At 14th and Broadway, in Oakland, California, looking at the Jack London oak tree around which the police would not allow peaceful protestors to gather, I sat on a bench on the sidewalk and was blinded by tear gas at point-blank range and deafened by a flash grenade. When you are blinded and deafened it is hard to disperse.
I had marched with this spirited crowd of about 1,000 people for several hours. They were mostly (but not all) young, and ethnically diverse. There were a few people with children in the crowd. One kid scampered over someone’s car, but that is the only disorderly act I witnessed. I felt so proud of the peaceful nature of the crowd. I had a sense of joy also; they were full of life, full of determination, full of hope. It was a hope that is born of knowing that the old social order must change, that we can and must move to a better future than what is programmed for us by the 1 % at the top—the 1% who control the money and the power. I was made hopeful because this crowd could articulate so beautifully, so simply, and so powerfully their unwillingness to be disenfranchised. These people are aware that their country, their society has been hijacked by the wealthy, the corporate elite, and the media. I looked at these people around me and felt that we shared a desire for economic justice, freedom, and democracy. If we are unsuccessful, the Iron Heel will come down harder than ever.
Around 8 p.m. the marchers stopped at Broadway and 14th Street. Apparently an order to disperse was being read by the police but could not be heard at the back of the crowd. I went forward with another woman who was trying to find out what was going on. I told the officers that they should be protecting our First Amendment right to peaceful assembly. I saw a young cop pleading with his eyes and nodding in sympathy. Heartbreaking. I asked who was in charge; of course none of them could answer because they had gas masks on.
As I got closer to the front I could hear the order to disperse, which included a threat of bodily harm. I saw a veteran in a Navy uniform with his flag standing with the crowd. I saw confusion, fear. I sensed a bit of panic. No one knew what to do. I walked to the sidewalk and occupied a bench. My sign said “99% R FED UP.” I hadn’t come to be arrested, but at that point I would have been willing to be arrested for defending my right to peaceful assembly.
It is true that Jack London is my ancestor. He is my great-grandfather, but, more importantly, he is a working-class hero and a visionary. I looked at the Jack London oak tree in front of City Hall and felt possessed by the spirit of the great man. I thought of him standing there on his soap box making socialist speeches and getting arrested because he didn’t have a permit. I thought of him writing “Revolution” and Other Essays, The People of the Abyss, and The Iron Heel. I felt that I was witnessing the Iron Heel of fascism being challenged. I knew that I too had to resist it. Something came over me so that I was completely unwilling to be bullied into leaving. I felt like a mother protecting her young. I felt calm, but angry. I remember hearing a countdown, then a man who had jumped up on the bench beside me leaned down and said, “Are you brave enough to stay here?” I answered, “I don’t know.” A woman behind the bench gave my shoulder a squeeze (her name is Anne Weills). I felt the moment of calm before the storm,and I was overcome with being in the moment. Nothing was thrown at the police.
The next I knew, everything changed. There was tear gas spewing from a canister near me, and I felt paralyzed, transfixed by the billowing white stuff. Then a flash of blinding light and the boom/crack of a flash grenade shot into the crowd in front of me, and I was deafened. And still I sat until I was enveloped in the gas and blinded, my eyes and face and throat felt on fire, and the limits of my body made me stumble away, fall to my knees and retch. A shocked young man was yelling, “They shot someone, they shot someone” (Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq had been gravely wounded by a police projectile). I was rescued by Anne Weills, who is a lawyer-legal observer, and a kind young man who helped me get my breathing under control.