Party and Protest in the Streets of Oakland

The day after the Warriors seized game 1 of the NBA finals, I spotted Stephen Curry in Oakland. I was at First Friday, a monthly street festival that takes over five blocks of Telegraph Avenue in a neighborhood some people call Koreatown Northgate. Vendors were out in full force, hawking jewelry, beauty products, clothes, and artwork to a growing crowd. The early evening sun hung stubbornly on the horizon, casting the scenery in bright orange as Biggie Smalls and barbecue smoke wafted through the air.

I saw Steph three times, actually. The first time, he was on a large oil painting, sandwiched between two even larger oil paintings, a profile of Drake and a replica of the famous photo of Muhammad Ali vanquishing Sonny Liston. The league MVP was framed from the waist up, in road blues, looking a little creepy. The second time, he took cartoon form, spray-painted on what appeared to be plywood, propped up on the asphalt among dozens of other similarly stylized pop culture icons. The third time, I didn’t see his face, I just read his name on a Warhol-esque piece portraying a can of “Curry Powder.”

Most other Golden State imagery was predictable and unremarkable; several attendees rocked the standard issue gear, while a few booths offered independently designed apparel incorporating varying degrees of cleverness and appreciation for weed. On the far south end of the festival, a pair of tents promoted Oracle Arena and the Warriors, sending off a corporate vibe that felt incongruous among the purveyors of handmade soap and alternative media. In front of the Warrior tent, clean-cut twenty-somethings in blue polos sought to reel in passersby with talk of free passes to Disneyland; just a few paces to the north, the solicitation changed to a call for support of LGBT Africans.

As one might expect during such an unprecedented Warriors run, Oakland’s other sports teams enjoyed less visibility at this particular First Friday. I did spy a Raiders hat on a guy selling posters. The posters featured a figure wearing a gas mask and raising a fist alongside the words “Fuck the Curfew.”

The curfew in question was imposed by Mayor Libby Schaaf, first leveled at a local march held in conjunction with the “National Day of Action to End State Violence against All Black Women and Girls” on May 21. That night, cops bullied a few hundred peaceful demonstrators into moving their march from the street to the sidewalk, sparking protests over the next two days. Since then, civil rights attorneys have questioned the legality of Mayor Schaaf’s directives, and city council members have criticized the expenditures involved, as paying for police overtime has been wreaking havoc on the municipal budget for years.

Observers view the mayor’s new strategy as a response to events on May 1, when annual rallies for International Workers’ Day conflated with protests over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore law enforcement. After dark, a group of protesters began vandalizing businesses, starting from city hall and progressing up to the vicinity of Koreatown Northgate. Coincidentally, First Friday was underway, and festival goers ended up caught in the middle of a window smashing spree.

As it turned out, activists scheduled yet another protest for the First Friday attended by representational Stephen Curry and myself. In fact, they planned to start their demonstration right at the festival. While I was there, I saw no signs that anyone was concerned about this fact, but I bounced well before sundown. On the way home, I noticed along the Broadway Auto Row that many cracked or boarded up windows remained from the previous month’s carnage. On one storefront, someone had hung a sign that asked, “What Will Oakland Do?”

According to news reports the next day, the answer to this question was, for the time being, “Not much.” The Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle described the previous night’s protest as slow to coalesce, sparsely attended, and short lived. City officials probably breathed a sigh of relief — at least until they found out that a police officer had shot and killed someone that morning just a couple miles to the east.

While strife and struggle continue to grip Oakland, its basketball team keeps barreling toward what increasingly feels like an inevitable NBA championship. As a result, the city faces an odd uncertainty: what kind of pandemonium will spill out onto its streets first? A blue and yellow circus of hella hoops hype and glory, with euphoric revelers praising the reversal of their woeful fortunes and paying homage to patron Saint Steph? Or something much more serious and desperate and threatening, a familiar specter ready to deliver the sad promise of batons and broken glass?


Alec MacDonald is a writer and editor who lives in Oakland, California. Alec is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

0 comments on “Party and Protest in the Streets of Oakland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: