A series of weekend protests in Oakland exposed the tensions between city leaders and demonstrators as they negotiate the delicate balance between public safety and civil liberties.
Problems began May 1 when a peaceful rally against police brutality turned violent as some protesters broke storefront windows and set fires. As a result, Mayor Libby Schaaf said the city needed to do a better job enforcing its existing laws against vandalism.
"Oakland protests have been marred, and in many cases shut down, when a small number of vandals have committed illegal acts, and those incidents tend to have happened during nighttime marches on the streets," Schaaf said.
She believes that if protesters rally in public spaces or on the sidewalk, rather than in the street, "we can better avoid vandalism and better avoid protests being ended."
But protesters see the crackdown differently.
An estimated 135 protesters gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza on Saturday. The group later marched from the plaza down Broadway to Washington and Third streets, where officers formed a line. When some demonstrators tried to breech the line, police deployed tear gas, according to a statement from the Oakland Police Department.
An unlawful assembly was declared and about 9:30 p.m., police formed a perimeter to move protesters back to the sidewalk. That’s when protesters who did not comply were arrested and cited. There were no reports of injuries or vandalism.
Demonstrator Cat Brooks has participated in protests in Oakland for the last seven years.
“It’s unfortunate that now we have to divert our attention away from the very pressing crisis of the black community, which is the stealing of our lives,” Brooks said. “It’s a very unfortunate distraction.”
Another protester, Katie Loncke of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, referred to the crackdown as "the shocking institution of a curfew on free speech."
"This is both an extension of the work around the Black Lives Matter movement and concerns around racist policing. It happens to be pushing back against this escalation and the aggression of police in Oakland in responding to nonviolent protests," she said.
Another protest was planned for Sunday evening at 14th Street and Broadway. About 100 protesters and religious leaders were expected to gather for prayer and meditation.
In a statement, the Oakland Police Department said it would “continue to facilitate peaceful demonstrations while enforcing all laws against violence, vandalism, trespassing or other criminal activity.”