As the Oakland Police Department works to identify more people who were involved with the property damage and looting during the protest following the Johannes Mehserle verdict, it’s still unclear if there was any one group in charge of organizing the destruction. In the days before the verdict, several online anarchist groups urged aggressive protest, and at a recent press conference, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said that of the 78 people arrested during the protest, some were “anarchists” found carrying Molotov cocktails, sawed-off baseball bats, spray paint cans and bottles filled with urine and feces.
Law enforcement, as well as Oakland residents, have been struggling to figure out whether anarchists and out-of-town activists were responsible for much of the damage. Of the 78 arrests, only 19 were of Oakland residents. Another 19 were from outside the Bay Area, 12 were from out of state, and the rest were from local cities.
At least one of those arrested protesters readily calls himself an anarchist and said that he came from out of state to attend the protest. John Weston Osburn—a tall, skinny young man with straight dark-blonde hair— is 26-years-old and from Salt Lake City, Utah. He came to Oakland specifically for the July 8 verdict protest. “I felt that being a similar age to Oscar Grant, his story touched me personally and [I] felt that it was important for people all over the country to show up and show solidarity and make sure that the police didn’t get away with this murder,” Osburn said.
Osburn said that during the protest he was working as a “media activist” for Indy Media, a radical open publishing media site that allows anybody to contribute. He said that he did not participate in the riots, but would have if he were not in media work. The anarchists at the Mehserle protests were “freedom fighters,” he said, and the vandalism they did “was absolutely heroic.”
“When you smash a window and you tear the town up,” he said, “it shows the police there will be real-world consequences when they abuse vulnerable people in their communities.”
Oakland police believe—and Osburn agrees—that anarchists did cause some of the damage in downtown Oakland that night, but that the anarchists were not the only people involved in looting and property destruction.
According to Osburn’s arrest report, as the peaceful protest ended and the crowds began to get rowdy, several officers saw Osburn allegedly trying to light a match near his backpack, as if he was trying to light something in his pack on fire. According to the report, when he saw the police watching him, Osburn allegedly dropped the matches and picked up his video camera. He was originally arrested for the felony charge of attempted arson. After being held for five days in Santa Rita county jail on a $125,000 bond, Osburn’s bail was reduced to $3,000 and he was instead charged with two misdemeanors—acts constituting a riot and failure to disperse.
Osburn denied the felony allegations. “I was arrested for attempted arson. They claim that I lit a weapon,” said Osburn after a Wednesday press conference hosted by the National Lawyers Guild about police brutality during the protest. “That is completely false.”
Osburn’s left wrist was in a splint and wrapped in an ace bandage; he said the police twisted his arm during his arrest after they threw him down to the ground.
Osburn is not the only person with anarchist ties to have expressed interest in the post-verdict protests. Before the riots, several anarchist groups threatened online to retaliate with aggression if the Mehserle verdict was anything other than murder. (Mehserle was ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a lesser penalty.) One group that identified themselves merely as “some anarchists” sent around a statement that was posted on several anarchist websites and news sources urging people to go to downtown Oakland on the day of the verdict. They wrote that they’d “respect the tone of the gathering” but that “what happens in the streets will be determined by the people in the streets.”
They also warned that “the more Bay Area cops you bring to downtown Oakland to threaten and intimidate those expressing themselves, the more targets you leave exposed. It’s open game on all your $hit from now until the job is done.”
Before the protest, another group called the Raider Nation Collective, a black-power anarchist group based in Los Angeles and Oakland, claimed in a statement also posted on several anarchist websites that all the non-profits urging a peaceful rally as a constructive way to approach social change were part of “the nonprofit-industrial complex” and that these non-profits were aligned with the city government and police.
“Nothing has been more ‘constructive’ than the popular fury unleashed in January,” read the Raider Nation Collective statement, referring to the riots that happened in downtown Oakland after Grant was killed in 2009. “Our power lies not in opportunistic deal-making with Dellums behind closed doors: it lies in the streets and it is homegrown.” It’s unknown whether any members of the Raider Nation Collective actually participated in last week’s protest.
