January 21, 2012
A clear cool winter afternoon and helicopters are circling to the south, over downtown Oakland. I count four of them, red and white blinking lights in the fading sky, they look like intricate sci-fi bugs but for the noise. That kind of angry rapping sound and the fairly high altitude formation tell me they’re police copters. The demonstration set for noon today must be still going on, the Occupy people were to take over an empty office building on Lake Merritt.
I’m on my way to the gym to shoot some baskets. My boy and I were at a bike-riding session in Marin, so the demonstration was out of the question. And since I was only an observer at the bike session, I’m quite happy to work out, to go to the gym in my sweats and basketball shoes, with the ball under my arm. The gym is almost empty, a couple of young guys at one end of the court and an older ballplayer running back and forth across the court at my end. I’ve got plenty of room, though, to shoot jump shots, what I came to do, make a hundred of them, fifteen- to twenty-footers, and fill out the hour with some experiments.
Halfway though my session there’s commotion on the street, audible even in the gym, shouting and some sirens. Then a rush of people into the mezzanine, a short track that circles the ball court twenty feet above the floor. I can’t see much, because of the steep angle, but some heads are visible for a moment. There must be thirty or forty people up there. And they’re being herded in by police, who are shouting and stomping around. The two people I can see are police, with face guards and riot gear, in dark blue, no those are dead black uniforms. The others are making no noise, but the police are aggressive and ugly, shouting, rasping, “Go over there.” “Keep quiet.” “Stand by the wall.”
But they don’t seem to know what they’re doing. They’re walking back and forth, then one disappears, then the other, then one comes back. Some confusion? I wonder if I should leave. But nothing’s changed on the court, so I continue shooting baskets. I feel protected, perhaps foolishly, as I’m simply going about my private, lawful business. Where have I heard that before?
One person I do see climbs over the rail on the opposite side of the court, away from the police and the protesters. He’s twenty feet up above the floor, and he grasps the railing and swings round, his back to me and the court, and climbs down the backstop, putting his foot on the rim, then bends and lowers till he can grasp the rim with his hands. He’s got a long green scarf and the backboard’s supporting wires snag it as he drops to the floor, pulling it right off from around his neck.
As he walks by me I say, “You lost your scarf.”
He glances back, shrugs, and smiles at me, clearly pleased. He leaves the court, walking, not running, toward the rear exit.
The scarf was caught beyond the top of the backboard and hangs down just below the rim. I interrupt my routine and spend several minutes throwing the basketball, attempting to free the scarf from the wires. No luck. And I can’t jump high enough, anymore, to catch it with my hands.
One of the young players comes over, jumps up easily, pulls down the scarf, and hands it to me.
“Thanks!” I say, but he’s too cool to respond.
I finish my workout and as I leave an older player smiles at me, “You got a scarf out of this.”
“Yes.” The scarf is an attractive, open-knit wool, pea-green, and I like it.
The crowd on the mezzanine is quiet, but I’m aware they’re still there. The gym’s exit follows up some stairs away from the mezzanine, and in the lobby are another thirty or so demonstrators crouching and sitting against the wall, calmly, with eight or ten police, again with thick plastic face guards and very dark black uniforms, standing in a line, penning them to the wall.
I walk by, throw my towel in the bin, and an officer motions me to the rear exit. I look at him blankly. I’m standing in my sweats and ball shoes with a basketball under my arm. No way can I look like a demonstrator.
“You can go out the front if you like,” he tells me.
There are many, many demonstrators on the street, sitting on the median, handcuffed or with their hands behind their backs, and a long line of police guarding them. The demonstration must have gotten out of hand, and seems to have ended right here at the Oakland YMCA while I was in the gym. None of the demonstrators are standing, they’re all sitting and all are quiet. The vibe is calm, really kind of sweet, and acquiescent. I’m embarrassed for the police. They seem aggressive and hostile, just in how they’re standing, as if this quiet group in front of them is about to erupt. But there are no signs of this. Even though, indeed, some demonstrators might be thinking about doing exactly that.
People are standing around my car, which I happened to park at the near corner. I walk along between the Y building and the police, who are lined up facing the demonstrators on the median, their backs to me. At my car, the police are facing me, separating the onlookers, with cameras and video cameras, from the demonstrators. In the eye of the police, the observers are potential demonstrators, I suppose.
How will I get my car out? Ahead are police; police cars, some identified by writing on their doors as from Pleasanton, twenty some miles away; and demonstrators, filling Telegraph Avenue; around my car the onlookers; and a police line that crosses right in front.
I approach an officer in the line, and the officer happens to be a woman. “There’s my car,” I say, pointing, and ask how could I get it out.
“Go yell at that woman,” she motions to another officer, one behind the line.
This stuns me. “Did you say ‘yell’?” I ask quizzically.
“Yes,” she smiles, her expression just visible through her face guard.
I touch her hand. “I don’t want to yell at her, I want to have a conversation.”
The officer looks abashed and smiles again.
I walk along the lines toward the officer she pointed out, her supervisor I’m sure. I’ve still got the basketball under my arm, I’m in my blue gym sweats, and around my neck is an elegant green scarf. On my way, I will pass in front of a tall African-American policeman, and as I approach, he stiffens and stands taller. Is he readying himself for an attack? I wonder if I can take him, and how would I do that? It’s an automatic response, and I don’t change my stride or alter my composure as I pass him. It’s only a single second, and in the same second I notice how much bigger he is than I am. And how stupid I’d be to start a fracas.
I point out my car to the supervisor, and we strategize. She tells me I could make a sharp u-turn and drive away from the demonstration. “If those people,” she motions to the onlookers, “will let you.”
Why wouldn’t they? I think, and then speak to the officer. “I’m not obstructing you in any way, am I?”
“Not yet, you aren’t.”
I throw my ball in the car, unwrap the fine green scarf and think, if someone recognizes it they can have it back, of course.