America is legendary for its famous marches and protests. From the furtive Boston Tea Party to the legendary March on Washington, the United States is a country of marching and protesting. With its diverse citizenry and constitutionally protected speech, people feel free to take to the streets, wave a sign, hold hands, and shout, march, or sit.
The city of Oakland hosts many organized protests. Sometimes these demonstrations turn violent but most marches only involve people who are peacefully expressing their dissatisfaction with a particular issue or event.
Still, Oakland has been coined a “hotbed of radical activism.” Community groups such as the Black Panthers who were active from the mid-1960s through the early 1980sconducted grassroots activism in the African American community to fight injustice, promote civil and political rights, and to proclaim frustration with civic leaders, courts, or law enforcement. At that time, the Black Panther Party would follow police patrols to witness police activity such as brutality, distribute breakfasts to school children, and offer self-defense courses. In recent years, other groups have taken the helm and continued Oakland’s “radical” activism through speech making, marching, and rallying.
The summer of 2013 has been a “hot” season of community activism in Oakland and around the country. At the time of the 50 anniversary of the March on Washington, Oakland remains at the forefront of the grassroots movement toward equality, justice, and fairness.
Four marches in Oakland are notable in the summer of 2013:
1. Zimmerman Verdict Marches
Reason: Justice for Trayvon Martin
In 2012, George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin who was an unarmed African American youth on his way home from the store. On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges, including the 2nd degree murder and manslaughter. Marches and protests erupted throughout the country expressing outrage over the quick and perceived unjust verdict. In Oakland, people took to the streets to express their anger, frustration, and disillusionment with the criminal justice system.
For nearly one week, people demonstrated in Oakland to demand justice for Trayvon Martin and his family. More than 750 people of all backgrounds protested and marched their way through Oakland. Interstate highway, I-880, was temporarily shut down. Most of the marches and protests were peaceful but noticeable.
However, some protesters vandalized Oakland businesses and scuffled with police. Many people asserted that these “fringe” activists did not represent the majority of Oaklanders or the African American community.
Still, Oakland lived up to its reputation as a strong and powerful player on the marches and protests front. Its broad-based group of political activists made a strong showing of support for justice for Trayvon Martin and opposing racism in the criminal justice system.
2. Twelve-Man March
Reason: Bring awareness to the dangers of racial profiling
A small, but equally important, march was organized in Oakland on July 19, 2013. During this march, twelve African American men marched to Oakland’s city hall. All the men wore business attire: suit, tie, dress shoes, etc. All the African American men presented as businessmen. They peacefully marched to city hall holding signs condemning racial profiling and the negative portrayal of African American men in the media.
In speeches at Frank Ogawa Hall, the protesters cited the killing of Trayvon Martin and Alan Blueford. Both were African American, young, and unarmed when they were killed by law enforcement. No one was convicted in either killing. Racial profiling was asserted to be the cause that identified these young men as dangerous though unsupported by the evidence.
3. Oscar Grant Marches
Reason: Justice for Oscar Grant
On January 1, 2009, 22-year old Oscar Grant was killed by BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle, at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station. He served 11 months for the killing.
There were several marches in the weeks following Oscar Grant’s killing as well as during subsequent court hearings and trial. On January 7, 2009, more than 250 people marched at the Fruitvale station. Other marches were held at San Francisco’s Embarcadero station. Another similar march was organized on January 30. Both marches were organized to memorialize Oscar Grant and the other victims of police brutality. Protesters were also criticizing BART’s investigation of the killing as inadequate and cursory.
The Oscar Grant marches were described as both peaceful and organized as well as rowdy and raucous. Some of the marches involved protesters carrying signs and chanting for change. Other protesters turned violent and destroyed property, primarily in Oakland’s Broadway and 14th street district. Trashcans were thrown, cars were burned, and windows were broken by groups of self-described “anarchists”. Grant’s family held a press conference to call for calm and peace as a tribute to their deceased son. Mayor Ron Dellums joined the Grant family’s plea. Still, most of the protests by Oaklanders were peaceful and focused on remembering and providing justice for Oscar Grant and his family.
Similar marches were held for Alan Blueford and other African Americans killed by law enforcement in Oakland.
4. Occupy Oakland Marches
Reason: Bring awareness to social and economic inequality and keep public services open in Oakland.
The Occupy movement holds demonstrations and marches throughout the United States and in 81 other countries worldwide. There is an Occupy movement office located in nearly every major American city. Oakland is no exception and, in fact, the Occupy movement has been very active in the city of Oakland.
The Occupy Oakland movement supports solidarity with the worldwide Occupy Movement and its opposition to the economic and social inequality that exists worldwide. Specific to Oakland, the Occupy Movement also opposes gang injunctions, youth curfews, and the closures of libraries and schools in Oakland.
The first demonstration was held on October 10, 2011 attended by approximately 300 people. Direct action by Occupy Oakland protesters included rallies, marches and speeches. Several dozen people also set up tents at the Frank Ogawa plaza in front of Oakland’s city hall building. This first Occupy Oakland demonstration lasted fifteen days and attracted 2,500 people. Demonstrations have included clergy, union members, and students.
A second demonstration was held on October 26, 2011, which was attended by 3,000 protesters. It was a peaceful protest.
Subsequent demonstrations and rallies have been organized throughout Oakland, including by Lake Merritt and the Oakland Public Library. Downtown Oakland has been a focus area for the movement. On January 28, 2013 the Occupy Movement organized a “move-in” day on which it occupied an abandoned building and converted it into a social center.
Local government’s response to the Occupy Oakland movement was positive and supportive. In the beginning, many local politicians supported the movement’s goals and actions to clean up the city and keep local services open and available to the community. Several local politicians attended and spoke at rallies organized by Occupy Oakland.
However, law enforcement has, at times, been characterized as aggressive and violent toward the protesters. Tents have been torn down, barricades set up around the demonstrators, and numerous arrests have been made. Oaklanders responded that the police reaction was overly aggressive, violent, and chaotic. Still, the Oakland Occupy movement continues and is gaining support.
Many people mistakenly believe that the Berkeley is “the place” for civil dissent. However, Oakland with its diverse and strongly opinionated population is at the forefront of a movement in which the community demonstrates for a just, fair, and safe society. Perhaps the next March on Washington will be held in Oakland.