” he said.
Mike Hutchinson, new Oakland school board member
Mike Hutchinson, the newly elected school board member for District 5, has been participating in protests around Oakland for his entire life, particularly those focused on education issues. For the past several years, he has been active in protesting against school closures in the Oakland Unified School District.
At one meeting in October 2019, activists protesting a recent board decision to close Kaiser Elementary School were met with violence from Oakland school police, who normally did not have such a presence at school board meetings. Oakland city police were also deployed, and several attendees suffered injuries during the commotion. The school district is currently facing a lawsuit filed by some of the protesters.
Hutchinson, who was at the meeting and filmed what happened, reflected on today’s seemingly mild response from Capitol police as extremists rushed into the Capitol building, saying the two situations were starkly different.
“The protest at the school board meeting was for families, including children, teachers, and community members, to sing songs and chant. That is nowhere near storming a government building with weapons on you,” he said.
Hutchinson sees a connection between that chaotic OUSD meeting and subsequent decisions to close schools, and the fact that no existing school board members decided to run for re-election last year. An Oakland native, he ran for the District 5 seat (his third attempt) partly to have more influence on the relationship between the school board and the community.
“Leadership decides what the response is going to be. In Oakland, the school board decided to escalate and have a police presence protecting them and to unleash that force on the community that elected them,” he said.
In DC, meanwhile, Hutchinson noted, President Trump held a rally and encouraged his supporters to walk up Pennsylvania Avenue and head for the Capitol. “If that was me, I would be in jail right now for inciting a riot.”
Juan Alfredo Prieto, immigrant youth organizer
Last July, Juan Alfredo Prieto, a DREAMer and a political organizer with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, joined a group of immigration attorneys, undocumented organizers, and supporters to lock himself down in the street outside Governor Gavin Newsom’s Sacramento mansion. The activists were protesting for the release of people who are currently incarcerated in California state prisons and immigration detention facilities. Over a dozen of the activists were arrested and thrown in jail for over 16 hours, including Prieto.
Prieto noted the very different police treatment of pro-Trump insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. today. “We are living in a system that has historically prioritized the lives of white people at the expense of people of color,” he said.
Prieto wants members of the media to acknowledge their role in shaping public perceptions of social justice protests led by Black and brown Americans, like those seen after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer. “A lot of times the mass media has sort of erased what anti-fascism is, because they use Trump’s language,” he said.
He hopes that today’s events will clarify for more people what he sees as the real threat to American democracy. “If thousands of people are saying that they disagree with a democratic election, and ‘we’re going to get our way whether you like it or not,’ that’s fascism,” he said.
Tim Huey, political organizer
Today, while Tim Huey was boarding a plane back to Oakland after a week of exhausting but rewarding get-out-the-vote activism in Georgia, he didn’t realize scores of pro-Trump extremists were arriving at the Capitol.
“Fortunately/unfortunately Delta has live TV streaming on its planes,” Huey joked during an interview conducted via text message Wednesday.
Huey, who’s participated in many protests and civil disobedience actions in Oakland through Asians for Black Lives, said he can empathize with the “rush to do something so bold that you believe in, to push back at the process that you think is wrong.” But that’s where the comparison between the D.C. insurrections and local social justice protests stops for him.
“It’s a matter of power and leverage, where community activists have limited leverage in formal decision-making power,” he said. Some observers have drawn comparisons between the D.C. riots and the many times Oakland activists have taken over City Council chambers to prevent votes, he noted. But those protesters were challenging a democratic process they found inaccessible and opaque, and local policymaking affecting “the welfare of working folk and family,” he said.
“Contrast that with Trumpists who have had plenty of opportunity, leverage, and power to question the validity of the election,” and have turned up no evidence of widespread fraud, said Huey.
Huey is concerned about what today’s riots mean for the response to future, unrelated protests in Oakland and beyond.
“The on-site law enforcement have kept a sort of stance of slow, restrained resistance to the storming of the Capitol, but this may be used as rationale for far more severe responses to the next disruption of any government body,” he said. “Which honestly is more likely to be a disruption done by Black activists, coalitions of color, sustainable economy activists, Native folk, and working class folk.”