Saturday night civics lesson in Oakland

“Over a dozen protesters arrested after protest turned violent Saturday night in Oakland.” A headline too routine to read, a story so familiar the news agencies barely bothered to write it, mostly posting a few spare paragraphs to recite the police line and not much else. The only article I saw that offered a more in-depth report and cited sources besides the police was by the San Francisco Chronicle. (Kudos to local journalism!)

(Photo from SF Chronicle)

What I saw was a small group of demonstrators being pushed down the street by a massive wave of aggressive officers that clearly outnumbered them. The ones shouting were the police, the ones who made me feel unsafe were the police, the ones who made me wonder if I was about to experience bodily harm were the police. Again.

The thing is, I support law enforcement and believe it is an essential part of society. My partner is currently staying with me after being evacuated from her home due to a wildfire. When fraudulent charges appeared on her bank account, we called the sheriff to ask if someone could go by the house to look for signs of forced entry. I was glad to have someone to call for a task like that, and not for the first time. That’s good law enforcement.

But Saturday night was not “to serve and protect.” When the demonstrators remained calm and the heavily armed police line finally backed off, I approached the officers to thank them, and talk. I still believe dialogue and seeing mutual humanity is important.

I asked why they were there in such numbers, he said they were protecting property. But they had more than enough officers to guard the business district and monitor the demonstration with a less threatening presence. The purpose of the overwhelming force pushing the demonstration around looked to me like intimidation, plain and simple. I have been to so many protests that stayed entirely peaceful because the police didn’t show up in large numbers. Maybe that’s the irony, they think all protests are violent because those are the ones they see.

When asked why they were being so aggressive, he gestured to the demonstrators and said they were dangerous and violent people. (At the time two individuals were yelling at the police, the rest looked like coworkers chatting over lunch.) He confirmed my supposition that he didn’t like hearing all cops labeled as murderers due to the actions of a few, but had no answer for why he was portraying all demonstrators as violent. I didn’t ask about the relative potency of a rock versus seven bullets in the back, nor appropriate standards for armed law enforcement. He had no answer as to why he thought so many people were feeling such anger, if that should be addressed, or what he expected from people when they were faced with an aggressive armed force with a well documented (and experienced) history of police brutality.

The headline said a dozen were arrested. On our way home, we saw two people being detained. One was a trans woman, one was a woman of color. Both were minors. Kids, basically. Their teacher stood off to the side, crying. The trans woman had had a can of spray paint in her backpack, her friend was just there. Both were handcuffed and isolated in a sea of flashing lights, surrounded by groups of heavily armed men several times their size.

As we passed near the young woman of color, we asked if she would like us to stay with her. With eyes wide and face too still, she gave the smallest, most vulnerable nod I have ever seen. It makes my heart ache to remember it. The kid was terrified.

The officers wouldn’t let us near the trans girl, so we could only watch when she was loaded into the back of a police van and left there. From my brief experience in 2014 I can tell you, being zip tied and locked in the back of a police van is not a pleasant experience. It left its mark on my psyche, and I was not a minor, much less someone struggling against the unimaginable trauma of feeling I was in the wrong body. She needed a counselor and a friend, not official intimidation and a record. The young woman of color finally asked to speak with a lawyer and was let go, proving that the police had absolutely no reason to detain her beyond intimidation.

This is why I support defunding police. I would gladly pay my taxes if they went to youth counselors, appropriate law enforcement, and why not, a graffiti removal team. But to see masses of “my” police force intimidating minors, perpetuating a mutually destructive cycle of antipathy, and calling it justice? That’s not what I want in my America.