A crowd of protesters filled downtown Oakland Monday night in reaction to the decision by a grand jury in St. Louis, Missouri, not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
By 5:50 pm, a crowd of several hundred had gathered in the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street in downtown Oakland. A group of people briefly tried to enter the 880 freeway at the Jackson Street entrance, but were turned away by police officers without incident.
The crowd then began marching east on Broadway chanting “No justice, no peace, fuck the police!” As the protest headed towards Lake Merritt, there were reports of scattered instances of vandalism. At the Chase bank at the corner of Webster Street and Thomas Berkeley Avenue, two masked men shattered the window glass and tagged the building, then knocked the camera from an Oakland North reporter’s hands, breaking the lens. Several other people set the contents of trash cans on fire, as well as pizza boxes.
By 7:45, the crowd had doubled to approximately 1,000 people, and began walking past the Children’s Fairyland end of Lake Merritt. The crowd, diverse in terms of both age and race, was led by people on bikes. Among the banners and signs being carried: “Fight back against state violence,” “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Several dozen protesters wore bandanas over their mouths.
At shortly after 8 pm, the crowd stopped at the corner of Grand Avenue and MacArthur, where the police assembled into a long line preventing them from crossing towards Lakeshore Avenue. The crowd pressed along MacArthur towards the freeway entrances to the 580, where police had assembled lines to block the entries to both the entrance and exit ramps.
But the crowd pressed forward, chanting “No justice, no peace,” and several hundred began to walk up the freeway offramp. Police lined up cars along the exit ramp and blew whistles at protesters to prevent them from entering the freeway, but a group of at least 100 people managed to make it onto the roadway. The drivers on 580 came to a halt as the protesters walked towards them, against traffic.
Protesters chanted as they walked along the streets and the highway, shouting slogans like “Indict, convict, send these killer cops to jail!” and “Ferguson, we got your back!” At one point, women who identified themselves as leaders from a Unitarian church walked among the crowd holding banners, sometimes standing in between protesters and police officers, saying they were trying to de-escalate tension so that no one would get hurt.
At 9:15 pm, the City of Oakland issued a statement saying that so far one person had been arrested for vandalizing a police car with spray paint, and that there had been “numerous” arrests on the freeway, although a total was not available. The police began to issue orders to disperse around 8:30 pm, the statement said, and the department had called in a request for “mutual aid” from other cities’ police departments earlier in the evening.
The crowd stayed on the freeway until about 9:30 pm, causing a substantial traffic backup, before beginning to disperse. “CHP units stopped traffic on the freeway for the safety of the protesters,” wrote California Highway Patrol Officer Daniel Hill at that time. “With the cooperation of the Oakland Police Department, we managed to clear the freeway and get traffic moving again. The protesters were mostly cooperative.”
But the crowd didn’t completely break up. Some protesters headed back towards downtown, but others reconvened at MacArthur and Grand. Some formed a drum circle, while others attempted to enter the freeway again, blocking the freeway exit ramp at Grand/Lakeshore Avenue and chanting “Shut it down for Michael Brown.” Nearby, someone set a mattress on fire, and someone else set fire to the contents of a trash bin, as a helicopter shone a bright light on the crowd from overhead.
Oakland resident Ilana Morris attended the protest wearing a flag draped like a cape, as well as one with hearts shot through with arrows, and a sign affixed to her back with the motto “Justice 4 Mike Brown.” “They [police] seem to think they’re here to keep the streets safe, when in fact they’re actually making them more dangerous,” she said.
As of 10:40 pm, some protesters remained on or near the freeway, and a fire crew had arrived to put out the trash fire.
By around 11 pm, the remaining protesters had returned to the downtown area, gathering around 8th and 9th Streets. Someone started a fire in the middle of Broadway between 8th and 7th Street, and people threw rocks into the windows of the Starbucks on Broadway and 8th street and tagged its windows.
At around 11:15, police officers began giving the remaining 500 to 700 protesters an order to disperse, telling them they would be arrested if they did not leave. After around 11:30, the officers formed what is called a “kettle,” closing in on the protesters on three sides, and forcing the protesters to move north down Broadway. At that point, some of the protesters began to leave, while others prepared to be arrested.
Michael Brown, a unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on August 9 by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. His death set off a series of protests in Ferguson and around the world.
A grand jury was convened to determine whether there was probable cause to believe that Wilson should be charged with a crime, and if so, which crime he should be charged with. Wilson would have been indicted if 9 of the 12 grand jurors agreed. Grand jurors reviewed witness statements, photographs, forensic evidence, and medical records. Wilson also gave testimony, which is rare in a grand jury hearing. The grand jury’s decision not to indict was announced by St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch at a press conference Monday evening.
At the White House, President Barack Obama addressed members of the press in a somber tone, flanked by the American flag. “First and foremost, we are a nation built on rule of law. We need to accept this decision was the grand jury’s to make,” he said. Anger is “an understandable reaction,” he continued, but he urged anyone who protests to “do so peacefully.” He quoted Michael Brown’s father, saying, “hurting others or destroying property is not the answer.” The president also urged police officers to show “care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur.”
“This is not just an issue for Ferguson,” the president continued, “this is an issue for America. We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. To deny that progress is to deny America’s capacity for change.” It’s also true, Obama said, that there are still problems. “Communities of color aren’t making the problems up. There are issues in which the law too often feels it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion.”
“There is never an excuse for violence. On the other hand, those who are only interested in focusing on the violence and just want the problem to go away should recognize we have work to do here,” he continued.
When asked whether he would go to Ferguson, he said “[We’ll] see how things are going.”