The protest was peaceful. Then the police shot tear gas. At least 10 canisters went off, according to The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong. Officers clad in riot gear ordered protesters to go home before the 8PM curfew. Then they arrested 40 people.
This was the scene that aired on Fox KTVU and NBC News, which featured aerial footage of tear gas and mayhem as people ran from the police. But it’s not the full story. Before the warnings, and tear gas, and handcuffs, the protest had been peaceful for hours. “Mainstream media is pushing a narrative about these ‘riots’ we had,” said Brianna Boyd, a 20-year-old protestor. “They’re trying to dampen the message by not showing the peaceful protests.”
The event, organized by students at Oakland Technical High School, came after three days of demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The previous Friday, a protest had turned violent, as officers threw tear gas and flash-bang grenades on protestors pitching glass bottles. Businesses were burned and looted, with messages of “stop the spread of racism” and “ACAB” scrawled across statues and doors.
Organizers of the march at Oakland Tech urged demonstrators not to recreate the scenes that had played out over the weekend. As the young and diverse crowd convened at 4PM, speakers explained the protest was meant to be peaceful and not a chance to harm local businesses. Overhead, police helicopters circled, partially drowning out their voices.
Many of the protesters I spoke with on June 1st had been involved in Black Lives Matter and voiced frustration that the same chants they’d been using in 2014 were still relevant today. Parents arrived at the event with small children touting signs that decried police oppression. Volunteers stood on the sidelines directing traffic and slowing people in front who walked too fast.
“I don’t like black folks getting killed, it’s pretty simple,” said Darrell Owens, a 23-year-old protestor from Oakland. “It’s shocking to see even conservatives say this killing is wrong. They’re like ‘Black Lives Matter was right this time.’ No, Black Lives Matter was right every time, we just have film now.”
Almost every protester was wearing a mask, sweating as they stood in the thick heat. An EMT handed out protective gear for the few who didn’t have it. When asked if he was nervous about the threat of COVID-19, particularly with such a large gathering, he said, “I think it’s a danger, but some things are worth it.”
Around 4:27PM, a buzz sounded throughout the crowd and people began pulling out their cellphones. An emergency alert had been sent out. “Alameda County Sheriff has issued a Curfew Order for the entire County beginning tonight at 8:00 pm,” it read. “Shit is going to get crazy tonight,” an older demonstrator said, shaking his head.
Most protesters didn’t seem perturbed. “I’m here because I want to do whatever I can to turn this unjust system around,” said Mell, who asked that I only use her first name. “It’s a system that only benefits a few elite.” She and another protester named Miguel held a banner that read “Defund police, defend black life.”
Law enforcement presence was minimal as the crowd marched down Broadway Street. After two miles, the protest reached its destination: Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. The event had originally been scheduled to end at the police station, but the road was blocked off, and the organizers adapted. At the plaza, Stanley Petey Cox, a rapper who goes by the name Mistah F.A.B., gave a passionate speech about the need to organize and take action. “We’re here because we’re fed up. This is a boiling point, America,” he said.
Around 7PM, police officers began forming lines to block off the entrance to the freeway. While one demonstrator went up and hugged each officer individually, others confronted them, saying, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
For many, this was as violent as it got. The vast majority of people began to disband, while some stayed behind to continue protesting. Wong, the journalist who tweeted about the tear gas, said that 20 minutes before curfew, a few water bottles were thrown, and things started to escalate quickly. “I never heard an unlawful assembly declared,” she wrote.
On Twitter, Oakland police said arrests were made only after protestors were repeatedly told to go home. “After giving multiple orders to disperse, our officers detained more than 40 people for violating curfew. Reminder the curfew expires at 5 AM. Please stay home,” the tweet read. “Defund the police,” one commenter responded. “Shoot all looters,” said another.
Watching people slam the protesters on Twitter for breaking curfew and bringing their kids to an event, I felt like I’d been at a different gathering. The scenes of arrests and tear gas had happened — and I’m glad it was all documented and shared — but they were a small part of the four-hour demonstration. Online, they dominated the news. People were still posting about the peaceful protest. Their videos just weren’t getting as many views.