Editor’s note: Katharine Davies Samway is an Oakland Voices correspondents. Below, she recounts the energy at a recent protest in Berkeley for Black Lives Matter.
On Saturday afternoon, I went to the Berkeley demonstration and march, called a Funeral Procession to Bury Racism by the organizers. It began at Malcolm X Elementary School on Prince St. and then protesters marched the mile and a half to Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley. The protest/funeral procession started at 3:30 p.m. on what was a beautiful day — clear blue sky, slight wind, and some puffy clouds in the west.
As soon as I got out of my car at the intersection of King and Alcatraz, several blocks from the start of the event by the school, I sensed, I knew, that the event was going to be bigger and more powerful than I had imagined. I could see lots of people putting on masks and backpacks and walking or riding bikes, all going in the same direction as me. I could hear a band playing New Orleans-style jazz in the distance.
When I got to the school, I saw that the crowd was huge and stretched in all directions from the intersection, where the band was playing and people were chanting the names of the most recent killings — George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The mood was serious and peaceful, but in an unexpected way, somehow joyful.
I had expected a few hundred protesters, but thousands of people had come out. All ethnicities. All ages. Families and groups of friends. Babies in backpacks and young children perched on shoulders. Couples and individuals. Other than a few small children, everyone I saw at the demonstration/funeral procession was wearing a mask.
Protests always come with signs and many are often made by nonprofits or unions. But, in that day’s demonstration, all that I saw (and I saw a lot) were hand made. In fact, some people were making their signs on the side of the road, using cardboard packaging and markers. The signs underscored the seriousness of the events leading up to the demonstrations that have been happening locally, across the country, and around the world, all spurred by the recent killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis.
Around 3:50 pm, the march to MLK Jr. Civic Center Park began and I could see that side streets were packed with more demonstrators. From houses and apartments, people applauded loudly, rang cowbells, and joined in the chants. Some people played music from their front yards, where they had hung signs over fences and in windows. The band started up again, this time playing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Along the way, volunteers offered water, sunscreen, and energy bars.
When we reached Grove Park at the intersection of Oregon St. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, another demonstration was underway, organized by the California Black Student Union. A big crowd sat on the grass, listening to speeches before marching to the police department across from City Hall. I joined them for a few minutes and talked with two Black graduates of UC Berkeley, Kandy and Francesca. Kandy lives in Oakland and she said, “I came because I want to do my part. People recognize the police brutality of Black people and the oppression at the hands of the police.”
Rejoining the march, I noticed the presence of some socio-politically aware young people. Hundreds of children were with family members and they joined in the chants and waved hand-made signs. At an intersection, 11-year-old Ryu and nine-year-old Eloui were standing on the sidewalk and they initiated a call and response.
In loud voices, they called out, “Say his name” and the crowd called back “George Floyd,” and when they called out, “Say her name,” the crowd called back, “Breonna Taylor.” The two youngsters were wearing masks and told me why they had come out. “We care,” said Eloui. “Our parents have been telling us about Black lives being discriminated against, especially now,” added Ryu.
Further along, I heard 12-year-old Magnolia talking with 11-year-old Evelyn about the helicopter that had been circling above us. “We’re a bunch of kids. Why are the helicopters circling overhead? We’re not going to break windows,” she told me.
Soon after, I was walking near to a young Black father and his two children and we chatted a while. “It’s nice. It’s peaceful,” he said. He was expecting about 1,000 people, but estimated that there were 5,000.
By the time I arrived at the park at the intersection of Allston and MLK Jr. Way, drummers were playing as the crowd gathered on the grass of the park, on the steps in front of City Hall, and in the surrounding streets. I looked back down MLK Jr. Way and could see demonstrators on their way to the park stretching back further than the eye could see.
Around 5:30 pm, another group of demonstrators came down Center St. towards the park. It was the California Black Student Union protesters. People from both demonstrations began to merge together.
As I walked on the outskirts of the crowd in the park, I saw a group of young women sitting under a tree, with their signs on the ground. One of the signs belonged to Freddie, a 36-year-old white woman who lives in Oakland. Her sign said “HEY WHITE PEOPLE: NOT BEING RACIST ISN’T ENOUGH!!” I asked her about her sign. “It’s important that we learn about the history of this country. Education is very important. Not just saying you’re not biased,” she said.
On the way to the park, I noticed a group of young women offering water and snacks to the marchers. On my way back to my car, I saw them again, but this time, I stopped to talk with them.
Ariana, Gigi, Sydney, and Gabby met in college. Ariana lives in Oakland and she explained that they had raised about $2,000 on social media to purchase items from Black-owned businesses to go in goody bags. “We came out in solidarity with the movement. We understand that people get thirsty and hungry (at demonstrations) and we wanted to give notice to the local Black-owned stores and stand in solidarity with the allies,” said Ariana.
Her friend, Gabby, added, “I think this is just amazing. This movement is to denounce police brutality, and it’s not just Black individuals coming out to protest. It’s people of all races coming together. There’s an issue and everyone should see it. I think it’s also important for Black people this time to focus on their mental health and take time for healing. Videos of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others being killed that are posted on social media are traumatizing and hit close to home when they look like you, your father, or sister. It’s all the more important for all people, no matter what your race is, to protest alongside one another so that this fight lives on until we won’t have to see that any longer.”
I left the demonstration/funeral procession feeling more hopeful than usual. Maybe all of these demonstrations around the country, from the Bay Area to small towns like Pleasanton and Fargo, N. Dakota, might lead to the systemic changes that people today were clearly demanding — no more police killings of Black and Brown men and women and the demilitarization of police forces.