An anarchist gives his take on Mehserle protest “freedom fighters”

Protesters at the rally after the Mehserle verdict covered their faces with bandanas.

Protesters at the rally after the Mehserle verdict covered their faces with bandanas.

John Weston Osburn at a press conference on police brutality.

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.

The police prepared for unrest before the protests by duct-taping windows to prevent them from breaking.

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.”

The rally was for Oscar Grant who was killed in January 2009.

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.”

Bank of the West windows broken during the protest.

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.

Connect with Oakland North on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

26 Comments

  1. Todd

    Thanks for this article. Please post more pictures of the “anarchists” who vandalized small businesses after the Oscar Grant verdict.

  2. an oakland resident

    interesting how it seems local anarchist groups urged for no violence! compared with a bunch of out of town “middle class white kids” with delusions of grandeur thinking that smashing some windows in someone else’s city means they are fighting a “civil war”. what bullshit.

  3. Katherine

    “‘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.’” And then what – he goes back to SALT LAKE CITY and leaves people here to clean up his mess? Call me old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy but I just don’t get it.

  4. /\/\/\/

    Hello, Justice Department? I would like to see some of these out-of-state schmucks brought up on federal charges. There has got to be some federal statute against crossing state lines with the express purpose of creating mayhem, yes?

  5. “the people that got away whose face was hiding behind a mask, I thnk they’re courageous”
    no, it takes courage to fight for what you believe in WITHOUT wearing a mask. Perhaps if some of these children understood the difference between demonstration and acting out, they would get it…

  6. bud

    Shitting on John Weston Osburn’s face is also heroic. It shows him there are real world consequences for being an insufferable cunt.

  7. bud

    If anything, the ‘anarchists’ mission backfired. It made Oaklanders in those neighborhoods feel afraid. Most Oaklanders were already plenty mad at the cops and very interested in reducing their power and reforming their protocol. But forced to choose between a couple hundred privileged ‘anarchists’ who are unaccountable and lash out indiscriminately, and the police force who are heavily scrutinized and usually don’t go where they are not wanted, most people will always choose the cops. The targets attacked by the ‘anarchists’ had nothing to do with the murderer Mehserle, and even most would-be looters seemed to be aware of that.

  8. Kara Platoni Staff

    Hi everyone — we know this is a hot topic, and we appreciate all of your comments, but please keep the language civil!

    – Oakland North Staff

  9. Steve White

    Having a riot to protest an actualy murder by police is reasonable, but so far, all the evidence indicates Mehserle shot Grant by accident. These people should be protesting the abuse of Mehserle’s, and all other defendant’s constitutional and due process rights. No, they are not sincere, they are liars to the core.

  10. Steve White

    Another thing – the use of Penal Code 185, which O’Malley says, “hasn’t been used in this county before” as a charge, seems like a bad precedent to set. Charge people for the things they did that directly harmed property or people. If you start charging people simply for hiding their identities, where does that end? Anyone protesting, even non-violently, who does not want the cops to know who they are can then be charged. Of course, O’Malley does not care about the Bill of Rights, this should not be any surprise.

  11. BANA

    The Bay Area National Anarchists is a white separatist organization bitterly hated by Bay Area anarchist groups.

  12. anti-racist

    Oh, please. Someone needs to look into fact checking. The only thing BANA is well known for is for having more in common with National Socialists than anarchism. They can take their “cultural hegemony” back to Dublin (talk about white, suburban, outside agitators?); Oakland does not want it.

  13. Terence Kissack

    Bay Area National Anarchists is a white supremacist group that is NOT representative of anarchists in the Bay Area.

  14. RZA

    What a joke. I am so glad I have his name and I hope more names of “anarchists”, otherwise known as cowards who carry bottles of their own urine in the name of “justice”, come forward. I would like to have a “civil” conversation about their actions and MY community. Any other names of “anarchists” please share.

  15. Marina

    The “anarchists” stole sake from Ozumo and then broke into Whole Foods. I watched these anarchists from my window and they were mostly white college-age kids on bicycles.

    I may make a citizen’s arrest next time I see them stirring up trouble. They are opportunists and do not care about Oscar Grant.

    Why do they hide behind a bandana. Show your face, cowards.

  16. no fascists, no racists

    The Bay Area “National Anarchists” are not anarchists. They are racist neo-Nazis. Please do a little more homework.

  17. blkafrikan

    the anarchists need to learn that they are NOT standing in solidarity when they do the opposite of what the community wants done. EVERY BLACK PERSON WHO TOOK THE STAGE ASKED FOR THERE NOT TO BE VIOLENCE. We are growing sick and tired of white folks using our struggles to push their agendas.

  18. Save Oakland

    Our town has such a bad rep. Please outsiders stay away and destroy your own cities. The whole trying to revive downtown project won’t work if there’s going to be a destructive riot every time something bad happens. Grow up and behave like adults. Also, on a low class note: I currently agree with Bud.

