A San Jose Protest Against Police Violence in Five Acts
On a recent Sunday, people gathered in Downtown San Jose to protest police violence and remember the lives of those lost at the hands of the police. That same day, others were gathering to mourn the lives of police officers killed in the line of duty. This is the experience from one of the protesters present.
Prologue: Pre-Rally Jitters
When there are four police SUV’s driving past in the span of twenty minutes, even though there are only ten people standing in the hot sun of the plaza in front of City Hall, you can start to feel afraid.
Act I: City Hall Rally
There are two police officers watching us from the top of City Hall, and their gaze burns almost as much as the summer heat. We aren’t a big crowd, being maybe thirty people to start off, and we’re a mixed bunch for a Sunday gathering. There are a couple of parents who brought their kids, little babies in strollers, and then there’s the young adults and middle age folks holding signs and megaphones to express how angry we are. Two people are burning sage, but I doubt it was enough to clear out the anger-born negativity.
The organizers start the rally near the curbside of Santa Clara Street. One of the organizers names off the people who were killed just in the previous week, and a few white balloons are released in their honor. Someone reads a poem they wrote in response to police officers getting shot in Dallas. A public defender asks us to come support his client, a victim of police brutality. We listen as people come up to the megaphone to share their stories and their grief and their anger.
A mother takes to the mic multiple times to yell at the officers looming over us from five stories up: How would they feel if it was their children getting killed?
Santa Clara is a busy street; plenty of people drive by and stick their raised fists out their car windows. For every honk, we cheer.
Council member Raul Peralez speaks for a bit about why he decided to join the police force and then the city council, asking us to think about trying to change the system from the inside in addition to our rallying out here.
Our chanting is loud enough to draw the attention of a single media van.
Act II: March Down Santa Clara Street
We leave City Hall once the police memorial starts. We’re marching down towards Alum Rock and there are enough of us now that we fill the sidewalk as we march down Santa Clara Street. It’s a relief to get out from under the summer sun and into the shade of the trees lining the sidewalk.
After a few blocks, we take to the actual street, marching down the middle of Santa Clara. We stretch out our banners and occupy the middle three lanes of the five-lane street. On the left and right, cars drive by honking their support. Someone leans out of her SUV window to high five some of us as we walk past, and plenty more people raise their fists out their windows.
It’s a heady thing, to blend with the crowd and shout as one — as a part of something larger. We pass a crowded soccer pub (there’s a match for Portugal on), and the fans sing out, “Ole, ole, ole, ole.” So we shout too:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
Act III: Confrontation with Cops
A police SUV is tailing the march, and the officer inside keeps asking us to get out of the street. Police cars have driven ahead of us so by the time we get to 26th Street, there is a line of police in riot gear blocking traffic.
I’m standing on the sidewalk, have been walking on it since a while back. There’s no one to post bail for me, so I can’t afford to get arrested. It feels strange to be walking past the stores that line Santa Clara Street and see people coming out of the buildings to film the march on their cell phones.
The police officer in the SUV declares that we are an unlawful assembly. People slowly make their way onto the sidewalk. One white fellow doesn’t join us though, and makes a point of wandering in circles in front of the police with his hands up.
Everyone retreats to the sidewalk. Well, almost everyone makes it.
Three police officers in riot gear, at least, tackle one of the male organizers. I don’t know his name. What I know is that he was unarmed. The police swarmed him.
The white fellow is still wandering around in the street with his hands up.
Some people scream and bolt, running away through a parking lot on the corner.
More people stay, watching, shouting at the police that the organizer was unarmed.
I know that the organizer was arrested. Beyond that, I don’t know what happened to him. I hope he’s okay.
Act IV: Emotional Aftermath
The remaining organizers lead what’s left of everyone else back towards City Hall. The police, still dressed in riot gear, block off the road. As the protest moves up the sidewalk, the police walk in the street, blocking all lanes of traffic. Overhead there’s a police helicopter.
I stay behind with my friends. One of us was standing right next to the organizer who got arrested, and she’s not okay. It doesn’t matter that the police only got one person; they still manage to emotionally scar the rest of us plenty.
Act V: City Hall Aftermath and Instigators
By the time we make it back to City Hall, there’s a small crowd of people sitting down and listening as individuals go up, one by one, to the megaphone to share their stories. We end the main rally by chanting together:
“It is our duty to fight!
It is our duty to win!
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.” (Original quote from Assata Shakur.)
People begin to drift off, but there’s still maybe twenty people left standing in front of City Hall. The sun sets in the background.
A white guy, brown polo shirt, an almost skin head, approaches a friend and starts asking her the same questions over and over.
“What if [X] happens, isn’t police force justified then? What if suspect has [insert weapon here]? Why can’t you guys come up with ideas how to de-escalate a situation?”
He won’t leave her alone, and won’t stop leaning into her personal space. He came up to us. He wasn’t part of the protest.
My friend tells this strange guy to leave her alone, loudly and repeatedly, and he won’t, and so the rest of the protesters get between them and we start shouting at him.
Some of us have experience at protests and so we shout at him about whether the cops sent him, if they’re paying him, and he responds yes.
He walks away as we try to convince each other to stop talking to him, to stop being angry that he won’t leave us alone, and a police SUV drives up Santa Clara and makes a U-turn, pulling over to the city hall side of the street. The white guy walks up to the window and talks to someone, and then turns around and goes inside the city building.
I don’t know if that guy was telling the truth because apparently it’s illegal for police to pay agitators to start things at protests, but this guy was clearly looking for an argument.
My friends and I are shaken and tired after this last incident. We leave.
(Writer exits, chased by fear of police.) First published on Silicon Valley De-Bug.
(Photographs by Adrian Discipulo)