Report from the Oscar Grant Protests

This is cross-posted with permission from the author, Richard M. Wright, who blogs on

The news about how Oscar Grant was killed by the police weighed heavily on me, and the video footage looped in my head.

after wheeling my records home from my gig, i wash my face and call a taxi. i walk outside to wait, and the sky is buzzing with helicopters. (at 10:33pm, it still is… i can see searchlights crawl over the Tribune building) my head is turned skyward, approximating the helicopters to be somewhere by the lake. maybe by International.

an older black man stops and says
“They protestin’ Oscar Grant you know.”
i tell him that’s where i want to go.
he says
“This ain’t nothin new you know, cops killing black people.
They usually say that the man was resisting arrest or sumpn.
This one just got caught.”
I nod in agreement.

The taxi pulls up, i recognize the driver from lifts to dj gigs. i greet him and smile, and then look upwards. looking back at him, i say “could you follow the helicopters?”
and we’re off.
for a moment i enjoy the fact that i just asked a taxi to follow helicopters.
we talk, he shares his outrage, shakes his head in grief. soon, we are at a police blockade, and i can see the crowd swelling behind them. we pull over, i pay and tip the driver.
he looks me in the eyes.
“Thank you. Be safe.”
“You too.”

I walk past the blockade without interference.
i approach the crowd
they are chanting


i join in.

and i light my white seven day candle
in its glass sleeve.

soon, i see people i know.

there are smiles and hugs,
and also shaking of heads.

There are Korean drummers beating out poongmul rhythms, lots of bicyclists, huge banners indicting killer cops, bullhorns shouting chants of No Justice, No Peace.

i notice that the crowd is mixed, but with a lot of white folks.

some young white kids are in full black with hoodies and bandanas covering their faces.
One is carrying a black flag.

Black Bloc. “Anarchists.”

They keep trying to set fire to stuff, and others keep trying to put em out.

i feel anger because i know that the media will racialize the unrest to not look like these suburbanites who use protests as an excuse to smash stuff. Not very radical seeming to me.

We converge on the BART Police station.
A police car is in the middle of the road.
The chants turn into

No Justice No Peace, Fuck The Police!

Some of us look at each other, not chanting.

Then the rocks started being thrown.

And then someone was jumping on the police car.

And then a dumpster was on fire.

And then the dumpster was pushed towards the now rocking police car, as people attempted to turn it over.

I am starting to buzz with adrenaline. I reach for my face towel, awaiting what had to be inevitable. I looked around to see if i could see them-

There they were. Riot cops blocking off one street walking towards the intersection.

I started backing away, and seconds later came the tear gas.

I only smelled a little of it thanks to my towel, and i was far enough for it not to get in my eyes.

I am still holding my candle.
I am the only one holding a candle.
I feel strangely out of place
and also that this is the most important place for me to be
with a lone candle.

even police have been smiling and nodding at me.
somehow, this candle has transformed me from being
a racially profiled target
into the one person that maybe they aren’t so worried about.

more kids show up, i am also no longer sure who is genuinely angry, and who is just ready to wreck shit.

trash cans are pulled into the road, cars are now being walked and stomped on.

as a protestor, and not a rioter, i figure its now time to go home.

i text friends letting them know they can come over if things get hectic. I text other friends to let them know that Downtown Oakland is going crazy.

i am stopped by an older black man on the way home. His name is Charles DuBois. We talk about grassroots movements, Obama, and politicization of youth, his amber brown eyes lit by my candle. People walk by, smile and salute us.

When i get home, i am on edge. I can’t sit still. The outside sounds of copters, sirens and breaking glass permeate my apartment. I feel stir crazy, unsettled, unfinished. I have to get out again. In my head I imagine friends and family thinking I am crazy. I drink water, and text Mahfam and Kendal to let them know that i am heading out again.
I pick my candle back up and head into the night.

There are police blockades everywhere now.

i try to meet up with folks, but things are looking hectic. My candle still seems to encase me in a cocoon of light that police and others smile at.

a sista around my age stops me, says she recognizes me from earlier on in the protest. she thanks me for walking with a candle, and keeping alive what this should really be about. I thank her as well.

I head down 14th street towards Webster… and that’s as far as i get. A couple blocks further down, the crowd looms, and its a riot crowd. i can smell something burning, and Broadway is obscured with smoke that could be the source of the smell, or tear gas. A metal hulk slowly rolls out of a backlit cloud of smoke. it is a paramilitary tank with a mounted water cannon. Is this my neighborhood?

