On Wednesday, a police brutality protest spontaneously emerged in the Oakland, CA area in response to recent revelations that grand juries failed to indict the officers responsible for the controversial deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The demonstrators met on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley and marched throughout the streets of Oakland. According to KTVU, the group of around 150 to 200 protesters initially disrupted PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s talk at Berkeley before leaving campus and marching downtown. The crowd of demonstrators swelled in number as it moved through the city.
Later on, as the protest thinned down to around 30 to 50 people, protesters noticed two suspicious masked men, who, according to tweets by eyewitnesses, seen below and cited by SFGate, had allegedly been attempting to incite the crowd to commit acts of vandalism and banging on the windows of local businesses. The relative calm of the protests faded, and the demonstrations descended into chaos, as some among the crowd began looting and throwing rocks at shop windows. Angry demonstrators circled around the two masked men, believing them to be agent provocateurs sent by police to incite violence and discredit the protest. What happened next is in dispute and ended in a California Highway Patrol officer pulling out his service weapon on protesters and a photographer covering the protests for the San Francisco Chronicle.
A protester who identified himself as Dylan told KTVU that he grabbed a bandanna off of the officer’s face, exposing him to the crowd, and that the officer responded by assaulting a different African-American protester. Said Dylan, “I’m a white man, and I pulled off [the officer’s] mask, but they punched a black man… He got arrested.” Dylan said that the two masked men never identified themselves as police officers.
Freelance photographer Michael Short, who was covering the event for the San Francisco Chronicle, described what happened next at around 11:30 PM in comments to SFGate, “Just as we turned up 27th Street, the crowd started yelling at these two guys, saying they were undercover cops… Somebody snatched a hat off the shorter guy’s head and he was fumbling around for it. A guy ran up behind him, knocked him down on the ground. That guy jumped, backed up, and chased after him and tackled him and the crowd began surging on them… The other taller guy had a small baton out, but as the crowd started surging on them, he pulled out a gun.”
The officer then pointed his gun, held sideways, directly at Michael Short, who snapped a photo of the tense moment.
The bandanna-wearing officers were later identified as working for California Highway Patrol. CHP Golden Gate division Chief Avery Browne told KTVU, “[The officer] told me he didn’t know if he was going to make it out alive… They were outnumbered, they were assaulted, and at that point, two officers were not going to be able to arrest 30 or 40 or 50 individuals.” Chief Browne confirmed that his division did send what he referred to as “plainclothes” officers to keep an eye on the protest and that they were wearing bandannas on their faces in order to blend in with others in the crowd, but claimed that they were not there to incite protesters and that he had not heard any reports alleging that the officers were encouraging violence. Said Browne, “We put plain-clothes officers in the crowd to listen and gather information.”
Chief Browne said that he will continue to send plainclothes officers out among protesters, despite the outcome in this incident, and told SFGate, “We know it’s upsetting, we know it’s disturbing, every time a firearm is drawn, whether in a protest situation or in a felonious car stop… But we need to understand that these officers were under attack.” The individual accused of punching the bandanna-wearing officer has been arrested for felony assault on a police officer.
Chief Browne is not releasing the names of the officers involved and says that they remain on duty. The incident has raised questions about whether or not it is appropriate for on-duty police officers to attend protests wearing masks over their faces, considering the fact that it is typical for protesters to interpret such police tactics as efforts to provoke violence through the use of agent provocateurs.
As a nationwide debate rages over increasingly-militarized police tactics, Ben Swann just released a new Truth in Media episode on the root of police militarization. Watch it in the embedded player below.