First Person: A Chaotic Night In Oakland

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday January 14, 2009 - 06:25:00 PM

The BART shooting wasn’t on my assignment list, and I had several other stories to write, so I missed all of the day’s activities on Jan. 7—Oscar Grant’s funeral, the meeting with Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, and the march from Fruitvale BART to Lake Merritt BART. About 5:30 p.m., I went down to the Oakland Y to work out. I was on the exercise bike when I saw the televised news accounts of the confrontation at Lake Merritt BART. The reporter at the scene said that most of the crowd had dispersed, and everything seemed like it was over. I went on to finish my workout. 

When I walked out of the Y sometime after 7, I could see three helicopters—I couldn’t tell if they were police or news—hovering in the air just above the downtown area, and a line of blue-blinking light police cars blocking Broadway somewhere around 17th. I decided either the police were just being cautious and wanted to protect downtown, or else the television reporter was wrong and it wasn’t really over. I walked downtown to take a look. 

As I got closer, it was clear that something serious was going on. I passed several people standing in small pockets along Broadway—some of them standing by themselves, some of them looking like they had just come out of a store or an office and couldn’t figure out what was going on, nobody talking, everybody looking in stunned silence—almost in shock—down the street at the police and the crowd that had gathered in the middle of Broadway just south of 15th. A few people, like myself, were hurrying towards the scene. Just about the same number were hurrying in the opposite direction, away. 

At 14th Street, a line of Oakland police in riot helmets—maybe 10 or so—were blocking Broadway, facing the intersection. There were small groups of people standing in the middle of the intersection at 14th and Broadway, some of them news people, all of them looking up 14th towards Lake Merritt at something I couldn’t see from my vantage point. A handful of young people were standing in the middle of Broadway, several of them spreading their fingers and throwing their arms out wide in that gesture of challenge and defiance which is the signature piece of the new generation, haranguing the police. One man in particular—a heavy-set Latino, maybe in his mid- to late-20s—was shouting and gesturing and wearing them out. I can’t remember now exactly what the people were saying, except that I remember a couple of people calling out “Rookies! Rookies!” I heard that several times from the crowd that night. In any event, all of it was things to the effect that people weren’t going to let the police get away with this any more. At least one young man was holding a poster on a stick that appeared to have been left over from the afternoon’s march and demonstration-it may have had a picture of Oscar Grant on it, and something saying “Murdered By Police.” I saw a couple of more posters like that in the next half hour or so. After that, either the people who were carrying that dropped them, or they left the downtown area, because I didn’t see the posters any more. 

I tried unsuccessfully to get through the police line—a sergeant ignored my press pass and told me I should have gotten there earlier—so I ducked through the alley to Frank Ogawa Plaza and came out the other end. Oddly, the police had not blocked the street from that side, and so I was able to get into the 14th and Broadway intersection, now directly in front of the line of police officers I had just been told I couldn’t cross. It wasn’t the first time that night that some of the police seemed befuddled and puzzled by the events of the night, even shaken, not quite sure what they were supposed to be doing but—once given an order and an assignment—making damned sure they did it. 

A second line of police was spread across 14th Street, about midway up the block between Broadway and Franklin, facing what was clearly a crowd of people in the middle of the street several feet further up the block. Except for the fact that you could see one or two placards being waved in the air in the direction of the police line, it was too dark to clearly see what was going on up 14th, even though a helicopter was circling overhead just above the crowd, and I wondered at the time why police had not brought in floodlights so they could see what was going on. You could hear shouts and, perhaps, chants from the crowd up 14th, but I could not make out what they were saying. Several newspeople were in the street or on the sidewalk, along with pockets of spectators. I heard one man who appeared to be a newsman-he was carrying an SLR camera-telling some other people that the media was being kept on Broadway and prevented by the police from getting closer to the confrontation up 14th “so the police can do what they want up there without it being recorded.” I have no way of knowing if this was true, or if this was just one of the many rumors and speculation you hear on nights like these. 




Every so often, the police brought someone back down out of the 14th Street area who they had arrested. Each time they did, some members of the crowd began shouting, “Ohhhhh! Look at them! They’re beating up the brother!” or things to that effect, many of them pulling out cellphone cameras to record the event. I kept thinking that many of the people out there wanted to be the Rodney King videographer, to catch something scandalous so they could throw it up on YouTube or MySpace and get it down downloaded and passed around all over the world. For my part, I didn’t personally see any of the arrested people being mishandled, then or at any other time I was downtown on Oakland’s chaotic night. 

