Last night, thousands of Oakland residents took to the streets to protest the death of Mike Brown—and the decision by a grand jury in Missouri not to indict his killer, Darren Wilson. Protesters marched through the streets for hours before taking to the 580 Freeway and blocking traffic.
After Oakland and Seattle protesters blocked highways Monday night, activists across the country took to blocking freeways Tuesday. It's a tactic with a history stretching back to Selma protesters blocking U.S. Route 80, but it became very popular with organizers this week. Journalist Jody Avirgnan catalogued the cities where highways were closed: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Durham, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Providence, and Washington.
As a technique for generating attention, it works: news helicopters have an event to film and drivers from outside the downtown core get made aware of the protest. In Oakland, where many of the highways were built right through black neighborhoods over their protests, there is an extra layer of symbolism, too. Whose streets? Well, they were our streets, but now they are your highways. And 580, specifically, unofficially demarcates the poorer, browner flatlands of Oakland from the wealthier, whiter hills to the east.
Blocking a highway, too, is relatively easy to do. I saw it go down in Oakland last night. The match organizers—a loose band of megaphone carriers—slowed up the front of the march as it approached the highway. That packed the group in more tightly, buying some time for a small group of young men to find ways through and over the fence blocking off the highway. Within a couple minutes, hundreds of protesters had rushed up an embankment as the leaders blocked traffic waiting for their reinforcements. An older black man shouted through a megaphone, "Don't nobody fuck with the people's cars!" he said. "The people are not the enemy."
The protesters held the freeway for maybe 10 minutes before cops came from both sides and swept the protesters back down the embankment into a cul-de-sac behind a Walgreen's. Protesters came tumbling down the steep hill, and pooled at the bottom, shouting up at the police, who mostly kept their cool.
The freeway takeover was successful, but it split the march in two, concentrating the risk-taking group up on the freeway, as the calmer folks walked up ahead. The unity of the protest broke down, and from then onwards, confrontations with the police and property damage were much more frequent. Communication between the various arms of the protest seemed to break down. People milled about. In a world where everyone has an always-on device, it was remarkable how little people's phones were used to coordinate what they were doing. It was also getting later. The crowd was thinning out. The chants were getting sporadic.
I left the protest, walking back down Telegraph, past burnt out trash can barricades and mattresses. I ran into a sweet family: mom, dad, three kids. They were carrying signs. We chatted about the protests—and the kids' mama told me proudly how they'd held their ground in front of a police line. Then, I told them I better hurry home to my own family, and as I walked away, the little boy called after me, "Don't get killed."
It just about broke my heart. That's how he's thinking. That's how he has to think.
When I got home, I looked through my footage and found that I'd captured a few images of the family in the midst of the protest. As the protesters marched and milled and chanted, that little boy was dancing in front of the police line outside their station on Telegraph.
Protests don't solve problems. Protests create the awareness that problems already exist: Police kill black people at far higher rates than white people.
Think about the fear that boy must be carrying around in his heart, a half-Mexican, half-black son of Oakland. That's what these protests are about. Parents can't and shouldn't be worried that cops are going to shoot their kids. Period. This is a country that teaches white people to fear brown people, and that allows white cops to justify their use of force with fear. So black children die. Black parents are afraid. And a little boy wishes a stranger well by saying, "Don't get killed."