Race and the Protest Movement
Two recent protests highlighted the ways in which black activists are asserting control over the movement to end police violence.
Local black activists are attempting to redirect a diverse movement that has partly lost lost control of its message.
Photos by Sean Havey
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At 7:30 in the morning on Monday, Dec. 15, a coalition of activists began descending on Oakland Police Department headquarters. By 9 a.m., one had climbed the flagpole and replaced the department’s banner with a hand-painted one honoring men and women killed by police. They held signs that read “Black and Breathing,” “White Silence is Violence” and “#Asians4BlackLives.” Meanwhile, some 250 people lined sidewalks and blocked streets, chained their bodies to the doors of the building, posted social media updates, and created documentary footage. The action commanded major attention on social media and in news outlets across the country.
At 11:58 a.m., exactly four hours and 28 minutes after operation #ShutDownOPD began, its organizers declared victory. They had accomplished their symbolic goal: four hours to match those Mike Brown lay dead in the street in Ferguson, Mo., shot by white Officer Darren Wilson; and 28 minutes for the 28 hours that one study found separate each police or vigilante slaying of a black American.
Black activists, led in part by the barely two-month-old BlackOut Collective, also had accomplished their perhaps-larger goal of taking center stage at the protest. From time to time, they called to their Asian and white counterparts, “Show me what solidarity looks like,” and the supporting players called-back in kind, from their posts at the building entryways, where they had chained themselves to the doors. But there was no mistaking that this was a black-run operation.
It wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that black activists had tried to assert their leadership of the still-nascent movement dedicated to ending police violence. On Black Friday, activists from the BlackOut Collective and other groups shut down the West Oakland BART station for more than two hours. A few days later, another freshly formed group, Black Brunch, crashed brunch service at a number of Rockridge restaurants and somberly recited the names of black people killed by police.
For Cat Brooks of Oakland’s ONYX Organizing Committee, a black organizer dedicated to anti-police brutality work since the Rodney King beating, these actions refocused attention on the pain of those most affected by police violence and their demands for change. And they managed to do so largely without the violence and vandalism that has come to define so many of the other recent protests—much of it instigated by the unaffiliated anarchists who have been a feature of so many Bay Area protests since the war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, across downtown on the evening of the OPD protest, a large crowd peacefully circled Lake Merritt in a candlelight vigil devoted to the same topic. Kristin Hull of Piedmont had proposed the event on Facebook, advocating for a family-friendly space dedicated to collective mourning of black deaths at the hands of police. Hull says she conceived the idea with input from leaders at Impact Hub Oakland and from other community members.
But once other activists concluded that the white philanthropist wasn’t working with black-led organizations or the families of any victims, opposition to her plans quickly emerged. Even worse, as far as other activists were concerned, was that Hull had expressed enthusiasm for having police officers join in the event. “You want cops to hold hands with the families of people they killed?” recalled anti-police violence activist Rebecca Ruiz-Sunwoo, echoing the disbelief of other critics. “My priority is that those who have lost people to the police feel safe—and they don’t feel safe if OPD is there.”
The backlash came fast and hard. Some activists proposed militant disruptions of the vigil; Ruiz and others just wanted the event cancelled completely. In the end Hull, ceded control to a small crew of black organizers, and the event went off peacefully.