  19. nhr

    absurd anarchist logic as usual… how is trashing a locally owned, black-owned hair salon “teaching the police a lesson?” There is not logic to it because it is not logical. It is emotionally driven…and it actually makes no sense, its just blind and impotent expression of rage…. rage that has nothing to do with OScar Grant….that’s a stand-in issue for personal deamons….its always the case…. these kids have problems with their families, but too scared to confront daddy so its easier to join a bunch of other kids and trash a town far away from home….

  20. wow

    I love how people keep bringing up their ‘property’ and ‘race’. Listen, I don’t know about the average commenter but sometimes fist fights happen, especially amongst men.
    When your loved one gets shot in the back for getting in a public argument (I would have been dead 3 times by that standard and I am a level headed woman), lets see how much you care about ‘business property’.

    This country’s priorities are so twisted. Dollars/clout/blind bullying above humane decency and sanity.

    Although I personally appreciate police officers with the integrity that the job requires to do effectively and safely, I don’t see officers as safe anymore.

    Last week, a friend and I went to a public park to look at an amazing city skyline in Seattle and when the officer approached us, my heart started beating with that fight or flight response. I was so scared of him.

    The officer saw it though, and we all wound up having a good laugh and he sent us on our way since it was past dusk. Officers like that serve with dignity and sense. Officers like the one slapped on the wrist in San Fran are no different than secret “Reich Nazis” ready to destroy who they perceive as unworthy of life. And that’s scary because it’s so subjective. Not to mention evil.

  21. Sappho

    I am a white, middle aged, female anarchist and I do not approve of tearing up the town to make a point. I lived in Oakland for over 10 years and loved it. These ignorant, privileged kids give anarchism a bad name. Far from showing solidarity, they simply did harm.

    Kudos to the Grant family for asking for peace.

  22. Dirk

    Two disparate but obvious points:
    1. Police claim Osburn tried to commit arson by lighting something in his backpack. They seized him and his backpack, but no mention is made of anything found in it. His bail was later reduced from $125,000 to $3,000. Make your own conclusion.
    2. Oakland police had nothing to do with the Grant killing. That was the BART police, a much inferior force.

  23. bronc

    And then this kid probably got to go back to Utah, where I’m sure he went right into his local Sears to replace the clothes the police ruined, and then got a Subway sandwich for lunch, all before stopping at his local Whole Foods to pick up food for his dinner at the condo his parents pay for.

    Then I bet he chuckled since the ones he left here in Oakland were smashed.

    Hey Mr.Osbonre: F-YOU!

  24. StopCops

    If you want to talk about “out of town agitators” lets talk about the police from 18 different “mutual aid organizations” as the police were calling them…these guys weren’t from Utah granted, but what business did they have policing a demonstration in oakland or did they find it a good excuse to beat up on some people?
    And how can you really call the rights of demonstrators respected when the police so cynically surround the “demonstration zone” with thousands of masked cops in what looks like Iraq battle gear (complete with assault rifles in some cases) , don’t seem to let people in or out, and then arrest people for “failure to disperse” and “unlawful assembly”… If you’d followed the news closely, things were fine until some people busted into the Foot Locker (I’m sure it was just anarchists getting some new shoes)…which then gave the cops license to declare an unlawful assembly and arrest anyone around. It also seems like for most arrests, they’re having to scramble with what to charge people with at all…

  25. Carolina Sunshine

    All this focus on “Anarchists” at the protest deliberately obscures what was going on there.
    I was there taking video until the cops chased us out and arrested everyone who wouldn’t run away, and half or more of the people there were minorities, and of the white folks there there were equal number unmasked normal looking folks there to masked folks who may or may not buy into the philosophical concept of anarchy.

    This was much more of a racial than an anarchist riot. And white folks live in Oakland too, we were not all “outside agitators”. I saw young black thugs destroying and taking things much more than any white anarchists, although they were going after different stores. And if you look at some of the numerous videos and pictures posted on facebook and elsewhere about the violence you’ll see it too.

    We have legitimate greivances against the city that loots and punishes us, ignores daily violent crimes and then wastes enormous sums on police state actions that don’t even pretend to protect the property or populice they claim to. We’re not trying to get killed riding Bart – we have to ride Bart.

    Oscar grant was one of thousands of people that have had their lives taken away by police mistakes, it’s sad that he’s the first one to ever be punished for it, and even that was weak and unfair. Everything that was true about Oakland in the 60s – violent policemen killing and beating people over little to nothing with complete impunity – is true today. That environment produced the black panthers, people that felt they needed to arm themselves simply to protect themselves from police brutality. Remember MLK said those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. All the violence on the 8th started when they declared our peaceful protest illegal and started closing in to arrest people arbitrarily.

  26. Max Allstadt

    It’s really nice of Mr. Osburn to provide all these pro-vandalism quotes on record. I hope he enjoys having the DA read them back to him in court.

Comments are closed.