I remember thinking that almost two months before to the day, I had walked along this same stretch of Broadway and watched people shouting and dancing and celebrating after the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. People had speculated, shortly afterwards, whether Mr. Obama’s election would make a difference. Perhaps, I thought. But so far, not much had changed. Not in Oakland, at least.  

I saw Mayor Ron Dellums’ bodyguard briefly, walking swiftly down 14th Street towards City Hall. I tried to talk to him, but he clearly had his mind on other things, and didn’t stop.  

It was somewhere in that intersection that I also saw Greg Edmonds, KGO Radio’s East Bay Bureau chief, and we talked briefly about the things we had already seen. I remember remarking to him that other than the trash fires, there hadn’t been any vandalism, which, I thought, was what made this civil unrest very different from the Oakland riots of 1966, or the other riots of that period. He agreed. Of course, we were both dead wrong, but didn’t know it at the time. 

After I had been in the 14th and Broadway intersection for some time, I could see the line of police begin to move, slowly, up 14th towards Franklin. The crowd in the middle of the street up 14th appeared to be retreating from them, but it was too dark to see exactly what they were doing, whether they were running or walking, whether they were moving in a compact group, or breaking up into pockets. It was somewhere at this point that I could hear glass breaking, and a fire suddenly blazed up near the sidewalk—past Franklin, it seemed like—that appeared to be a car fire. It was impossible for me, then or now, to determine whether the police began moving up 14th because people in the crowd started breaking car and store windows, or if the police sweep came first, and members of the crowd, retreating, began the vandalism in retaliation. In addition, as both the crowd and police were moving further up 14th towards the lake, it became less possible to see anything from the 14th and Broadway intersection. Most of the people who had been in the intersection began drifting away. 

The police line was still across Broadway towards uptown, so I walked down to 13th, next to Burger King, talking with Edmonds and some other people who were in the vicinity. The major part of the action appeared to be over, and the tension on Broadway had considerably eased. However, after we’d been out near 13th and Broadway for a few minutes, a line of police cars suddenly took off up 13th towards the lake, accelerating, blue lights flashing. Edmonds decided to follow them, and asked if I wanted a ride. We drove up 14th which was clear all the way to Jackson, At Jackson, there was a milling about of a crowd and a police presence in the middle of the street, so Edmonds stopped and parked somewhere near the 14th Street McDonald’s. It was around 9 o’clock by then. Edmonds took off walking through the McDonald’s drive-thru lane and I could see him cutting around towards 14th. I didn’t follow him, and I didn’t see him again that night. Instead, I stayed briefly in front of McDonald’s because I was struck by what I saw at the restaurant. There was evidence of a fire in one of the outside trash bins, and car windows smashed on 14th Street, the first time that night I’d seen that. One of the windows at McDonald’s had been broken out, some trash cans and trash were scattered in front of the front doors, and the all of the door glass was covered with what looked like some sort of opaque liquid that had hit it and run down. The McDonald’s doors were locked down and inside, you could see a clearly shaken staff and several patrons standing or sitting around, staring at the scene outside. 

Several days later, the Tribune quoted one of the men arrested on suspicion of breaking the McDonald’s windows as saying, “It was for a cause. The brother got his life took. Somebody got to pay.” And I recalled another brother who got his life took in Oakland, my colleague, Chauncey Bailey, who was shot down on 14th and Alice, a block away, after eating breakfast at that same McDonald’s. This was a night of horrible ironies. 



It was at 14th and Jackson and in the surrounding dark side streets and corners that I began to see many of the people who seemed to have been participating in the confrontation with the police—mostly young men, but a considerable number of young women as well, the men aged between maybe 15 years old and 45, the women mostly 25 and younger, but there were a few white women who could have been in their 40s or even older. The rest of these groups were an almost even racial mix—African-American, Latino, and white. I thought later, with a smile, that only in Oakland would you have a multi-cultural riot. Some of the white kids had handkerchiefs concealing the lower halves of their faces, like Zapatistas or Palestinian youth. I’ve heard claims, early on, that “most” of the people out on the streets that night were not from Oakland. I’m not sure how people could tell that, since nobody was wearing insignia identifying their city of residence. Later, I heard it said that this was proven because some 70 percent of the people arrested on Wednesday night were from other cities. But that might only mean that Oakland residents knew the downtown area better, and were easier able to avoid arrest. I don’t know. 

