Last night my neighborhood was on fire. If you’re unaware, for the past two days there have been demonstrations against the lack of indictment of Darren Wilson for the shooting of Mike Brown, and they’ve been very large and spirited in Oakland. I realize this is an extremely complicated issue, and I can’t possibly get all angles on this (and will probably catch some hell for it), but I’m going to talk about what I saw the day after, in my neighborhood.
In many cases I’ve been out there with the protesters, as part of Occupy and other demonstrations, but for whatever reason, last night I stayed home, and just watched on a livestream. It was quite striking to see fires and masses of people so close to my house – at one point they were at 52nd and Telegraph, five blocks from me, at which point police stopped them from advancing.
Last night, and the night before, freeways were also blocked.
I have a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am very angry that Darren Wilson, like any other cop, can shoot an unarmed black man and go free – not only go free, but get $400,000 raised for him by a friend of the prosecutor. The specifics of the altercation and who hit who first don’t even matter that much to me – shooting an unarmed man would land me in jail, and should land Darren Wilson in jail too. Sometimes people simply will not listen to you unless you make enough noise, and that’s where protesting and sometimes gumming up the works of daily life can be effective. Jay Smooth does a much better job of explaining this than I could.
On the other hand, the destruction that was caused, at least in my neighborhood, seems unrelated to this case and the events of the last few days. Stopping up 580 or 980 only inconveniences citizens. I do realize that shutting down commerce and transportation actually makes a bold statement – it states that everything the government and our social system accepts as standard, only exists because citizens are complicit in those systems. When we shut down the port during Occupy Oakland, the statement was “you only get to make money here because we all allow you to.”
But if you were going to make a statement about shutting down systems and gumming up the works, it should be somewhere where it makes a difference – the financial district in San Francisco, for example. Doing it here only stops people from getting home. (There is the remote possibility that it could have stymied some police movement since there’s a police station under a mile from there, but they have other means of access.)
I think the statement is still made to some extent, but it’s muddled, and much weaker than if it were done somewhere with meaning, instead of the most convenience place to do it, as was the case here (they simply walked on the 980 onramp from downtown).
Today I went on a walk through the neighborhood, to see what had happened here last night, in terms of vandalism and destruction, to see whether there were any statements made in this way. The movement of the people was South to North along Telegraph, and I was approaching from North to South.
Bakesale Betty was unscathed, but the owner was super freaked out last night, because everything basically stopped right around there. She said the police were arm in arm along 51st street, beginning to push people back.
I got down as far as Kelly Moore paints, and made my way back up from there, trying to pay careful attention. Kelly Moore is right by Arbor, a local cafe that tries to use local ingredients and provide a nice hangout for people – it is one of the newer places people could gather that is not a chain restaurant south of 45th.
So, Kelly Moore was smashed up, and paint was taken from there, and strewn along the street, as well as thrown through Arbor’s window. “Fuck go” was spraypainted on Arbor’s remaining unbroken windows.
Now, the thing that struck me was that right across the street, there was a Popeye’s Chickien, completely unscathed. This is a choice, here. You’ve got one side of the street or the other, that’s the choice – and the local business was smashed, while the chain was left alone. A block down, the word “payback” was spraypainted across the wall of the Korean Casserole House.
Kasper’s Hot Dogs, which is an Oakland institution that’s looking to reopen, is owned by a local Armenian family (who happen to be friends of my mother’s, full disclosure). It’s on Telegraph between 45th and 46th, and was spraypainted, but directly across the street, the McDonald’s was totally fine. Likewise a local business in the process of getting set up was vandalized.
When it comes down to it, the main things that were vandalized were local businesses and homes. The only exceptions are my bank (Bank of the West), a T-Mobile store (I didn’t see this, but read about it), and Kelly Moore Paints, which is still a business based in California.
Bank of the West and T-Mobile were the only actual institutions that were targeted, and randomly at that. Everything else was people who would actually care or feel hurt that this happened to them. So, were I being expansive, I could view this as a commentary on gentrification – Arbor does represent the way the neighborhood has been changing across the last 10 years or so. But I can’t actually accept that this was the message, because as I walked home, I realized that the low income housing complex, Keller Plaza, was tagged – past where the cops had attempted to push everyone back. Bizarrely, a lot of the graffiti was huge images of cacti, but also “fuck pigs” was written along the side of one of the complexes, and “No peace” was written on the driveway to the church across the way, that was serving food to the homeless this morning.
So I don’t think it was about gentrification. And since I only saw one “RIP Mike Brown” tag, frankly I don’t think it was about him either. I’m not sure it was about anything by the time it got up to the Temescal neighborhood. I suspect it was simply an excuse for some angry folks to cause vandalism and destruction. The demonstration certainly, absolutely started out being about Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, but it ended up being thoughtless destruction, which is massively unfortunate, because that becomes the story that’s told to the world, instead of the legitimate outrage. I had friends in China asking if I was alright, rather than asking what I thought or how I felt about this lack of indictment, which should be the real focus.
It is of course difficult, or perhaps impossible, to control a mob and what it will do or where it will go. Once the destruction starts, it ceases to be a demonstration and starts to become something else. And I suppose that the graffiti and destruction be viewed as more of a message to the police than it is to the businesses. But the police are only there for that one interaction – it’s the businesses that are left to pick up the pieces, and who see the word “payback” on their wall until they can afford to remove it. I’m not in favor of violence, but had institutions been exclusively targeted for disruption (not destruction) instead of local businesses, a point might still have been made. “Shut it down for Michael Brown” could have meant something a lot larger than what it did last night.
I can’t help but feel the results of Tuesday evening were at direct odds with the message the majority of protesters wanted to send, which is “you can’t treat us this way.” In the longer term, I hope the message can evolve to become “we can exist without you.” To try to support local business, local farming, local programs helping those in need, and affordable housing, while policing ourselves, rather than needing to relying on institutions that don’t serve us.
Note: some of these images were taken from news outlets, and twitter – unfortunately I’ve already forgotten which ones. All the photos in daylight are my own.