“A different America”

In Oakland thousands take to the helicopter lit streets each night since the election, protesting hate crimes and a police state. But the demonstrators are also at odds with each other.

translation of a feature published November 12, 2016, by ZEIT ONLINE >>

A pair of angry eyes behind a garbage container. Observation slits. Next to the young woman, who can barely look over the edge of the container, another mummed person appears, and yet another. “Leave us alone, we’ve been doing this for years,” she hisses at the other protesters, the container tipping. The crowd pushes back. From afar, seemingly bored, police officers are watching.

“Peaceful protest”

It is just before midnight in Oakland. A thousand men and women had come to protest Trump, but for a moment they mainly protest each other. How far do they want to go to prevent a president Donald Trump? Putting something on fire? And if so, just the container or the car next to it as well, just as the night before, when two police cars and a Trump figure were burning here in Oakland?

And do they want to prevent him at all or only show their non-adherence – online with the #NotMyPresident hashtag and offline with slogans in the streets? Should they plan to emigrate, proclaim California’s Independence  (#CalExit) or simply hold out until the next election (#Election2020, #Michelle2020) or until a possible impeachment of Donald Trump?

A thousand demonstrators, a thousand opinions. This time the moderate majority prevails. The container and the car stay safe and the crowd continues on its way, shouting “Peaceful protest”.

“Oakland is being Oakland”

Since Trump’s victory Tuesday night, thousands of people spontaneously take to the streets in protest – especially in California, where a majority of 62 percent expectedly voted for Hillary Clinton. Apart from largely peaceful protests in San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles, Oakland lives up to its name as riot city. “Oakland is being Oakland”, as the Anonymous movement puts it on Twitter.

“Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Donald Trump go away”

Bayleas W. walks from one group to the next; she collects e-mail addresses for the organizers of the demonstration. “Donald Trump instills hatred against every group I belong to,” she says. “I’m trembling at the thought of him becoming my president.”

The 15-year-old is just a normal student from Oakland, where just normal can also mean: She is queer, black, has many Muslim friends and grew up with godmothers who immigrated from Mexico and El Salvador.

Bayleas talks fast, as if her energy and her ideas could prevent Trump from taking office. Or initiate an impeachment like “back then”, when Richard Nixon was removed from office due to the Watergate scandal – 26 years before her birth.

Trump’s victory is particularly bitter for Bayleas, because she is not allowed to vote yet but will suffer from the consequences. Until Tuesday she dreamt of studying in Germany and becoming US ambassador in Berlin. Since Wednesday, all long-term planning seems absurd to her – this is how much she fears the day that Trump could implement his election program.

She is especially scared of conversion therapies that Trump’s evangelical deputy Mike Pence wants to reintroduce and by which homosexuals are to be “cured” – an approach rejected by psychiatrists and psychologists. “You push 50 teenagers into those therapies and only 25 come out,” Bayleas states dryly. “Some people tell me, ‘Just wait until 2020!’ But what if I have been shot or imprisoned by a police officer before then? And what if I’m forced to do this therapy and commit suicide because it just gets too much. I do not even know if I will survive until 2020.”

“No one is illegal”

Katie Kelly-Hankin teaches lots of Bayleas – children and teens who burst into tears on Wednesday morning because they are afraid of conversion camps or deportation. “As absurd as this sounds: I cannot even promise my students that they will not be deported,” the 30-year-old teacher says. “All I can do is continue to fight for them – in the classroom, but also in my spare time.”

Oakland is only one quarter white; African Americans and Latinos constitute the majority of the 400,000-inhabitant city. Most of the demonstrators are white however – many of them came to represent black and Hispanic friends who do not want to raise any attention since Tuesday. For different reasons.

About eleven million people live and work in the US without proper papers; many have been contributing to the US economy for decades – in jobs that no one else wants. Up to now, so-called Sanctuary Cities such as Oakland and San Francisco have provided protection against deportations; in addition, Obama’s so-called DACA decree gave undocumented children and young people the right to study and stay in the US.

Kelly-Hankins teaches many DACA kids. Their families were hoping that Hillary Clinton would reform the Immigration Law so that they could apply for a legal right of residence. Now many of those same families are planning to move heads over heal to a country they hardly know to prevent getting deported by the Trump administration.