There was never any one “crowd” from what I observed. It was more loose groups of people, some of whom appeared to know each other, some of whom appeared to come together only in the heat and excitement of the moment. That, perhaps, is what made it most difficult for the police to contain, as once the group was dispersed in the 14th and Franklin area, there seemed to be no formed crowd for the police to go after, only roving bands that formed and reformed. Since many of the police tactics appeared to be aimed at breaking up large crowds, this only seemed to make the situation worse, and more difficult to handle. 

Whatever the case, there was an air of nervous expectancy among these groups of people, and a sense-coming from my own participation in a number of such events, myself, in earlier days-that these were people who had been involved in something on the streets, had blended into the crowd to catch their breaths or to avoid arrest, and were waiting on doing something again. Police had flooded the area, in cars and on foot, but they appeared to be milling around like people who had just missed a plane, and were not quite sure now what to do. 

I walked down Jackson, I believe, to either 13th or 12th, and began making my way slowly back up towards Broadway. At least twice, police decided to clear the area where I had briefly stopped, but there did not seem to be a plan as to what the police ultimately wanted people to do, or where they wanted to go. There remained a feeling of expectation in this area, as if something was beginning to build again. But I could see no crowd forming, and could get no sense of where things were going. Here and there, however, people tossed things (a plastic water bottle, for one) from out of the dark at the police. Unwilling to give chase down the dark streets, the police kept eyeing around warily, but did nothing else. This was the first place I saw riot police, and at least one officer walking with an automatic rifle of some sort held in his hands (I don’t know enough about firearms to be able to identify it). Somewhere in those back streets, I also came across the police riot truck parked in the middle of one of the intersections. I thought, at the time, that the riot squad was out there in force somewhere in the area, and were preparing a major move. 

People seemed to be moving towards 14th Street so I cut back over there—not quite sure of the cross-street, but it was somewhere in the vicinity of Jackson and the McDonald’s. It was there that I saw Mayor Dellums walking slowly through the crowd towards Madison, his white hair lit up by television lights. There was a crowd of people crushed around the mayor, either walking with him or trailing behind. I heard a couple of people on the sidewalk say, “Is that Ron Dellums?” “That’s Ron Dellums.” almost in disbelief, and then take up with the group following. I saw Councilmember Jean Quan in the group—the shortest one amongst all those tall people—and Councilmember Larry Reid, as well as Acting City Administrator Dan Lindheim. Dellums’ bodyguard was trying to stay by his side, but he was fighting a useless battle. If anyone had wanted to hurt the mayor, they could have, easily. 

Whether because Dellums had shown up or for other reasons, many of the angriest people in the crowd had gathered on 14th, somewhere between Jackson and Madison. While Dellums was trying to talk with people in his immediate vicinity, I saw one young African-American man standing in the street shouting at the mayor. I can’t remember exactly what he was saying; it seemed to be something critical of either the mayor, the Oakland police response and presence, or all of them. Hearing the man, Dellums turned and walked to him, got directly in his face, and told him, “Talk to me, brother.” The man stood there for several moments, haranguing the mayor. Eventually, his tone began to soften and the sound of his voice diminished, though I could not make out what he was saying. Then the mayor spoke back to him. Whatever the mayor said, whether it satisfied the man or not, it calmed him down. I saw the mayor do that once or twice more in that area of 14th. Several people began shouting at the mayor to remove the police from the area and, finally, he stopped and talked with a group of them, raising his voice so it could be heard by many, telling them that he understood their concerns, and that he had asked the riot police to stand down, and for the riot truck to be removed, and asking people to disperse. Several people said that they’d leave if the police left. Police remained in the area, but these ones were regular uniformed, not the riot police, and they were not deployed in the combat lines as the riot police had been. Very slowly, the tension in that area eased. Dellums turned and, entourage in tow, began to walk slowly back down the street in the direction of City Hall. 

I did not follow for a moment, but stayed in the area to see what would happen. Some of the people in the street followed Dellums, but several of them talked for a few minutes with others, and then appeared to slowly disperse. After a while, the area between Jackson and Madison cleared. No one can predict for certain what might have happened if something had not intervened, but it will always be my belief that the most serious confrontation of the night had been building in the upper 14th Street area, and Ron Dellums’ intervention prevented it. 

