I sat with my hands on my head, wondering how we got back here. Another black man blatantly killed on camera. Again…
Minneapolis was burning…
George Floyd was murdered by police during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25th. The officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds. I repeat. Eight minutes and forty six seconds. George Floyd’s last breath came out at 05:53. Just like you’d see on a stopwatch. America stopped and watched. The officers involved were yet to be arrested and as a result, Minneapolis started to burn on the 28th.
I rose from my chair to get dressed for a long evening. In Oakland, we have a long history of protesting and tonight would be one for the books. Like I’d done in the past, I went out to document. I felt nauseous. Something just felt different about this protest.
As I headed downtown for the 8:00 p.m. meet up, I marveled at the beautiful pink hues that the sunset painted across the horizon before me. A quiet moment, before the storm. A quiet moment, before the storm.
I approached the corner near the Fox Theatre there and saw a massive crowd walking towards city hall. The marquee read “Black Lives Matter”. The crowd of people were all chanting the same thing. Every color, every gender, everybody, there for the same reason it felt like Justice. I joined the crowd, still feeling uneasy and on edge. A group of four were carrying a cardboard box, passing out chips and water to every security guard standing vigil at various businesses on Telegraph. They were met with smiles and a “Stay safe tonight!”
Darkness fell and I along with the crowd had arrived at our destination. We walked through Chinatown toward the freeway entrance and were met with a battalion of police officers. Blue and red lights ricocheted off every surface. I reminded myself I had a purpose here. I pushed my way up to the front lines to meet the riot police face to face.
The riot police stood in front of me a mere two feet. I could see their eyes, they could see mine, and we stared at each other. I could see fear. I’m sure they could sense my uneasiness as well. Some took it upon themselves to get directly in the face of officers. Some were yelling profanities, others were mocking and taunting the officers. One young man walked up and began to ask over and over, “You don’t understand why we are here? You don’t get it? You just gon’ kill all of us. That don’t bother you? Look at me! Look at me! You gon’ kill me too?!” The officer stood frozen, the young man’s words deflecting off his armor. They didn’t penetrate. To my right, a glass bottle arched over the crowd and shattered behind the police line. It was met with an enraptured roar from the crowd!
A towering cloud of smoke erupted from the same direction the bottle came from. The crowd began to scatter. Screams bellowed underneath the asphyxiating mist. “My eyes! “Fuck you!” They yelled.
Through the chaos I heard someone order, “Hold your ground!” The man was tall, dark-skinned with fierce determined eyes peering over his bandana. The line pushed forward about three feet. BOOM! Another explosion! This time it was shot from behind me and landed much further behind the police. A bright red burst spur broke off into three pieces. A firework. “WHOOOOOOO!” The crowd reacted.
“I am officer Blackwell. I am a police officer from the Oakland Department. We have declared this an unlawful assembly. And in the name of the people in the state of California, I command all those assembled on Seventh and Broadway to immediately disperse.”
The crowd began to chant “Say his name…. George Floyd.. Say his name… George Floyd!”
A strange uneasiness ran through my body as a helicopter surfaced from behind the police station shining it’s blinding lights on the crowd. The police line shoved the crowd back another step or two. From the corner of my right eye, I noticed an object flying towards my vicinity.
The object slams down on the helmet of the officer standing in front of me. As soon as I glanced down near my feet and made out that the object was a hammer, BOOM!
A bright white flash. Everything goes silent.
Then—straight out of a WWII movie or “Call of Duty” video game—a ringing began in my ears. My eyes began to sting and my vision blurred. Muffled screams and shoulders slamming and against mine as the crowd fled. We were getting flash bombed and tear gassed. And it was working. We backed off coughing and gagging. I ran all the way to the back of the crowd so I could get a wider angle of the scene. More flashes, more smoke. Holy shit I thought to myself, I can’t even imagine what war is like. I was only experiencing a very small glimpse and I was astonished. Is tear gas legal? My eyes focused up enough to take a few photos.
I could see the police line storming their way through the smoke. The crowd started to recuperate
“Move up! Take a knee!”
