Story and photos by Jobert Poblete
I thought I was keeping a safe distance, observing Day of Action protesters as they went onto Interstate 880 to block traffic rather than participating, until a line of riot cops came barreling towards where I stood by the side of a freeway offramp. But my flight instinct took over, and I found myself running along northbound 880 with my notebook and pen still in my hands. What had been an impressive but otherwise peaceful protest was taking a surreal turn. But maybe I should start from the beginning.
As a recent UC Berkeley grad, I had been on campus many times in the last few months, invited by friends to support the occupations and protests that were fueling an extraordinary movement to defend public education. So I was excited to go out on March 4th to cover the Day of Action in the East Bay. This was a new experience for me. Like any good Berkeley grad, I've participated in my share of protests, but now I was a Bay Guardian news intern and this was the first time I was going out as a reporter.
There was a lot to be impressed with that day. In Berkeley, activists had succeeded in creating a broad coalition made up of graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, union members, lecturers, and campus workers and staff. These constituencies were well-represented Thursday morning.
Berkeley organizers were also working to expand their movement beyond the university. Callie Maidhof, a graduate student in anthropology, told me that March 4th is the “first attempt to organize beyond a single system, to organize across California, across the public education systems, and across the nation.”
On the four and a half mile march from Berkeley to downtown Oakland, there was plenty of evidence that they were succeeding. As the Berkeley contingent marched down Telegraph Ave., it was joined by middle school and high school students who brought their own concerns about teacher layoffs and program cuts.
At the rally in Oakland, I spoke to high school students who had walked out of their schools to participate. Sophomore Sienee Dakina from Oakland's Envision Academy told me that her school lost three teachers because of budget cuts. “We feel like it's not right,” Dakina said. “We're losing our teachers.” Ninth graders Victoria Romero and Andrea Barba from Life Academy told me that they were protesting so that the school district would “not take our dreams away.”
When the rally ended, some people were headed to San Francisco to take part in the big rally at Civic Center. I knew that there would already be Guardian reporters there, so I decided to stay in Oakland for what was being billed as an after-protest dance party and “snake march.”
The dance party started around 4:30 with a couple hundred people taking Broadway accompanied by a mobile sound system, black flags, and large banners that declared “We Have Decided Not to Die” and “Occupy Everything.” For the first time that day, I saw riot cops in full force. I read these as signs that something dramatic was probably in store. The dance party wound its way through downtown Oakland, stopping in front of the UC Office of the President before heading towards West Oakland.
I was at the back of the march, talking to an Oakland teacher who was telling me about layoffs at his school, when the police started warning the crowd that they could face arrest. I fell behind and was playing catch-up as a group of around 150 people took to the freeway. I decided to stick by the offramp and watched as a bicyclist, who appeared to be riding on the freeway away from the march, got violently tackled by a fast-moving line of cops.
It was at this point that another line of cops started up the offramp and I fled up the freeway. An officer on a motorcycle yelled at me to continue and join the protesters or face arrest. I ran to catch up with the crowd, which was in chaos as the police approached. (I later learned that, in the chaos, a local high school student fell off the elevated highway and was taken to Highland Hospital with serious injuries.) I saw two kids – perhaps as young as 12 or 13 – trying to get away on skateboards. I was with a cluster of journalists as a line of cops and a blur of batons fell upon a group on the far side of the southbound lanes. We retreated to the dividing wall, me still clutching my pen and notebook, holding my hands in the air.
We were ordered to lay on the ground. My pen was still out so I continued taking notes. An officer noticed me and ordered me up. I explained that I was a reporter and offered to show him proof of my affiliation with the Guardian. “But you're on a freeway,” he said. “You're under arrest.” He did help me secure my notes and camera.
I was handcuffed and ordered to kneel on the side of the highway with the protesters, next to a friend from Berkeley, a graduate student at the journalism school. We knelt for hours waiting for the buses that would take us to Glenn Dyer jail in Oakland and Santa Rita jail in Dublin. A handful of stranded motorists cheered, presumably for the protesters, and in one of the lofts next to the freeway, a resident had posted a sign that said “FUCK U Protesters.”
I was sent to Santa Rita with around 100 of those arrested on the freeway. We were informed that we would be charged with misdemeanors and released, but it was clear that our numbers had overwhelmed the jail's systems. Deputies told us that we would be in there for 10 hours. Ten hours turned into 20, most of that time spent in a cold concrete cell, seven feet long and seven feet wide, with 14 other inmates. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down at the same time. The fluorescent lights were kept on all night, and I was disoriented, groggy.
The sheriff's deputies joked about IEDs and half-heartedly threatened us with prison clichés. An agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement visited my cell and questioned me and another person of color, asking us for our names and where we were born. My cell mates, worried about the possibility that an undocumented student had been arrested, discussed whether we should refuse to answer their questions. An inmate in a nearby cell hurled obscenities at the “protesters.” But most of the other inmates were merely curious. A few held up their fists in solidarity as they were led past our cell.
I shared cells with a diverse group of people, some I had known for years: a teacher's aid, a Berkeley freshman computer science major, a veteran, an older man who called himself a communist, and a handful of community college students from Modesto. There were a number of other journalists: two stringers working for Democracy Now!, a reporter from the Daily Californian, and a friend who was covering the protest for Indybay.org. I had seen other journalists with big video rigs on the freeway, but one of the other arrestees told me that they had been allowed to leave.
We passed the time as best we could. The Berkeley computer science major taught us how to fold origami cranes. One of the other reporters gave an impromptu teach-in about some Bay Area residents imprisoned in Iran. We took advantage of the concrete cell's unique acoustic properties by humming harmonies. A few cells over, the women agitated for food and we got bologna sandwiches and a strange powdered juice that tasted like the color yellow. Mostly, we tried to sleep, in fetal positions, sitting up, or curled around the toilet using our arms, shoes, and rolls of TP for pillows.
There were also discussions about the movement: how to make it broader, how best to organize and make decisions, and what should come next. It was clear to me that many of the people I was with did not know that they would end up on a freeway, but if there were any regrets, no one in my cell let that on. One man commented that the movement was getting bigger – earlier protests had resulted in dozens of arrests, but this one had 150 people taking a freeway. Another said that only the movement “intellectuals” were taking militant action. A community college student objected to that point. Earlier, he had joked about the $6 increase in his fees, but now he spoke bitterly and passionately about how he considered himself working class and not an intellectual. The budget cuts had made him feel that a quality education at a UC was getting further from his grasp.
I was not released until around 4 p.m. on Friday, charged with two misdemeanors – unlawful assembly and obstructing a public place – and ordered to appear in court April 5. Outside the jail, a small crowd of supporters had been gathered all day and it did not take long to find a familiar face and a ride back home.
A friend who had worked through the night to rally support and secure attorneys told me that a lot of students were upset about what had happened. They were critical about what they called a lack of planning and angry that protesters had been led into an action they did not fully understand and did not fully prepare for.
But the freeway action also showed how far the movement has come. Resistance to the budget cuts has spilled out of the universities and gotten bigger, broader, and, yes, perhaps more foolhardy. From my vantage point on that elevated highway, the movement has definitely upped the ante and more and more people are calling the bet.