Search Lights on the Second Night of the People’s Indictment: Protest Tactics from Ferguson to Oakland

Search Lights on the Second Night of the People's Indictment (Black Lives Matter Series),  Berkeley CA, Winter 2014

Search Lights on the Second Night of the People’s Indictment (Black Lives Mater Series), Berkeley CA, Winter 2014

I took this shot once I got home after a night of protesting the non-indictment in Ferguson. I was aiming to take some slow exposures of the police and media choppers painting the night sky but given my lack of technical knowhow in the arts of the DSLR camera, the best I could do was experiment. This frame stood out to me because the shutter was slow enough to capture the police chopper’s search light at a distance and caught the media chopper (top right) with a flat line of light, creating a nice baroque scene with a mysterious light in the background. Without context the image could be taken to depict UFOs flying over a cityscape. In the background you can make out a column of light that gives the impression that a ship pushing a tractor beam is flying overhead. Of course this all an illusion.

Beyonds illusions, this shot is interesting because it documents a pivotal moment when a new tactic of protest is born out of necessity to make space for the difference of opinion, commitment, and tactics  that this wave of protests reflect.  I have witnessed and been involved in protests for over a decade in the Bay Area and never until this wave of protests has the “splinter group” been more instrumental in both keeping the voice of indignity active and making protestors of police brutality targets of disgust for the politically apathetic.  Splintering is sort of accidental tactic that came about as a result of a recently emerging practice in the urban protesters toolbox: the take over or freeways.  The tactic emerged as the CHP and Oakland police pushed against the column of protesters that were seeking to take over freeways the days following the non-indictment decision in the Ferguson case. What was interesting about the night this frame recorded is that during the march that started the evenings calls for justice, no search lights made themselves visible until the splintering began.  The search lights followed the “volatile element,” police officials would say.

What became clear to protesters and those keeping an eye on what was going on across the city is that the police was not ready to have two, three, or four groups of protesters moving in striated patterns across Downtown Oakland, South Berkeley, and Emeryville (all freeway corridors).

The frame is also significant because it foreshadows the intense debate around whom and how should indignity be expressed after the disappointing outcomes of two police brutality cases that handed down non-indictments for the wrongful murder of two black men.  What has played out over the days and weeks following the Grand Jury decisions in both cases has been characterized by some as historical due to the scale and consistency of the protests across the U.S. that responded fervidly against the impunity of power that these cases signal.  For others more skeptical about the effectiveness of political disruptions as catalyst for change and those who dismiss such political practices as thuggish, ignorant, self-serving, and self-destructive, the recent waves of protests are reduced to nuisances that reflect immorality and unwarranted disrespect for police authority.  

These attitude reflect a growing national political wedge evident as the wave of protests surge and the days and nights of protest ware on.

— JMG (Berkeley, December 2014)

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