It was the same thin, dark-skinned man with the bandanna leading the charge. I followed. The air was filled with the noise of helicopter blades and chants of “I can’t breathe!”. On the megaphone we were told we had three minutes to disperse or else we would be met with force. The line moved forward once again to meet face to face with the riot police. This time, kneeling and yelling in sync, “Say his name…. George Floyd!” I noticed a group of men stacking cardboard boxes. I was curious, so I ventured toward them. One began lighting the boxes on fire, and soon amber flames soared and black smoke stretched up towards the lights of the circling chopper. “Hell fuckin nah! Put that shit out! What the fuck are you doing?” Several people approached the burning pit in the road. “We do not protest like that in Oakland, that’s some bullshit!” The few men who lit the fire, sheepishly back away into the darkness while another group surrounded the fires and doused it out with water bottles, stomping out the embers. “This Oakland! We know better than that.”
“This is the Oakland Police department… You have three minutes to disperse”.
Attention was drawn back to the police line when dark smoke began to fill the air next to a Salvation Army donation shed. Someone had lit it up, and it was burning fast. While people started to take notice, the police line began to push forward to back down the crowd. I spun around to the rear for a wider angle.
There was a car behind me, doors open, music blaring and a man in a ski mask hanging out the sunroof. Classic Oakland. At that very moment there were several booms and tear gas flooded the entire street. I watched as they shot canisters far behind us. They were trapping us in with gas. Boom boom boom. Two canisters flew 100 feet in the air landing near a gathering in the back. The other landed in a more open area. A man ran over to the canister with full smoke everywhere and placed an orange construction cone on top. I believe it was to stop the smoke from spreading, and it seemed to work. Boom! Another landed right next to the cone. Just then to my right, a masked man came running full speed with a Molotov cocktail and chucks it up over the crowd and towards the police line. A direct hit! We were immediately met with round after round of tear gas and flash grenades. Police rushed the crowd.
Now the air was completely engulfed in smoke and panic set in. Screams and running heard throughout as the entire group fled in every direction. I began gasping for air as though somebody had their hands over my nose and mouth. My eyes filled with tears and I ran full with others trying to find open space to breathe. No luck. I ran down a side street trying to catch my breath while coughing hysterically. Just when I was beginning to panic, a young man offered me water “Watch out for your camera,” he said. He poured a jug into my eyes and face. “Thanks, homie…” is all I managed to get out. He ran off to help another. I gained my composure and took a look around. Time seemed to slow down. All around me people were gagging and coughing. Through the smoke, I could see several people running about offering water. I leaned up against the wall breathing heavily and wiping the tears streaming from my eyes.
“Everyone okay?” A voice rang out but I couldn’t make out who it was. Traffic began to pick up on the street I was on and cars were driving past the kneeling protesters. I had enough and decided to move on towards Broadway. So I followed the traffic until I could see which direction to head.
On route, I couldn’t help but notice a smashed window with a paper sign blowing in the wind. The sign read “Black Owned”. Who could have done this? Couldn’t be the people I was just standing with… I thought. Down the block I heard broken glass and I saw three men with masks running inside a Chinese establishment. Disheartened, I continued on my way. When I arrived on Broadway there was another massive gathering. The fire alarms and water sprinklers at the Chase bank were going off. More masked men were smashing the sign with a four-by-four slab of wood. There were others throwing things through the window. In the middle of the street there was a car blaring music, the doors wide open. A man was on top of the car dancing and smiling. In fact the entire crowd seemed to be singing and chanting “Say his name…George Floyd!” A completely different mood from what I just witnessed. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any police officer in sight.
Just behind the man dancing, a series of roman candles went sailing to the heavens as if a great victory had taken place. And maybe it did, maybe the world was starting to take notice. Maybe Oakland had come together for a greater cause. I walked past and headed home. I knew this was the first night of many to come and was exhausted.
Live to fight another day.
// Photography by Marcell Turner. Want to contribute your story to Bob Cut Mag? Email us here.