OAKLAND—It’s a chilly Thursday night, the moon hanging low and full over Lake Merritt. Outside the historic Grand Lake Theatre, a mass of around 300 people has gathered, chanting “No Trump, No War.” Sara, a protester in her mid-70s who who has organized a demonstration every week outside the theatre since Trump’s election in 2016, stands at the heart of the crowd. “People say we’re preaching to the choir,” she tells me, “but sometimes the choir needs louder voices.”
Like many of the protests held here and across the country since Trump was elected, attendees hold signs with puns, roasts of Trump’s haircut, or calls to end U.S. imperalism. But this protest, in solidarity with antiwar actions across the U.S., has a new message, with attendees holding printouts of the official “No War With Iran” visuals. Sara’s signs look weathered; she says that in the trunk of her car, the collection of protest signs she’s accumulated over the last four years could stand in as an unofficial history of the Trump administration. “I have the immigration ban, the sexual assaults, North Korea.” She pauses. “Now and then news happens, and we get crowds like this.”
I arrive as the sun sets, the still winter air interrupted by passing cars, honking in support of the demonstration. At one point a 18-wheeler makes a long, slow turn, blaring its horns until it fades out of view. Sara points to a television crew down the street, who film the passing truck. “The CBS cameras wanted to interview me earlier, but I couldn’t. I just want to cry.” She mentions that she’s been protesting since the Vietnam War, starting from when she was 17. I ask if the media has changed its tone on war much since then. “The media will always reflect society,” she says, “and in this society, capitalism is everything.”
At gatherings like this, which have increased since Trump’s election and catastrophic presidency, it’s hard to shake the feeling that everyone who opposes him is protesting at once, but not necessarily together. Besides a small group of individuals who have led Oakland’s anti-Trump protests for years, I can’t find an organizer with a clear message or demands here tonight. But that doesn’t mean demands aren’t being made in the crowd around me—they’re just scattered, like the protesters who’ve taken up sides on all four corners of the intersection. Across the street, Oliver, a 30-something veteran in a “Veterans Against the War” hat, is protesting with About Face, a coalitions of former soldiers who stand in opposition to “militarism and endless wars.”
The senseless civilian casualties in another needless conflict weigh heavy on Oliver’s mind. “There is no such thing as a “legal” war action,” he tells me, when I ask about what his first thought was when he heard Trump had assassinated Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani Soleimani. Oliver lights a cigarette, and pauses. “I’m happy to be out of the military. We were policing people over there, which isn’t what I was told I was signing up for. We were lied to,” he says.
In front of the theatre itself, I meet Zahra, an Iranian in her 40s who still has family in Iran. She says she speaks to them every day and will continue doing so unless she can’t, as when the internet was temporarily shut off by the Iranian government in November to curb protests against rising fuel prices. Sormeh, a first-generation Iranian-American, says she, too, is worried about the effects Trump’s sanctions will have on her family and friends’ safety. Already, she says, basic needs in the country are hard to come by, a situation only made more dire by the threat of more sanctions. During November’s internet shutdown, it was impossible for Sormeh to contact her family, and in the last year alone, through a combination of U.S.-backed sanctions and orders from the Iranian government, food and gas prices have skyrocketed. “[These sanctions] go beyond war,” she says. “This puts every Iranian in danger.”
In the park adjacent to the protest, a crowd gathers around a volunteer for for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and attendees across the protest have adorned the backs of their signs with “Bernie 2020" stickers. One young woman I spoke with, Katherine, says she fears Trump’s actions towards Iran are meant primarily to whip up fear and chaos among his supporters, and many I speak to echo her sentiment. As Katherine puts it, Trump is “under fire, and this makes people feel unsafe. When people feel unsafe, they look for a leader.”
After a few hours, the crowd tapers off. I see Sara, still standing vigilant after 50 years at the corner as people disperse into neighboring streets. I think about what she told me, about the choir’s need for louder voices. When is it loud enough? I still don’t have an answer, but for a moment at least, everyone did what they could to join their voices together. It’s getting somewhere, bit by bit, person by person.