After dark, peaceful Mehserle verdict protest turns violent
on July 9, 2010
As the sun set behind City Hall and the City of Oakland’s official rally came to an end on Thursday night, a few people in black hoodies began weaving throughout the crowd, pulling bandanas up over their faces. Just hours earlier, it had been announced that a Los Angeles jury found former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the January, 2009, death of Oscar Grant. What had been a peaceful afternoon demonstration was about to become a chaotic night during which a few violent protesters, mostly people from other cities, vandalized the downtown.
By the end of the night, 78 people had been arrested, at least 12 businesses were either looted or vandalized and a series of trashcan and dumpster fires burned throughout the streets of downtown Oakland. According to the Oakland Police Department, 75 percent of the people arrested were not from Oakland. Twelve of those arrested came from out of state, 19 from parts of California outside of the Bay Area, and 28 from other Bay Area cities, according to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.
The evening began with a peaceful, city-sanctioned rally in the middle of the intersection at Broadway and 14th Street, where nearly 1,000 people gathered with signs reading “Jail killer cops,” “All lives are worthy” and “Oakland says guilty.” Some protesters stood on a small stage and voiced their anger about the jury’s verdict and spoke out against police brutality.
All week, city officials had prepared for possible unrest if the jury came back with a verdict that Oakland residents felt was unfair. Mehserle was accused of having shot the 22-year-old Grant in the back as he lay face-down on the platform of Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station after an altercation broke out on a train. Mehserle pled not guilty, claiming that he mistook his gun for his Taser stun gun. According to reports from the courthouse in Los Angeles, the involuntary manslaughter verdict, along with Meshlere’s additional conviction for the use of a gun in Grant’s death, could carry a sentence of 5 to 14 years.
Shortly after Grant’s death in January, 2009, riots erupted in downtown Oakland when protest marches became violent. Demonstrators burned cars and trashcans, broke shop windows and looted. Over 100 people were arrested. On Thursday, the city was hoping to avoid a repeat of those same events.
Just before the verdict was announced on Thursday afternoon, a small crowd had already assembled on the sidewalk corner of Broadway and 14th Street in front of City Hall. Helicopters began to circle above and television news crews were out in force. Burger King, Walgreen’s, T-Mobile and other shops boarded up their windows, while others left their windows unprotected and put up posters and fliers of Oscar Grant to show solidarity with the protestors. People left work early and downtown was eerily quiet by 4 pm.
As people waited for the verdict to be announced, a few protestors stood on the corner yelling “Fuck the police,” but for the most part the mood downtown was somber and peaceful. When people began getting cell phone calls announcing the verdict, word quickly spread, but the crowd of around 50 people remained calm if somewhat emotional. Oakland resident Amber Royal, who was wearing an orange t-shirt that read, “I am Oscar Grant” and carrying a cardboard sign that said, “Justice for Oscar Grant,” broke down sobbing. Royal said she lives in Grant’s neighborhood. “A man is killed in our city and he gets off with six years or whatever, that’s bullshit to me,” she said.
Nearby, another protester yelled, “How involuntary is the pull of a trigger?”
As the afternoon lengthened, a larger crowd slowly started to grow. The crowd included families with small babies, girls in high heels, people just getting off work and others dressed in all in black, riding bicycles and wearing hoodies. People mostly stood around talking, carrying signs and listening to others tell the droves of television reporters how angry they felt about the verdict.
At that point, there was no police presence. Several community groups had filled in to help keep the peace, including members of the Bay Area Non-violent Communication Group, who were wearing bright orange vests supplied by the mayor’s office, members of Measure Y for a Safe Oakland, who were also wearing matching white jackets and members of Youth Uprising, a non-profit that works on leadership development with low-income youth, who carried signs saying “Justice for Oscar Grant.”
Walking in and out of the crowd, members of these groups talked to people who seemed upset. “We’re here to give people the experience of being heard,” said Judith Katz, who works for the Bay Area Non-violent Communication Group, as she looked around at the crowd that was steadily growing.
By 5 pm, the crowd on the sidewalk had more than doubled. A man marched into the middle of the gathering and announced, “We’ve got enough people, let’s take it to the streets.” The crowd streamed off the sidewalk and into the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street, stopping traffic and forcing a bus to back up along Broadway.
As the bus backed up, several people ran after it and the first police car pulled up with its sirens going. Following it came rows and rows of police in riot gear—shields, bulletproof vests, helmets with face masks, billy clubs and bundles of zip-ties to be used as handcuffs. All of Broadway, from 12th to 15th Streets, was quickly blocked off by the police. In addition to the Oakland police officers, the regional California Highway Patrol and Alameda County Sheriff’s Department officers were also present. A small crowd of protesters gathered near the row of police on 12th Street and began to yell slurs and stare the police down. The cops didn’t respond to the taunting.
Elsewhere, the protest continued to be largely peaceful. Back at the intersection of Broadway and 14th, where the small stage was set up for people to express their feelings, protesters shouted angrily, but still advocated that the crowd keep the rally free of rioting and looting. People at the microphone yelled that the involuntary manslaughter verdict is a “human rights violation,” and that “Oscar Grant was shot in the back in cold blooded murder.” A brass band played and the band members chanted “Justice for Oscar Grant!” More people appeared carrying signs that read, “Love, not blood,” “A lie cannot live—MLK” and “No peace, no justice.” By 7 pm, the crowd had swelled to nearly 1,000 people. The police calmly remained lining the sides of Broadway to keep the crowd contained.