I walked to catch up with Dellums, and that’s the first time I saw the vandalism that had taken place earlier when the protesters moved up 14th street ahead of the line of police. Car windows were smashed on both sides of the street, as well as some store windows. Dellums stopped several times along the way to talk to gatherers, and as he moved on towards City Hall again, the crowd grew considerably larger. All of them weren’t happy with the mayor. One African-American woman, told that Ron Dellums was walking by, called out “Fuck Ron Dellums!” and then joined the walking crowd. It was unclear what she thought was happening, or she thought she was doing. By the Oakland Post I saw Post reporter Ken Epstein in his shirtsleeves, talking on a cellphone. I went over and started to joke with him about something, but he seemed disturbed, and told me that it had been his car which had been set on fire, and which I had earlier seen from the 14th and Broadway intersection. Epstein said, with a tone of sad irony, he had been upstairs at the Post working on a story about police brutality when someone told him that his car was on fire. If you wanted any examples of the stupidity of the night’s vandalism, this was one of them. 

The crowd moved with Dellums across Broadway towards City Hall and here was where I thought the Oakland police made their most serious error. A group of police formed a line and came in behind the crowd, clearing the streets in front of them, and forcing people to join the group in its walk towards City Hall. What had begun as a voluntary decision of angry citizens to vacate the streets to meet with their mayor, suddenly turned into a forced roundup and march by police. Several of the people at the back of the crowd, who had calmed down somewhat during the walk down 14th, grew angry again. 

A second error, this one by city staff, occurred at City Hall. A mayor’s staff member told me later that the intention had been to have the mayor go down into the ampitheater across from City Hall, surrounded by the crowd, to have the same sort of back-and-forth dialogue he’d been using on 14th to calm things down. That probably would have worked better. Instead, someone decided to have the mayor stand on City Hall steps and speak to the crowd through a bullhorn. The bullhorn was faulty, and you could hardly hear the mayor talk. Many of the people in the crowd—who had come to have a dialogue—grew angry that they were being talked to rather than talked with. Several people began shouting that Dellums should order the police to “stand down,” something which was clearly not going to happen. Dellums tried for several minutes to speak, but the crowd noise grew louder, and someone on the staff finally pulled him away from the steps and into City Hall. As he went through the door, people in the crowd began booing, but it was unclear whether they booed because they didn’t like what he was saying, or because he had left and deprived them of a target for their anger. 

A small group of young men left the area in front of City Hall and walked north towards the fountain at the beginning of San Pablo Avenue. I saw one of them, from a distance, smash one of the windows at the restaurant on the north side of City Hall, and a larger group of young men in front of City Hall shouted “free shit!” and rushed to join them. That was the group, I believe, that ran through the alleyway to Broadway and then across to 17th Street, where they smashed store windows up and down the block. 

I stayed at City Hall for a few minutes to hear an impromptu inside press conference conducted by Dellums, and then walked towards the Y to retrieve my car. I saw several car windows smashed by the fountain at the beginning of San Pablo Avenue and, maybe, the window of the police sub station as well. I walked north on Telegraph Avenue, seeing the aftermath of the crowd that had recently passed, with several store windows smashed. I remember noticing a portion of a cinder block near a smashed window at the Sears store and wondering where someone had found a cinder block in that vicinity. Later I read a Tribune account which said that Oakland police believed many of the vandals had carried such objects in backpacks, indicating their intention had been to smash windows in Oakland all along. I have no way of knowing if that was true, since other than the window in the restaurant, which I saw from a distance and which appeared to have been kicked in, I saw none of the vandalism myself firsthand. Somewhere in this area, a window had been smashed at an upscale restaurant, the patrons still inside, all of whom were sitting looking out on the street in the same kind of shock I witnessed at McDonald’s at the other edge of downtown. 

I did not go up 17th, so I saw none of the vandalism there. 

I turned briefly up to Broadway, but at the Paramount Theater, police had caught up with many of the people they believed to be responsible for the vandalism, and had blocked off the street. I saw several people sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Paramount, apparently handcuffed. The Paramount appeared to be the furthest north the vandalism spread, and I saw nothing else from there to my car back at the Y. 

And so Oakland’s chaotic night ended.