Two hundred people gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza last Wednesday afternoon to protest the death of Michael Brown, the black teenager fatally shot by a white cop on Aug. 9 in the Midwestern suburb of Ferguson, Mo. The Oakland police, who wore wore riot gear and carried batons, recalled a much subdued version of the military-grade police response in Ferguson. Oakland has, of course, had its problems with police: Frank Ogawa is now unofficially dubbed "Oscar Grant Plaza" in honor of the unarmed 22-year-old who'd been slain by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009.
The plaza has since become a hot spot for civil rebellion in Oakland. It was where Grant's sympathizers rallied in July 2010, after a Los Angeles jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but not first- or second-degree murder. It was the site of a makeshift Occupy Oakland encampment in the fall of 2011, and it became an international symbol after police raided the camp and tear-gassed the Occupiers. Later, Frank Ogawa became a meeting place for loosely organized "Fuck the Police" marches, which happened every Friday night in early 2012, and continued sporadically thereafter: a small swath of Oakland's citizenry amassed against the city's law enforcement, insisting that Oakland was still a police state.
It's no wonder, then, that Oakland protesters feel a special kinship with their counterparts in Ferguson. Though the culture and politics of the two places are in many ways dissimilar, some in Oakland see the city as Ferguson's West Coast analogue. "Jail Killer cops. Ferguson = Oakland," said one picket sign at the Wednesday protest. "Same bullets, different city," said another.
In truth, Ferguson is where Oakland was several decades ago, when African-Americans were the majority of the population, but had little representation in the police force or in city government. "It sort of reminds me of the way Oakland was when I moved here in 1980," civil rights attorney Jim Chanin says. "And even more the way it was when I moved to the Bay Area in 1967. Back then we had Republican mayors — believe it or not — and a virtually all-white police force."
Oakland began to change with the rise of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and '70s. Founding member Bobby Seale ran for mayor in 1973, and though he ultimately lost in a runoff against incumbent John Reading, he came in second out of nine candidates — strong enough, Chanin says, "to terrorize the power structure so much that they handed [the seat] over to Lionel Wilson in the next election." Wilson served three terms before losing to Oakland's second African-American mayor, Elihu Harris, in 1990.
Granted, the new black leadership didn't eradicate racial differences any more than President Barack Obama's election ushered in a post-racial society. But it helped create a more nuanced power structure than exists in Ferguson, where the community is racially and economically isolated, the government officials are white, and most of the police force lives out of town.
Ferguson is, in essence, a classic inner-ring suburb, says Stephen Menendian, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Its middle and upper-income residents have mostly skipped town; its local economy is decaying. Meanwhile, its police constantly subject people to low-level harassment — the so-called "broken windows" philosophy that seeks to prevent crime by establishing total control.
"I'm not talking about extreme forms of police brutality," Menendian says. "I'm talking about everyday patterns of disrespect, and people feeling like they're constantly under watch."
Crumbling inner-ring suburbs are a modern phenomenon, mostly resulting from new gentrification patterns that have over the years returned wealth to city centers. Yet in many senses, Ferguson, and other towns like it, are locked in the past. Images from the Ferguson protests showed a world that wasn't so far removed from Civil Rights-era Birmingham, Ala., where Police Chief Bull Connor turned dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators. In what's become the most iconic Ferguson tableau, a squad of camouflage-clad police officers point assault rifles at a single protester, who stands alone with his hands up. Getty photographer Scott Olson, who took the picture, was later arrested.
Oakland protests faced a similarly brutal response in 2011, when police fired tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and beanbag rounds at the crowds that amassed on 14th and Broadway, near the razed Occupy campground. But last week's demonstration at Frank Ogawa Plaza met a more muted police presence. Protesters took to the streets for hours, walking a seven-block span between the police station and the city center; police kept a solid blockade at the Seventh Street intersection. In the end, no skirmishes broke out, and no arrests were made.
To civil rights attorney John Burris, the closest parallel to the Michael Brown shooting, in Oakland, predates Oscar Grant by many years. It happened back in 1979, when a 14-year-old named Melvin Black was shot and killed by two Oakland police officers, igniting an urban uprising. Burris, who was tapped by the city to investigate the case, says it's his first memory of the community expressing outrage over police harassment. The two officers were never prosecuted; resentments lingered, exacerbating an already toxic relationship between law enforcement and city residents.
Nonetheless, Oakland created a police citizen review board shortly thereafter, and with it, a protocol for people to file complaints. Stronger reforms came in 2000, when 119 plaintiffs sued four Oakland police officers — the infamous "Riders" — for beatings, kidnappings, and planting evidence. In 2003 the parties negotiated a legal settlement that required Oakland to pay nearly $11 million to the plaintiffs and undergo a series of major police reforms.
Because Oakland harbors a richer protest history than most other cities, it's apt to combust whenever an injustice happens somewhere else in the world — whether it be the slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida, or Michael Brown in Ferguson, or Palestinians on the Gaza Strip. (There were, indeed, signs for Palestine at the pro-Ferguson protest.) And because Oakland has its own economically disenfranchised pockets, it's hard for residents to resist comparing themselves to these other far-flung communities. By most measures, though, the analogies seem facile.
"Ferguson has more of a plantation mentality," Burris says. "You look at that town, the people have no political power. There aren't lawyers there to [challenge] the police."
Oakland has been through all of that before, and its current power structure is by no means perfect. Still, it's got a culture of accountability that other cities lack. Some agitators of the '60s and '70s have moved into civic office — the mayor herself was once a member of the famous Third World Liberation Front at UC Berkeley. Even the local real estate developers profess a deep and abiding respect for the city's Black Panther lineage.
So, Oakland's political system has come a long way, where Ferguson's is still conspicuously unbalanced. The Missouri suburb might benefit by ensuring better voter turnout — it's about two-thirds black, but five of its six city council members are white — or by insisting on mandatory bias training for police officers, or by decreeing that all cops live in the jurisdictions they patrol (which has long been a point of debate in Oakland, as well). It could also benefit from having a more sustained protest movement, which is something the Black Panthers got right: Where they didn't see equality, they decided to impose it.
After hours of marching last Wednesday, demonstrators convened in Frank Ogawa to eat tamales and plan another march, set for the next day in San Francisco. Two thousand miles away, the citizens of Ferguson settled down for a relatively quiet night with only a few protesters — and a much calmer police force — patrolling the town's commercial strip. That afternoon, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had visited the city and ordered a federal investigation into the Michael Brown shooting.
Holder gave Ferguson residents a glimmer of hope. Eventually, change is gonna come.