OAKLAND, Calif. - A well-coordinated group of hundreds of Pro-Palestine protesters shut down the Bay Bridge on Thursday morning, tying up traffic during rush hour and calling out to world leaders to end the war in Gaza during the APEC summit.
The four-hour chaotic event, which started around 7:45 a.m., ended with at least 70 arrests and 29 towed cars. All lanes finally reopened just before noon, but not after at least 200 protesters had chained themselves together and purposefully tossed their car keys into the bay, stalling efforts to reopen the span to frustrated drivers.
Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney said that traffic impacts will last throughout the day.
The massive commuter stoppage called into question whether the California Highway Patrol was well-prepared, as the APEC summit this week in San Francisco has drawn leaders – and known protests – from around the world.
"This was very well planned," California Highway Patrol Officer Art Montiel told KTVU.
Montiel first explained that the CHP had been planning for APEC for months and had closed one lane on the bridge as a preventative measure.
But he added that protesters sought out "an area where there were no units," conceding when pressed: "We can't get everything right 100%."
CHP Chief Ezery Beauchamp, tried to change the narrative later at an impromptu press conference on the bridge.
"We were not caught off guard," Beauchamp said adamantly. "We were here within a couple minutes."
Beauchamp said 150 officers showed up and performed their duties, loading protesters peacefully onto buses to be cited and released.
And while the protesters did not throw bottles or rocks or get violent, Beauchamp criticized what they did.
"I don't necessarily call it a peaceful protest when you stop tens of thousands of people from being able to get to the hospital, being able to get to school, being able to get to work," he said.
The traffic jam delayed the delivery of organs for transplant procedures at hospitals, a spokesperson for UCSF told KTVU. However, the slowdown was not expected to affect the outcome for patients, Suzane Leigh said in an email.
Potential criminal charges will have to be sorted out by the San Francisco District Attorney, Beauchamp said.
The Arab Resource and Organizing Center was among the organizers of the Bay Bridge blockage, demanding a ceasefire, and calling out President Joe Biden to do more for the Palestinians -- 11,000 of whom have so far died in the war between Israel and Hamas.
"There’s a genocide happening in #Gaza and @POTUS is hosting cocktail parties in #SanFrancisco," AROC tweeted. "Bay Area has shut down the Bay Bridge to demand #CeasefireNOW. No more $ for genocide."
Many chained themselves together, chanting "Free Palestine" and "We want justice." They also used a "sleeping dragon" maneuver, handcuffing themselves together with PVC pipe. The move makes it hard for police to cut off their cuffs. The CHP said dozens of protesters threw their car keys into the bay, forcing the vehicles to be towed away, creating more havoc on the bridge.
A KTVU cameraman managed to walk along the span of the bridge, livestreaming video of protesters lying in body bags, with fake blood smeared on them to represent the Palestinian lives lost in the war.
CHP officers in riot gear calmly told protesters to disperse.
In an interview from the bridge, Aisha Mizar, an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement, said they were very excited to be out on the bridge, west of Treasure Island, gaining attention for their cause. She said they would all stay out as long as they could, before they were kicked off.
As she tells it, Mizar said the commuters didn't seem to mind not being able to move for more than an hour – although that was heavily disputed on social media with people complaining about the traffic nightmare.
AROC is the same group that protested at the Port of Oakland earlier this month.
Speaking on the bridge, Zoe Parsigain said the goal of the event was to demand a ceasefire.
"I do think we got the message across," Parsigain said. "We are so sorry to inconvenience folks. That wasn't the goal."
But since Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are in town for APEC, Parsigain said the group "couldn't let it just be business as usual."
CHP officers arrest at least 50 people on the Bay Bridge. Nov. 16, 2023
A representative from the Israeli government was extremely critical of the protest and the organizers.
Marco Sermoneta, the San Francisco-based Consul General of Israel, called AROC "vehemently antisemitic."
He compared what the protesters did on the bridge – preventing thousands of people from getting to work, the airport and other important places – to the peaceful demonstration of about 290,000 Jews and allies earlier this week in Washington, D.C., asking for the release of 240 Israeli hostages.
"Calling for a ceasefire is basically telling Israel to stop fighting Hamas and the atrocities that it committed on Oct. 7," Sermoneta said.
Sermoneta said that he also doesn't want innocent people to die. But he said Israel is left with no choice.
Hamas is "an organization that not only commits war crimes when it shoots indiscriminately at Israeli homes and they continue to fire missiles and rockets, by the way, as we speak," Sermoneta said. "It is also an organization that doesn't care about the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. And therefore, unfortunately, anything that happens in Gaza, including to the civilians… is squarely the responsibility of Hamas."
KTVU's Gasia Mikaelian, Andre Senior, Bailey O'Carroll and Sami Mamou contributed to this report.