Footlocker boarded and padlocked

City, community groups express pride following protests

on July 14, 2010

As Oakland awaits next month’s sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer convicted last Thursday of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, authorities, community groups and onlookers congratulated each other on the mostly non-violent protests that followed the verdict last Thursday. Joint planning among city, police and community groups helped keep the peace, they say.

On the evening of the verdict, near 1,000 people gathered in downtown Oakland in a city-sanctioned protest. People chanted, cried, played chess and shouted obscenities at the police and the media. But there was no violence until after nightfall, when a small group vandalized and looted downtown businesses.

“I think [Oakland Police] Chief [Anthony] Batts did a great job,” said Judith Katz, project manager for the Bay Area Non-Violent Communication Group, one of several groups that joined with the city prior to the verdict announcement to plan for the protests. “I’m proud to be from Oakland,” said Katz.

Michael Nagler, president of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Berkeley, which promotes non-violent social change, said he was impressed with behavior on both sides of police lines. “Given the level of emotion that was reached by the verdict, you could give people very high marks for the level of restraint,” said Nagler.

The Oakland Police Department, city government and community groups had been preparing for the verdict for weeks, hoping to avoid a repeat of the chaotic protests in January 2009 following Grant’s killing, in which over 100 people were arrested and dozens of businesses damaged. This time, over a dozen organizations, church leaders and business groups joined in the planning process, mapping out ways to facilitate free speech, defuse potential violence and educate the community on the criminal justice system.

“There was a lot of grassroots passion,” said Karen Boyd, communications director for the City of Oakland. “People said ‘We’re being portrayed as a city that’s going to go down in flames. This is our city and that’s not how we’re going to act.’”

Several days before the verdict was announced, the Bay Area Non-Violent Communication Group held a training for community organizers on how to diffuse tensions “in a situation where people are freaking out,” as Katz described it. At the protest on Thursday, her group, along with representatives of the city’s Measure Y violence prevention program and the ad hoc group Oaklanders for Peace, Justice and Healing patrolled the area around 14th and Broadway, attempting to calm enraged protestors and engage people in “empathic reflections.”  The strategy, explained Katz, helps get to the bottom of people’s anger and prevent them from lashing out. “It’s a reflection process where people feel heard,” said Katz, “and it reduces tension.”

Besides using the strategy to calm protestors, Katz said she talked supportively with anti-riot police deployed to the protest, some of whom, besides being taunted, spit on and pelted with rocks and bottles, were soon to be laid off because of the city’s budget shortfall. “They need empathy too,” said Katz.

Fania Davis, executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which was also involved in the pre-verdict planning, said the organizers were largely successful in implementing their goal to create a safe space for people to voice their opinion about the verdict. On verdict day, young people from the group helped calm angry protestors and intervened between them and the police, said Davis.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth also helped plan the five healing centers opened on Thursday evening at various locations around the city. At the centers, residents were invited to express their feelings about the verdict and talk about ways to move forward.

“You had an organized force for peace and justice that you haven’t seen before,” said Davis. Nevertheless, she lamented the damage done to some businesses and the handful of injuries. “I don’t know what we could have done to have prevented that, and that’s the conversation we need to have now.” She also said some peaceful protestors got unfairly caught up in the officers’ nighttime sweep of looters and vandals.

Following last week’s protests, 78 people were arrested for damaging businesses and looting, just 19 of them Oakland residents. Two officers suffered minor injuries, according to the police department. Some 25-30 businesses suffered minor damage, like graffiti and broken windows, while seven businesses suffered more serious damage or looting, according to the mayor’s office.

Holly Joshi, public information officer for the Oakland Police Department, said the department had hoped there would be no violence or property damage, but said it could have been much worse. Joshi said the police made an effort to take a backseat during what she described as “one of most emotional situations for Oakland in years.”

“We wanted people to be able to yell, scream, do whatever they wanted as long as it didn’t involve violence or damage to property,” said Joshi. She said the police department split its planning efforts between mapping out crowd control and forming liaisons with community groups.

“I think that was the difference with this plan, having open lines of communication with everyone in the community,” she said. We showed that as a city we can come together even over something that’s so emotionally charged.”

Despite the damage to downtown businesses, Oakland Chamber of Commerce president Joseph Haraburda called the police and city’s responses a success. “We believe they did an excellent job,” said Haraburda.

“Our biggest concern is the fact that people continue to come from outside of Oakland to take their frustrations out on businesses that had nothing to do with the reasons for the gathering,” he said.

Several organizers and outside observers blamed those who engaged in looting, window breaking and fire starting for detracting from the mostly peaceful protest.

“This has been plaguing the peace movement since the WTO protests in 1999,” said Nagler from the Metta Center for Nonviolence, recalling the mass protests at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle that year. There, although some 500 people were arrested, only 11 faced felony charges for looting and vandalism. Most of the other arrests were for non-violent civil disobedience. “It only takes a few disrupters to spoil the message of civil discourse,” said Nagler.

The media focused on the destructive faction of the protest, said Nicole Lee, executive director of the Urban Peace Movement. Her group, along with Youth Uprising, a non-profit focused on leadership development, worked to educate young people about the verdict and the criminal justice system, and provide them with a space to talk, before and after the verdict.

“There was this peaceful demonstration and no one got to see that on the news,” said Lee. “As organizer, it’s really frustrating when that happens.”

Davis, from Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, said the violent protestors turned people off. “They may as well be an adversary,” she said. Regardless, she cautioned against branding them as “anarchists” and “outsiders,” recalling how those terms were used to describe protestors who traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where she’s from, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

“They were branded as outside agitators,” said Davis, “and that was used to delegitimize the work we were doing.” But, she said, the parallel stops there because civil rights protestors weren’t in Birmingham to “tear up the city.”

Still, she said, “We need to figure out how to engage these youth. We need to come up with some sort of strategy so that this doesn’t keep happening over and over again.”

Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.

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3 Comments

  1. shane on July 14, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I may not see eye-to-eye with all sentiments expressed by Davis, from Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, but at least an article is addressing the dangers of (inaccurately)blaming all troubles and looting on “anarchists” and “outside agitators”.
    That is a tactic used to discredit popular support going back to at least, as Davis noted, the Civil Rights struggles. The City of Oakland and OPD were declaring this to be the case even before the verdict was released.



  2. […] 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” […]



  3. North Wales Links on August 2, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Article Writers Wanted…

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