Friday, July 9, 2010

Oscar Grant verdict leads to looting, vandalism, arson -- Oakland

The agitators have struck again.

After about three hours of passionate but largely peaceful protests by hundreds of people who converged on downtown Oakland late Thursday afternoon, a splinter group of protesters, many wearing masks, egged on the crowd and ran through the streets breaking store windows, looting and setting fires before police moved in with flash-bang grenades.

People started pouring into the intersection at 14th Street and Broadway after the surprisingly quick verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial. The former BART police officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III on Jan. 1, 2009.

Police officers, while visible and prepared, allowed the crowd of about 1,000 to block the street and set up a podium. One after the other, speakers grabbed a bullhorn to express grief and anger. Many urged the crowd to keep the protest peaceful, and by 8 p.m. there were only a few arrests for fighting with police and instances of rocks being thrown by a smaller group that tried unsuccessfully to march down Broadway toward police headquarters.

But all that changed after dark. By 10:30 violent protesters had left a trail of destruction down Broadway and throughout Uptown, smashing windows and looting. They hit Foot Locker and Sears -- even ripping clothing from mannequins. Windows were smashed at Far East National Bank, Luka's Taproom, Ozumo Japanese, Oaksterdam University, Oakland Coin and Jewelry Exchange, Whole Foods, Grace Beauty Supply, JC Jewelry, the Acura dealership showroom, Wells Fargo, California Bank and Trust, US Bank and Bank of the West. There had been 50 arrests, and anticipating many more.

Stephen Allen, a 22-year-old protester from West Oakland, got caught near a mob that broke through the gate of the Foot Locker shoe store and looted the store of sneakers and sportswear. Moments later, a masked man, in one swift and violent blow with a long object, broke the window of the Far East National Bank across the street.

"Before the sun went down I was happy with everything," Allen said. "It's no longer about Oscar Grant. The people who went in there and came out with shoes; that's not about Oscar Grant anymore. What we had before the sun went down, that was justice. This is just pure stupidity."

Councilmember Larry Reid echoed those sentiments.

"I just hope it doesn't get any worse that what it's been so far. This certainly is not peace or justice for Oscar," said Reid, shortly after police cleared 14th Street and Broadway.

City and law enforcement officials, religious leaders and community organizers had for weeks urged a calm, peaceful response to the verdict. Recreation centers, churches and other nonprofit groups had opened their doors to allow people to gather and express their feelings without resorting to the same sort of violence that left a trail of smashed windows and other property damage downtown during protests in January 2009.

The city had prepared for the worst, though for a while it looked as if it might not be necessary. Many downtown merchants boarded up their windows days in advance of the verdict, and downtown businesses and local, state and federal offices sent their employees home as soon as it was announced. Several law enforcement agencies pledged their support and trained with Oakland police in past weeks.

During the evening, a phalanx of officers stationed at 11th Street and Broadway contained the crowd and prevented it from spreading. The Fruitvale BART station, where Grant was killed, was quiet. As a precautionary measure, the CHP closed down freeway onramps and offramps at Sixth Street and Broadway to prevent protesters from getting onto the freeway.

Grant's grandfather, who lives in Oakland, came downtown to be with the peaceful crowd. He called on the community not to "dishonor his grandson" with violence.

"I don't like the verdict but there are ways to deal with it without being violent," he said. "I do not want (people to use) violence to try and solve the verdict that happened today."

The African-American community has been galvanized since the fatal shooting of Grant, 22, an unarmed black man from Hayward who was with a group of friends heading back from attending New Year's Eve festivities in San Francisco when they were pulled from a BART train at the Fruitvale station in Oakland after a fight.

The actual shooting was recorded in photos and videos taken on numerous cell phones. One such photograph, of Mehserle as he stood with his Taser drawn, was snapped by Grant himself as he sat against the wall on the platform minutes before he was shot.

In a news conference at the city's Office of Emergency Services, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said he would stand with Grant's family if they weren't satisfied with the verdict and wanted to explore other options for trying to seek justice.

Dellums thanked the community for responding in a "passionate and (verbally) aggressive, but peaceful way." He said people have a constitutional right to express themselves but he hoped they would do it in a manner that is respectful to Grant, his family and the community, and "show the nation that we can handle adversity."

The mayor's office coordinated with local nonprofits, including Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, to send ministers, elders and other community members out in orange vests to talk to youths who had gathered in the streets and who were angry over the verdict.

"So many community groups have made the point that violence is not justice," said the Rev. H. James Hopkins of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church. "So, justice needs to have nonviolent measures. It's hard to see those videos and think that today's verdict was justice."

Oakland residents Yafeu Tyhimba, 41, and Keba Konte, 43, put up a chess board in the crosswalk at 14th Street and Broadway and began playing a game.

"It's a thinking man's game," Konte said. "And that's what we need to be doing tonight."

Michelle Washington owns a hair salon in the 300 block of 17th Street. She said people should find a more effective outlet for their pain and anger.

"People who riot, I have no respect for," Washington said. "They are hurting innocent people and we didn't have anything to do with what happened. If you are going to do something, get up and vote. That judge (in the Mehserle trial) would not be re-elected."

Many people who took to the streets, churches and recreation centers disagreed with the verdict. Others, while not happy, said they were gratified that a police officer was convicted of shooting an unarmed black man, because that is rare. They credited the numerous videos of the incident with assuring the conviction.

"I just felt that, as a voice, we are the people. Oscar Grant, that could have been anybody's child," said Elisher Muhammad, who owns a beauty shop on 17th Street. "It's sad to know that somebody could get away with a mistake like that, even if it was a mistake."

An officer with the Alameda County probation department, who asked that his name not be published out of fear he would lose his job, said he wasn't surprised by the verdict.

"Oftentimes when I get stopped by police, they let me go when they see my badge, but when I'm wrong, I'm wrong," he said. "I feel like (the verdict) was a slap on the wrist. I don't trust the system and I work for the system."

Several organizations hosted speakouts and music earlier in the evening for people to express themselves in nonviolent ways. About 100 youth nestled in comfortable couches at the Youth Uprising community center in East Oakland and took turns expressing their anger and frustration over the verdict during an open forum. At the Mosswood Recreation center in North Oakland, a multigenerational group gathered in a circle and shared feelings of sorrow and a variety of other emotions, said supervisor Karis Griffin.

"It's just a place where people are coming to talk about how they feel," Griffin said.

Abel Habtegeorgis, spokesman for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said the community needs to focus on changing the system.

"We want to address the system that recruited and trained Johannes Mehserle, that's the fight we need to continue on," he said. "We want to see as much effort and energy as police put into preparing for a riot, put into putting the community onboard and engaging in forums and workshops."

Knots of agitators tried to stir up the crowd earlier in the evening. But when one young man started shouting that the crowd should riot he was quickly quieted by Oakland resident Brenda Appleby.

"Maybe the verdict was wrong, but this is my community and my town," Appleby said. "We have to stop talking about (the shooting) like it just hurt us black people. We need to stop looking at just color. This is about what happened to a human being."

Police Chief Anthony Batts, who earlier said that the verdict provided an opportunity for people to come together to talk about race and other issues, had hoped for a calm response. He blamed outsiders for ruining things for Oakland's businesses and residents, and he said his officers had gotten word that the anarchists, recognizable by their masks, were planning something.

"They want crowds to overreact, and they want police to overreact," he said. "We kind of anticipated that."

But he said the police were trying not to fall into their plan, he said.



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