I rest my back against a corner streetlight, and watch, the candle flame flickering slightly under my face. neighbors from my building join me, we stand there and take in the mayhem that our block has become.

there are more people of color now. young kids of various backgrounds are smashing cars, and at least one car is burning. Store windows are getting smashed now too. At first i thought black kids were targeting Korean stores, but then an African hair braiding store got smashed. Later, friends would tell me that they saw the immigrant African family in the store, asking why, why, why? Another friend said that an older Asian man– on crutches no less– pleaded with rioting youth not to smash his car up. But they did. Right in front of him. And i saw a middle aged Asian woman running, screaming because her bag had been snatched. I shouted for people to leave her alone, but i had no idea where her assailants were.

This was officially out of control.

Then the crowd started running full tilt up the street towards me. Some people look terrified, but most actually were smiling, looking at each other like “awww shit! hee!” I know you aren’t supposed to run in situations like this, but i really didn’t feel like getting hosed, gassed or rubber bulleted. Or hanging out with rioters. So i kept close to the buildings, and jogged back towards my house. A thrown bottle broke on the wall near my knee.

I get to my stoop, and see other neighbors. One woman, a mother of two, comes out in her pajamas, asking what is going on. The tank rolls by. she is incredulous. I ask if she knew about Oscar Grant. She didn’t. I tell her that an unarmed black man was handcuffed, put on his stomach, and then was shot in the back and killed by a cop. Her eyes widen, her jaw drops in horror. She says with a Philippine trill on her tongue, “No wonder they are so angry!”

The helicopters are everywhere, their buzzing drone bouncing off buildings and rolling down the canyons of streets. searchlights lit up windows and intersections.

Somebody walks by my stoop, looks at us and says what sounds like “The mayor is coming around the corner.”


It seems that the crowd and riot cops have moved on, so i walk half a block from my stoop to Harrison and 14th, and lean against that lightpost.

Coming up 14th, is indeed Mayor Dellums. He is surrounded by an anxious looking suited entourage and media. He himself looks distraught. He sees me. He looks at my candle. And he simply reaches out and holds my arm for a second, and then he and the entourage keep moving.

It occurs to me that cops are probably not going to tear gas, hose, or rubber bullet the mayor. And now i run into Newman, who is also curious to see where this mayoral train is heading. We fall in step behind the entourage.

The mayor stops on 14th and Madison and starts talking to people and press. Madison is absolutely lit up with rotating police lights. I can’t hear what Dellums is saying, but he seems to be unintentionally pissing people off.
“Be patient?? Be patient?? Be patient while they keep killing us??” One sista shouts.

At some point, we are completely encircled by riot cops, but they are a decent distance away from us. Everyone is ignoring them, and focusing on the mayor. A paramilitary tank rolls up. A brotha shouts “Oh look, democracy has arrived!”

The mayor breaks the circle, walking towards the tank. Riot police scurry and reposition themselves. Dellums talks to an officer. The tank and riot police dissolve back into the troubled night. Dellums announces on a bullhorn that he has asked them to leave. He is drowned out by people demanding the release of arrested supporters, reform of Oakland police, and streams of curses that basically refer to him as an @%#* Uncle Tom and worse. Whew. Though I must say, I am curious as to what he is going to do and say besides wave some cops away.

So yeah, at this point I think i’m about ready to head back home now. I see friends Bea and Inez, and tell them that I have seen enough for tonight, and that i’m going home. A young sista overhears me, and says with a half joking voice “you should give me your candle then.” I turn and look at her.
“Do you really want my candle?” I can see that she has been crying all night.
“Blessings.” I reach out and give it to her, and she looks into my eyes and smiles in a way that warmed my whole soul.

I watch her walk away, see how she now looks transformed, serene and angelic in that candlelight. I understand a bit more why people smiled at me. She and the flickering candle disappear in the crowd.

I walk home, the idea of the candle continuing on in the streets touching me deeply.

When i get inside, I don’t feel unsettled anymore.

Just the need to write.

One thought on “Report from the Oscar Grant Protests

  1. Beautifully written. I watched it unfold on my TV, safe at home in Redwood City, open mouthed and incredulous. All that kept going through my head was “Oh no”, and “where is the respect for Oscar?” I understand the outrage – but not the rioting – especially against their own people (the African Braid Shop). But now, I see the respect was in you – and others like you. A single candle in the darkness. Those who caused damage were just there to cause damage. Shame on them. Keep your candle burning – and may it light the way to peace. May justice be served for Oscar Grant. Anything less diminishes us all. Thank you for your beautiful account of a horrible night. You are a gifted writer. Blessings.

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