On the front lines of police protests in the East Bay

Deontre Martin scrambled through a fence and up an embankment, emerging on state Highway 24 in Oakland. The traffic was at a standstill. A jubilant scene awaited on the roadway as he pulled his bike over the guardrail.

As more protesters pushed across the highway, the numerous headlights of idle vehicles silhouetted the bodies filling what is usually a busy road.

“This is what has to happen,” Martin said as he stood looking toward a line of California Highway Patrol cars roaring toward the blockade.

The 32-year-old Oakland waiter and yoga instructor was part of another night of protest actions in the East Bay, helping to block a highway. It was his second demonstration in only a few days, and the those were the first two of his life.

Normally he teaches yoga on Tuesdays, but firmly believed that normalcy needed to be disrupted.

Tuesday night's roving demonstration of some 2,000 people was the fourth day in a row East Bay streets were filled with protesters outraged by two recent grand jury decisions in separate states that resulted in no indictments for two white police officers who killed two unarmed black men. The first decision was in the case of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., who was shot by a police officer Aug. 9. The second involved Eric Garner, a 43-year-old man who was allegedly selling cigarettes illegally in Staten Island, N.Y., on July 17 when he was choked to death by an officer.

“I feel like I need to do this,” Martin said Tuesday night.

Within minutes of the protesters taking the highway at 9:20 p.m. near the MacArthur BART station, police in riot gear began their work, shoving people back across the road and then down off the highway. As the frantic crowd fled from police, loud bangs came from the law enforcement line and then a tall puff of smoke rose from the crowd.

“Tear gas!” someone yelled.

Martin, in a confused huddle of people, slid back down the slippery embankment and headed for the street. Once back in the main body of the protest, he pulled a black bandana that was around his neck up over his face. Then a series of loud bangs went off, rattling the already-skittish crowd.

Police had started firing projectiles down toward the crowd, hitting at least one person in the side of the head.

Martin never planned to engage in the protests that began after the Nov. 24 announcement that the Missouri grand jury did not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Brown. The Garner grand jury decision came days later on Dec. 3.

Martin admitted that, at the time, he did not pay attention to the news or politics.

“I've never been to a march before,” he said. “I do my best to block news out.”

But Friday, standing outside an Oakland restaurant with his boyfriend, Martin saw a crowd of protesters, many of them black people like him. Something about the unity, the solidarity of the moment, moved him. Martin said he had to take part. Garner and Brown could have been his uncles or his brothers back in his home state of Indiana.

That night's march left him feeling invigorated and gave him reason to care about politics and the news, he said.

On Tuesday night, Martin was planning to teach his Yoga class. The windows on the studio's storefront were broken from previous protests and no one there seemed to have any idea why, he said. Everyone in the class seemed so disconnected with what was happening right outside.

That disconnect didn't sit well with Martin, so he left and joined the action.

“Today, this is my yoga,” he said as he marched through Berkeley early Tuesday night.

Tuesday's demonstration started about 7 p.m. with marchers converging on Berkeley's police station after the scheduled City Council meeting was canceled because word circulated that protesters would show up and disrupt it. From the street, Martin watched as two council members tried to talk to the protesters about changes that need to be made to the police force after officers' heavy-handed tactics last weekend.

But few, including Martin, were listening.

“I don't give a f— about what he has to say,” Martin told another protester some time later. “Are you marching with us tonight?” he said about the council member.

By 7:20 p.m., the crowd set out through Berkeley for what would end up being a four-hour march to Oakland's City Hall and finally Emeryville, where some looting occurred.

For much of the roughly 13-mile route, Martin — a thin, bearded man wearing a flat-brimmed cap and a jean jacket — walked his 10-speed bicycle alongside several friends and chanted things like, “Hands up! Don't shoot!” and “No peace! No justice!”

When the crowd came into contact with the police, he was often front and center.

Near Telegraph Avenue and 35th Street in Oakland about 9 p.m., Martin found himself walking alone alongside Ryka Tyler, a 20-year-old organizer in town for several days from none other than Ferguson.

Tyler, who at times led chanting through a bullhorn, said she came to the Bay Area in solidarity, but did find the protesting to be a bit unorganized.

“It's Day 6,” she said, pointing out that in Ferguson the early protests were unorganized, too.

As the next few hours passed, the procession of people was illuminated by a spotlight from a helicopter and made contact with lines of helmeted police waiting at nearly every freeway entrance.

But the protest itself seemed at times rudderless. At several points, large crowds would gather at intersections and people would holler things like, “Where to now?” The questions were answered by conflicting voices. “Let's march!” and “Let's take the freeway!” were oft-repeated to the leaderless mass.

At one point near the MacArthur BART station just after protesters made it onto Highway 24, someone said they should march to Oakland and a smiling participant pointed out, “Ya'll know you're in Oakland.”

But the protest was also marked by moments of goodwill.

When Martin and the estimated 2,000 others headed toward downtown, one woman was telling another in a bright-blue dress, who she thought looked like a newbie protester, “If you hear a big bang, run. That's tear gas.”

As the night went on, at the protest's margin emerged troublemakers. A few people threw bottles or rocks at police and some trash receptacles were turned over about 9:45 p.m., but by and large the protest was peaceful. In fact, at every sign of scuffle or violence, large sections of the crowd would chant “nonviolent protest” in the direction of the troublemakers.

For Martin, such actions were not what made him join the demonstrations.

“If people start rioting and f—ing shit up, then I go home,” Martin said about 11:17 p.m. as he walked north along San Pablo Avenue toward Emeryville.

He said a protest should be “aggressive but not violent.”

Once in Emeryville about midnight, a few in the crowd started picking up rocks and sticks. Then windows started to break.

That's when Martin headed home for the night.

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