There was outrage, there was looting and there were skirmishes between police and protesters, but that wasn’t the whole story of how Oakland reacted to the Johannes Mehserle verdict.
The trouble Thursday boiled down to a racially diverse mob of about 200 people, many bent on destruction no matter what, confronting police after the day’s predominantly peaceful demonstrations ended.
Sporadic conflicts were quelled quickly early in the evening, but by late night at least 50 people–and maybe as many as 100–had been arrested as small groups smashed windows, looted businesses and set trash bins on fire.
They smashed windows of shops including the trendy Ozumo restaurant, and one building was spray painted with the words, “Say no to work. Say yes to looting.”
A boutique called Spoiled was spared. It had a sign outside and pictures of Oscar Grant with the words, “Do not destroy. Black owned. Black owned.”
Officials said the main instigators appeared to be organized “anarchist” agitators wearing black clothing and hoods. Many of the most aggressive demonstrators smashing the windows of banks and shops were white.
Community leaders had called for nonviolence, and during the day most of the rage from those who thought Mehserle should have been convicted of a more serious charge was confined to loudspeakers and animated conversations on the asphalt. But, as many community leaders had predicted for weeks, a determined knot of renegades faced off with the police who surrounded the protesters. They taunted the officers and threw bottles and rocks.
Around 8:30 p.m., officers corralled hundreds of people on Broadway between 13th and 14th streets. Tensions ratcheted up, and finally the police declared an unlawful assembly, put on gas masks and pulled out their clubs. Through loudspeakers, officers ordered the crowd to move north up Broadway or they would be subject to arrest or force.
One group tore through the metal gate protecting a Footlocker shoe store on Broadway near 14th Street, shattered a window and emptied the shelves. Soon there were shoe boxes on the street.
Afterward, the group moved across the street and smashed a window at the Far East National Bank building and rampaged inside. Graffiti was sprayed on the bank wall reading “Riot for Oscar.” Up and down Broadway within the police lines, skirmishes broke out between officers and small groups of protesters, some wearing black face paint.
The trouble dribbled to a close around 10:45 p.m., after officers finally chased away or arrested the last of the hard-core group of about 100 looters.
Earlier in the afternoon, when the demonstrations were more organized, the mood was also angry–but by and large nonviolent.
Tony Coleman, a community organizer with New Years Movement 4 Justice for Oscar Grant–the black man shot Jan. 1, 2009, by then-BART police Officer Mehserle, who is white–was one of the first speakers at the podium as hundreds gathered at 14th Street and Broadway.
The confrontations during daylight were quick: At about 5:30 p.m., protesters surrounded police officers at 13th and Broadway and at 12th and Broadway, pelting officers with rocks and bottles and pulling down police barricades. Police quelled the disturbances quickly.
Nearby, in front of City Hall, a separate group of ministers and community leaders set up their own event with loudspeakers, and throughout the afternoon there were calls for further justice–but just as many calls for peaceful reaction.
Public gatherings also took place at five community centers throughout Oakland designated as “speakout centers” where people could vent their feelings. The mood was often hostile.
Early in the afternoon, when word spilled out around 2:30 p.m. that a verdict would be read at 4 p.m., Oakland experienced an exodus just a few ticks short of panic.
Downtown streets suddenly were flooded with people rushing out of their workplaces to go home. BART trains streaming in and out of downtown were jammed, and nearby Interstates 880 and 980 filled.
Community groups, police and city leaders had been laying plans for months to keep reaction protests peaceful. But many were still leery, considering the riots that broke out in Oakland in January 2009 in reaction to Grant’s killing by Mehserle. Several businesses downtown were boarded up in anticipation of trouble.
By 2:30 p.m., police had blocked off 11th and Clay streets and other intersections with cars and barricades. Argus, the Oakland police helicopter that had been grounded because of budget cuts unless there was an emergency, buzzed in the air.
When verdict was read
A dozen people sat on barstools in stunned silence watching television at the Pacific Coast Brewery in downtown Oakland when the verdict was read. One man booed.
“Oh, that’s bad,” said Ivan Davis, 43, of Oakland, who is African American. “That’s bad.”
As much as many wanted a conviction on a more serious charge, downtown protester Scott Larockwell, 32, said he took heart that Mehserle was at least convicted of something.