Another group who calls themselves the “Bay Area National Anarchists,” took a different stance. Before the protest, the group issued a written statement that urged “restraint on behalf of residents of Oakland” and stated that “although a tragic situation, causing pain and destruction for those not to blame in the attack is irresponsible and does not bring honor to Oscar Grant or our communities.”
Grant’s family had also publicly asked people to keep the rally peaceful and to not cause property damage or physical harm to anyone. “Don’t come out here to fight,” said Grant’s grandfather, Oscar Grant, Sr., to crowds of protesters on the night of the rally. “Don’t dishonor my grandson’s death by coming out here and tearing up Oakland.”
For Osburn, though, the protest “isn’t just about Oscar Grant.” He said that police brutality “is happening all across the country—if we don’t take to action, it’s going to get worse.” He added that last week’s Oakland protest was part of the “grassroots global civil war” and that “these skirmishes are part of a lot bigger conflict.”
Oakland wasn’t the only city in which anarchists and other protesters acted out after the Mehserle verdict; protests, vandalism and property damage were reported across the country. In Baltimore, Maryland, anarchists claimed they spray painted three police vehicles, slashed the tires and spread feces on the door handles. In Portland, Oregon, around 40 protesters occupied the streets, set off smoke bombs and roman candles—three arrests were made. And in Bloomington, Indiana, protesters held a noisy demonstration outside the local jail chanting against police violence. “The anarchist community is lots of middle-class white kids,” Osburn said “and I think it’s commendable that they’re in solidarity with other communities.”
Osburn said that during his time at Santa Rita he was held with some anarchists, some “disenchanted youth” and some people who were just bystanders during the protest. For the anarchists, he said, “It was an honor to be with them and an honor to go to jail with them.” He added, “the people that got away whose face was hiding behind a mask, I think they’re courageous.”
Of the 78 people arrested at the rally, 66 were cited for misdemeanors and then released, nine were cited with felonies and two (including Osburn) were cited for felonies, but later let off with misdemeanor citations. The majority of the felony citations were for commercial burglary, arson and possessing stolen property.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said that currently her office is reviewing the cases of 17 arrested protesters and she expects to receive even more cases from the police. “On some we are bringing charges,” she said, “and some we are doing further investigation.”
O’Malley’s office is exploring different avenues for prosecution in these cases, including some based on the fact that many of the people who participated in vandalism were wearing masks, bandanas or other face coverings. “We are looking at [Penal Code] 185, which hasn’t been used [by the county] before,” she said—this penal code makes it unlawful for anyone to wear a mask or conceal their identity for the purpose of “escaping discovery or recognition.” She is also looking at how to pin the costs of emergency response on those arrested, which could fall under various government and penal codes.
All the protesters charged with a felony will get a preliminary hearing and a lawyer from the state to represent them, said O’Malley.
The Oakland City Attorney’s office is also researching different options for prosecution in the misdemeanor cases. “We are looking at the law and whether that includes a lawsuit or some other court order to go after some of those people who were not here to demonstrate but were here as an excuse to break things and trash Oakland,” said Alex Katz, the communications director for the City Attorney’s office.
Katz specified that his office does not intend to prosecute everyone arrested. “If someone comes to a protest and wants to get arrested to make a statement, that’s fine,” he said. “We are just looking at those involved in violence and destruction and the circumstances of their arrest.”
For now, Osburn is awaiting his court hearing, which should be coming up in the next couple of months. He said that he believes the anarchists who participated in the Mehserle protest were successful in furthering their own cause—acting out against the police. “Breaking windows is effective,” he said. “It proves the police to be ineffective at quelling dissent.”
He also said that this dissent is what helped bring attention to Grant’s death and the verdict for Mehserle. “This wouldn’t have gotten any news if a window hadn’t been broken,” he said.
You can read John Weston Osburn’s response to this story here.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.