Lifelong Oakland resident Maurice Johnson was leaving Starbucks on Sunday, Aug. 31, when he heard drumming and the sound of Japanese monks chanting the first line of the Lotus Sutra. Johnson then saw nine members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), all in meditation posture, risking arrest by blocking the Oakland Marriott City Center’s main entrance. A banner at their feet read “Evict Urban Shield.” On the other side of the hotel’s front driveway, about 25 other BPF members meditated silently with signs that called for an end to police militarization.
The protest’s Buddhist packaging surprised Johnson at first, but he understood its message instantly. “They’re protesting the hotel giving them room, giving the police room,” said Johnson, 40, who is African-American. “And they’re training them — excessive training, actually. Sort of like an army, you know. Not police training, sort of like army training. It’s a big difference.”
Johnson was referring to Urban Shield, which brought first responders from around the world to Oakland from Sept. 4 to 8. While search and rescue teams, hazmat crews, EMTs, and firefighters all participate, many Oakland residents disagree with Urban Shield’s training civilian police in SWAT tactics and military-style equipment. Its Boston version raised similar concerns.
BPF’s direct action at the Oakland Marriott, one of the sites that hosted Urban Shield, capped off a much different convention – the Buddhist social justice group’s first National Gathering since 2006.
“[F]rom the very beginning, when we started planning the Gathering, we were hoping that an opportunity to practice the nonviolent direct action skills we had just learned would arise,” explained Katie Loncke, BPF’s director of media and action. When Loncke and her BPF co-director, Dawn Haney, learned about a week of actions against Urban Shield put together by a coalition of 37 community organizations, they knew they had found the opportunity for nonviolent direct action that they were looking for.
After protesters blocked the front of the Oakland Marriott, it quickly became apparent that police and hotel management wanted to wait out the protesters rather than arrest them. Finally, at the end of the planned two-hour protest, those who were risking arrest broke their meditate-in and joined their fellow protestors, who greeted them with cheers and hugs.
Police chose not to arrest protesters for civil disobedience; still, many found the action valuable. Alexa Zapanta, who coordinates the Center for Political Education in Oakland, said that she chose to risk arrest out of a feeling of solidarity with those most affected by police violence.
“I think me, the color of my skin, I’m less likely to be beaten. I think with more privilege and opportunity, you have a bigger responsibility to fight injustice wherever you see it,” explained Zapanta, who is Asian-American.
That sentiment was widespread. Before the action, organizers asked people with the least to fear from police interactions – those with racial privilege, for example, or without a criminal record – if they would volunteer to risk arrest the next day. For some of the protestors, however, risking arrest went beyond just showing solidarity.
“My father is a black man who has managed to survive into his old age, thankfully, but not without violent attacks,” said Loncke, who also risked arrest. “When Oscar Grant was shot and murdered in Oakland, I mean – every time a young black man is killed by state force, whether it’s Oscar Grant, or Mike Brown, or, the list is just too long to engage – I think about my father.”
The heavy-handed, militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, MO, over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown – an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on on Aug. 9 — has sparked a nationwide debate about police militarization. However, a string of incidents made police brutality a hot-button issue in Oakland long before the national outcry began last month.
The most famous took place on New Year’s Day 2009, when a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer shot and killed 23-year-old Oscar Grant III, an unarmed African-American man who was lying face-down on the Fruitvale Station subway platform. In another widely publicized incident, a less-lethal round fired at Occupy Oakland protesters by police in October 2011 hit Iraq War veteran Scott Olssen, fracturing his skull.
While these dramatic incidents gained national media attention, Maurice Johnson pointed to the day-to-day police harassment that often goes unpublicized.
“They like to mess with us, if we’re even just hanging out,” he explained. “They’re not catching us doing anything … they just bum rush you, take you down, they put you in a choke hold, get you to the ground, knee you in the back and all that type of stuff, you know. Stuff they know that hurts, really. You know, so, they know what they doing.”