When a protest against police brutality in Oakland turned violent Wednesday night, a plainclothes California Highway Patrol officer walking among the crowd pulled a gun on protesters when his partner was attacked and struck in the head.
As the night began, the two officer trailed behind the crowd in an unmarked car, but when they saw the crowd turn destructive by vandalizing businesses, they began to walk with protesters, said Avery Browne, chief of CHP’s Golden Gate Division.
Browne — who described the officers as “plainclothes” instead of “undercover” with the difference being they were dressed to blend with the crowd — said authorities have had officers mix with demonstrators since protests began last month.
At some point, though, a protestor began to suspect that the duo were cops, which is when things took a dangerous turn.
Michael Short, a freelance photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, witnessed the events unfold and, although he freely admitted that “things are escalating” in reference to police brutality, he also said that, given the circumstances, the officer acted appropriately.
“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,” Short said, adding at that point the second officer pulled out a small baton.
“But as the crowd started surging on them,” Short said. “He pulled out a gun.”
Short described how he captured the dramatic photos, but also pointed out that the images aren’t exactly what they appear to be either.
“We started shooting photos. It wasn’t that he was targeting me — he was trying to keep everyone in the crowd back,” Short told KQED.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it out of this thing alive. They were coming after us, they had already punched my partner in the head,” the officer, who has not been named, told Browne. “I didn’t know if we were going to make it out alive.’”
Short shared a similar sentiment. “If a group of, you know, 50 or 75 angry people yelling at me and advancing on me, and my friend gets hit and knocked on the ground, I’d be pretty scared for my life, and I think I would pull out my gun if I had one,” he said.
Nonetheless, Browne didn’t downplay the already taut emotions fueled by the incident, but also pointed out that the officers were attacked.
“We know that it is upsetting and disturbing anytime a firearm is displayed,” Browne said during a press conference the next day. “We want to prevent someone from getting hurt. And last night, these guys put their lives on the line because a group of individuals chose to destroy small businesses.”
Browne added that the officers are “cognizant of the danger” involved, but authorities will “continue to use plainclothes officers to observe” as one of the many ways to ensure public safety.
Browne said because of information gathered from the officers that night, authorities were able to stop two separate freeway shutdowns, something which CHP Assistant Chief Ernie Sanchez said is not only not a form a peaceful protest, but dangerous and illegal as well.
“The CHP is saying enough’s enough,” Sanchez said. “Too many community members are fed up with being stuck in traffic. Too many community members are fed up with their property being damaged.”
“What we are pushing for is for full prosecution of those demonstrators that are choosing to break the law,” Sanchez added.
The man who assaulted the officer was arrested and booked on felony assault on a peace officer. A blonde woman also walked up and kicked the officer while he was on the ground, but disappeared into the crowd before she was apprehended.
The officer who was assaulted received head injuries and exhibited symptoms consistent with a concussion, but is believed to be otherwise okay.
Rumors circulated that the officers were instigating acts of violence and vandalism alongside other protesters, but Short said he didn’t witness anything of that sort because he, as well as another photographer, were surrounded and accosted by protesters who attempted to take the memory cards from their cameras.
Browne confirmed that both officers are still on active duty, but the incident is under investigation.