“Whose streets? Our streets!”

“We can close off the Bay Area at any time,” one of the organizers shouts into the megaphone. The crowd cheers. “This is one of the richest places in the United States. If something happens, if police violence erupts again, we will simply block all streets at nine o’clock in the morning. If we keep going until noon, the Bay Area will have lost 100 million dollars.”

He does not say where he got the numbers. But the method is not new in Oakland: In July, 1,000 demonstrators blocked the highway to protest police violence in Lousiana and Michigan. The speaker rails against the “American lifestyle”: “We cannot win against Trump if we spend our time on Facebook and in shopping malls. If we want to fight corruption in society, we must fight it in ourselves.”

The demonstrators get a chance to start their non-American lifestyle immediately: they walk, jog, run as the police starts blocking the demonstration route after a few blocks. They stand in a long line, giants in black, shoulder to shoulder, with batons and pistols. A woman takes a gamble: She paces out the line of men, looking deeply into the eyes of each of them. “Would you also do this to your children?” Another woman lights sage, a man holds a flower out to the police men.

“This is what a police state looks like”

The police officers shout a warning and start rushing the protesters into the opposite direction; their line moves fast, faster, a woman stumbles, she is rushed further.

The cat-and-mouse game continues for miles and hours. The protesters want to reach the highway, the police want to prevent just that. According to a police report published the next day, the unannounced protest was declared illegal at 9pm. Nobody wants to have heard the announcement, the running and tripping continues. A helicopter with flood lights circles the protesters, their shadows rotate in all directions. At some point, they walk past a huge screen on a city building, where a giant Donald Trump makes a speech. They raise their fists.

As the first stun grenade goes off, they recoil in panic. At the second flash and blast they aren’t frightened any more, just angry: “This is what a police state looks like!” Most of them have pulled scarfs over their noses – less to make themselves unrecognizable, but in anticipation of the tear gas, which soon nebulizes the view and creeps into a hundred noses.

Just before midnight, the demonstrators come to a halt under a highway bridge – cops on both sides. “Whose streets? Our streets!” The slogans reverberate below the bridge. Two homeless people crawl out of their tents, where they watch protesters breaking through a grid and running up the embankment onto Highway 880. The sky above the bridge fills with blue light and police sirens.

“I am afraid of the direction the US is heading in”, says Talya Hankin from the Oakland synagogue who is among the demonstrators. Her Jewish grandparents fled from the Shoah to the USA. “Our elders say that they have seen the way in which Donald Trump instills hatred before. When I see Muslims and other minorities in the crossfire, it reminds me of my own family’s story.”

“Not my president”

As the demonstrators return to the Plaza, residents have to wait in restaurants and cars alongside the road. But they don’t seem bothered, most wave and honk in solidarity. Only some look away in demonstrative disdain. A security officer in uniform films the march with her pink cell phone, smiling. The protesters have a lot of support in Oakland – despite the trail of graffiti and broken windows left behind by a few. Eleven people were arrested during the night, the police later reports.

Margo W., a teacher from Oakland, watches from a distance: “I am so infinitely sorry that my generation – the Baby Boomers – has chosen a candidate that will make the world worse. But I do not join the demonstrations. Let Donald Trump cut all those government programs – retirement benefits, the Affordable Care Act etc. – and his voters will be the first to suffer from this. Let them suffer and understand.”

Back on the plaza, an African American takes down cardboard standups of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton; he introduces himself as “Goody- the t-shirt guy”. Goody sold “Fuck Trump” shirts and buttons to protesters and passers-by the whole night. The business is going well, he says and quickly adds that he does not keep “a dollar” of what he sells. The pensioner has been an honorary fundraiser for the Democrats for years. “On Wednesday morning I felt devastated,” he says. “I woke up in a different America. I was considering emigration for days – to Canada, Mexico or Belize. But finally I said to myself: I have been in the Vietnam War, I will not be defeated by Trump either.”

Since then, Goody collects money for the Democrats’ election campaign in 2020. „I would loooove to see Michelle Obama as president – and Hillary Clinton as her deputy. Stick and stay and don’t go away! I will try to help where I can. Here, three dollars a button – or two for five.”

Article, photo and translation: Christina Felschen