Oakland, the evening after Ferguson; Oakland after Michael Brown; Oakland after Trayvon Martin; Oakland after Oscar Grant; Oakland after the Super Bowl of 2003. And that of 2009.
My son and I take Zoe, our golden-lab for a walk and join the crowd. It’s after 10pm but the area around Lake Merritt swarms with people. Cars are held back. The 580 just opened after protestors lay on the freeway blocking all westbound traffic. Four or five helicopters circle pretty much right above our home when I finally do manage to park there.
By the time we get to the Grand and Macarthur intersection, only smoke remains from the fire set there. The fire trucks flash their lights and sirens, and head elsewhere. The mixed crowd is mostly quiet and somber, unsure what to do next. We are not well versed in riots. We didn’t come with signs. We’re in our semi-slippers and sweats. We have nothing on us short of house keys and a phone. And a bag in case Zoe needs to go. People around us look like a variation of the same.
“The whole Oakland Police Department is here tonight”, says one bystander with a sad smile, “there must be no crime anywhere else around”. The long line of well armed, fully geared police force is facing the protestors from a nearby though safe distance. There are “whites” and “blacks” on both sides. When the police instruct their men and women to stand together “shoulder by shoulder” and start sweeping the street, marching towards downtown, we retreat to the grassy area. The beautiful lights around Lake Merritt reflect in the water and glisten.
Oakland has been our home for almost three years now. What started out as a “coincidence” (‘how about this house?’) turned into a love story. Aside from the lake, the stairs, the shops, the art walk, the endless food options, the bike path near the bay and the trails among the redwoods, it’s the people. One day I walked out to the bus stop at the corner to go meet my daughter for lunch. The man waiting there, an older, tall gentleman in a suit started a conversation. “Are you headin’ to downtown? We should be just in time for the concert”. Needless to say, I had no idea there were weekly lunch time concerts in the summer, but for the next 10 minutes I learned about that, saw his grandchildren’s pictures and heard stories about his army service. The concert (a Beatles imitation) was fun; no pretense, just 30 minutes of old rock. The crowd, cheering enthusiastically, again was very mixed: Young mothers with strollers; tourists; artists; business men and women; a homeless pushing a cart. The atmosphere was pleasant. Most people smiled. As is often the case, the sun was out.
In a way, that chance (“-“) encounter became symbolic for me of Oakland: that very friendly, flowy, mostly harmless, yes, hipster too, city. It might be a bus, Bart, post office line, slack-line line; it’s the student trying to sign you up on a petition and ending up chatting for a while, regardless of how many people walk by; it’s the council member taking time to talk in the street; it’s those who sit on their stoop and call out ‘great smile’ and ‘what a beautiful dog’ (yeh, I confess, anybody can buy me with that). People here live with people.
Some looting occurs later in downtown as a “group of hardcore” break into a couple of store, but where we are people are walking peacefully. Oakland is pained, and it doesn’t take much to turn a healing scar into an open wound. I look around and hope for the mayor / newly elected mayor / both mayors / someone! to show up and say something like –
‘Tomorrow, we’ll get up “as usual”. Buses will run. PG&E will take care of our electricity. The garbage will be collected. Coffee will be served. Joggers will go out for a run. Teachers will wait for your child at school. But tonight, it’s ok to hurt. Let’s all sit together and light candles, one by one. Let’s sing soul songs. Let’s stay here all night and cry over the police officer who is faced with an impossible job; the jury who has to opt for an impossible verdict; the mother and father who are scared to send their son to the store because he’s young. And black. And over us too, slightly lost and still hoping for a better tomorrow’.
Of course, no one shows. We continue to walk some more and then head home. I’m reminded of the words of Hillel, and the Lorax too, that change won’t come from any outside magical place, that there is no “they” out there, that it’s up to us.