Councilmember Jean Quan was standing in the crowd listening to people speak. “Several of us councilmembers have been planning all week to make sure people have peaceful expression today,” she said, “and we want to make sure that’s possible.”
Grant worked in the Dimond district that Quan represents. “We’re glad it wasn’t just an acquittal,” she said about the verdict, “but many people don’t think it’s enough.” She said that she would stay through the end of the night until every last person was gone and that she did not want to “let a small group hijack the protest.”
As darkness set in, the official protest ended and the small stage where people were speaking was disassembled. Most of the peaceful protestors left the area, the crowd thinned and a tense anticipation set in. Some lurkers in the crowd could be seen covering up their faces and dodging quickly between people. One group of youths who looked to be of high school age showed up with black and white Oscar Grant face masks which covered their entire faces except for slits for the eyes.
By 9 pm the first glass bottles were thrown—it is unclear who in the crowd threw them—and the police began to make a few arrests. The crowd grew more agitated, running and yelling.
San Jose resident Shareef Allman was standing off to the side after having participated in the peaceful protest earlier that afternoon. He looked on with anger as people ran back and forth in front of him. “We’re not trying to do violence, and when I see white organizations trying to incite police, that’s not right,” he said. “They come to our rallies and use us to bait the police. They don’t have our best interest at heart.”
The police slowly began to push the crowd up Broadway from 12th Street towards 15th Street in an attempt to box in the protesters who were throwing objects. A dozen police cars followed behind them as well an ATV carrying an officer who announced over a bullhorn, “This is a peaceful protest—please do not throw bottles or rocks.” Quan, along with councilmember Rebecca Kaplan and other community members, stood in front of the police to help control the protestors.
As the police pushed the crowd further up Broadway, people grew increasingly rowdy. A small group of protestors bent the iron gates and shattered the front windows of the Foot Locker on Broadway and 14th Street and began to loot shoes and t-shirts. Dozens of people ran in, grabbed shoes and stuffed them up their sweatshirts. One young woman stood in front of the looted Foot Locker picked up an empty shoebox and yelled in anger, “You’re stealing fucking shoes? What the fuck is wrong with y’all?”
Police began to order people to disperse and warned those who did not leave the area would be arrested, citing Section 409 of the California Penal Code. The police used smoke to disperse the crowd and dozens of masked people in black tore down the street, breaking windows up and down Broadway and leaving a trail of glass in their wake. The smell of sulfur and burning plastic filled the air and people ran around chaotically chanting, “Kill the police,” and “My city!” They pounded on police cars—their windows had been covered in criss-crossed duct tape to prevent shattering—and set off M-80 fireworks. The resounding booms echoed throughout the downtown streets.
More police arrived, marching single file down Broadway and joining the rows already blocking the street. An officer with a bullhorn announced, “Leave the area or you will be arrested.”
Ed Saldana, a man who was on his way home after work, stood by to watch. “I’ve never seen that many cops in my life,” he said. “I’m sorry Oscar Grant lost his life, but they are here to restore order.”
As the police officers attempted to catch protestors concentrated in the downtown area, other rioters ran ahead and made their way north along Broadway, setting fires in trashcans and dumpsters, looting shops, and dragging park benches out into the middle of the street. As the police isolated dozens of people between Berkeley Way and 16th Street and began to arrest them, all the lights went out for several minutes, and several people were able to slip through the wall of police.
“It’s like a goddamn war zone, dude,” said one teenager, who was not participating in the protest, but was watching from the sidelines in fascination. The power returned and went off again several times that night.
Chris Chan, who lives in the neighborhood, had just come outside to see what was happening in the streets. He said that when the lights went out, he saw the rioters run wherever they could to escape the wall of police attempting to arrest them. “I can’t blame people for how they feel,” he said of the protesters, “but at the same time they don’t have to do all this.”
Further up Broadway, the protesters that had run ahead painted messages in black spray paint on several buildings. “Say no to work, yes to looting” was painted on wall of the Bank of the West on Broadway; its glass doors had been shattered and the whole front glass window was blown in. On a boarded-up building across the street, someone had painted ”Oakland is our amusement park tonight!”
A window was broken and a display case of sake bottles had been dragged out into the street at the Japanese restaurant Ozumo at Broadway and Grand Avenue. Essie Tesfahun, who lives nearby, had smelled the smoke and came down from her apartment to see if there was any damage. When she saw the broken display case and looked up the street at the burning fires, she said, “It’s a damn shame. I was at the earlier peaceful protest and I was proud of Oakland for maintaining peace.” She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and said, “This doesn’t feel like Oakland. It’s sad, it’s really sad.”
Damage spread up as far north as Whole Foods at 27th Street and the 7-11 at Harrison and Vernon. By early Friday morning, fire engines were putting out the fires and police were rounding up the last people they could find. According to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, 78 people were arrested, 66 of whom will be released with misdemeanor charges, such as unlawful assembly—not obeying an order to disperse. Half of the remaining 12 arrested will be charged with felonies including arson, causing property damage, and violating parole.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.
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