May Day 2012 in Oakland

On May Day 2012, occupiers were gathering at the Oakland Plaza for a noon rally. My friend Steve Gilmartin and I had just arrived and were standing in the plaza near Broadway. Music was playing over the PA system when suddenly we heard “Police are grabbing our comrades.” We all hurried to where the police had dragged a woman off her bicycle and were arresting her. The next thing I knew, the crowd was pressing in tightly from behind me.


“We are not afraid,” we chanted, “We are not afraid” (I was very much afraid). We pushed and kept pushing. With people jammed in all around, I could only see what was happening right in front of me. The police pushed back against us with their batons, while those in front stood toe to toe with them and we were soon pushing the police back up Broadway. A huge number of cameras were recording this and we chanted, “The whole world is watching.” Then a cop started jabbing the people in front of me with his baton. “Officer Niven,” someone shouted, “You’re famous.”


Shouts and chants continued. “Police go home, Police go home.” The police retreated 100 feet or more to 15th Street. Then, suddenly, there was an ear-splitting blast, followed by two or three flash-bangs and a cloud of white smoke. I started choking and coughing. Tear gas. I didn’t see what happened next, but watching it on video afterwards, I saw that the cops had grabbed several people. When I recovered, somewhat, I could see that the police had repositioned themselves across Broadway in front of us, about 50 feet away. They weren’t attacking us now.


“Mic check. We’re done here,” the speaker with the bullhorn was saying, calling for us to return to the Plaza. The police did not pursue us. The confrontation had lasted nine minutes.


What we’d just experienced was a “snatch squad” in action. “Surgical arrests,” the police called such operations, part of a new crowd control policy which the Oakland Police Department (OPD) announced a week before. Police told newspapers that they would use specialized squads to isolate and arrest “troublemakers” before they could “ignite” others around them.


The OPD’s new policy sounded ominous. The ACLU had written the police a letter warning them that they were bound by the existing 2005 federally court ordered Crowd Control Policy and, therefore, not free to change policies whenever it suited them.


Meanwhile, there was a real possibility that the OPD could be placed in federal receivership for failing to comply with court mandated reforms. Such a prospect could also affect the nature of police actions this afternoon, hopefully inducing them to relax.


But we didn’t really know what the police would do. Earlier this year, the police had arrested 409 Occupiers. As a result, people might be too intimidated to attend today’s events. Soon, however, there were several hundred Occupiers and more arriving at the Plaza.


The rally continued. Speakers, then music, more speakers, more music. People were dancing. Others were in groups, conversing. I ran into someone from the Sunday Lake Merritt peace walk. He’d just come from a picket line at Alta Bates hospital where nurses were on strike. It was one of the numerous actions people had been doing since early that morning. A couple hundred had been picketing at the hospital. Another couple hundred had gone to Child Protective Services and others had formed a detachment of flying pickets, visiting various banks. There was also a contingent at Larkspur to support Golden Gate Ferry workers.


The crowd had grown to about 2,000. A lot of actions had taken place that morning and more were on the agenda for the afternoon. However, we seemed to be boxed in. The streets leading from the Plaza were blocked off by police in Darth Vader-like helmets, creating a war-zone ambiance in order to keep the downtown area open for business as usual. Ironically, the police, by their numbers, were unwittingly doing exactly what they were trying to prevent us from doing—shutting down the center of downtown Oakland. An even further irony was that the small restaurants which were friendly to Occupy were swamped with customers.


The Oakland police had called in “mutual aid” from five other cities plus the Sheriff and the California Highway Patrol, someone told me. “They even brought in an armored vehicle.”


“A tank?” another person asked in disbelief. “Did you say a tank?”


People all around were chuckling. Riot police are not a laughing matter, but the concept of armored vehicles for use against protesters seemed bizarre—like hunting ducks with howitzers.


As we approached City Hall, a number of police were guarding the entrances, some carrying automatic rifles. Meanwhile, the big event of the afternoon was to be the immigrant march, “Dignidad y Resistencia.” We were hoping to meet the immigrant march, but a line of riot police blocked off 14th  Street.


Just then, a blast seemed to come from the other side of City Hall near the Federal Building. Immediately, the crowd started moving in that direction.


Reaching the street, it was packed with people, probably 1,000 or more. I was pretty far back and couldn’t see what was going on up ahead. Someone had brought a mobile sound system and loud music boomed out on either side of us. People were dancing, cheering, chanting. From time to time I heard what sounded like a police bullhorn. I couldn’t make out the words. The music and dancing continued. Then people started moving back toward the intersection of Broadway.


We headed north on Broadway, then back south. There were “mic check” announcements over a bullhorn, but I couldn’t really hear very well. Then I saw Frank, wearing his brown bicycle helmet, for which reason we called him “Brown Hat.” I asked him if he’d seen what was happening. The police had ordered us off the streets, he told me. “They said they’ll use chemical agents.”


The gathering filled the entire width of Broadway and the sidewalks were already packed. Nearby was a BART entrance and I really wanted to go home. I was very scared. But I’d been through a lot with these people during the past half year—two police raids on our camp, two port shutdowns, and a lot more.


People were cheering and chanting. “Let’s go, Oakland.” Spirits were high. Motorists caught in this traffic jam honked and waved to us. Soon we were marching north. Going east on 17th Street, we crossed Franklin and turned south on Webster. The police had blocked off 14th, presumably to keep us from meeting the immigrant march. We walked around the police. Were they just going to stand down and let us go?


As we passed the library, the librarians came out and waved to us, cheering. We crossed the new bridge which connects Lake Merritt to the bay. Looking back, I saw what looked like police vans trailing us. People at the back of our column grabbed the large orange road dividers from street construction and pulled them across the bridge behind us, a temporary makeshift blockade.


Minutes later we were crossing 4th, 5th, and 6th. Most of the people around me were young. Some carried signs, some carried shields with peace signs painted on them


The significant thing about this march in Oakland was that, despite the months of police repression, over 1,000 of us took the risks, braved the dangers, and were marching. People along the streets waved to us, as did children at a school we passed. Motorists also honked and waved. Reaching San Antonio Park, we waited for the immigrant march, which eventually arrived from the opposite direction. As they came up Foothill Boulevard, we lined up on both sides of the street and cheered for them. Then we marched with them back to the Plaza.



Daniel Borgström is an antiwar activist. Photos for Mayday in Oakland are from