Mehserle Verdict Ignites Debate, Violence

Tim Maloney/Staff

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Protesters take to Oakland streets after Mehserle verdict announced

After a Los Angeles jury convicted Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter for the shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009, protesters in downtown Oakland voiced their disapproval in the streets.

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Oscar Grant III Riot
A riot broke out in the streets of Oakland after t...

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Photo:    Photo: Police officers in riot gear clashed with protesters in Downtown Oakland after a jury convicted Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Oscar Grant III.   Photo: Demonstrators wearing Oscar Grant masks protest in the streets of Oakland, where violence escalated following the end of the rally.

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OAKLAND - Despite weeks of planning and anticipation, hopes that the city would remain peaceful in the wake of the verdict of the former BART police officer, who shot and killed an unarmed passenger last year, were extinguished by rioters who roamed the streets of Downtown Oakland Thursday night looting stores, vandalizing storefronts and igniting trash fires.

Anger and frustration were palpable among the 800 who gathered in Downtown Oakland throughout the day, following a Los Angeles jury's verdict of involuntary manslaughter in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the police officer who fatally shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant III on New Year's Day 2009.

While the throngs of protesters that initially flooded Frank H. Ogawa Plaza around 4 p.m. engaged in passionate but nonviolent debate about the verdict, plans for the evening's protest remained vague early on. Some called for an open rebellion against police, while others championed a mediated discussion among demonstrators.

By the time the night was over, both sides had gotten what they wanted.

Initial outbursts of anger among the crowd, including surrounding an AC Transit bus and battering several police vehicles, were quelled by dozens of speakers advocating for peace during a two-hour rally at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway.

"Get out there and do what you got to do - protest, (but) protest righteous, don't come out here fighting," said Grant's grandfather, Oscar Julius Grant II, to a crowd of hundreds gathered at the rally. "Don't dishonor my grandson's death by coming out here and tearing up Oakland."

Despite calls for peace, when the rally ended at 8 p.m., tensions within the crowd rose as some demonstrators began trashing nearby businesses.

A Subway sandwich shop, a Foot Locker and the Far East National Bank were among the victims of the crowd's first wave of destruction which resulted in the arrests of dozens at the intersection of 14th and Broadway by police from the Oakland Police Department.

Following the first wave of arrests, hundreds marched down Broadway, continuing to smash cars, break into stores and ignite trash cans until police dispersed them, firing volleys of flash-bang grenades into the crowd.

According to Oakland police, 78 individuals were arrested by night's end - 75 percent of whom were from outside Oakland. Around 30 businesses were the victims of some form of vandalism, seven of which experienced severe damage or commercial burglary, according to Oakland city officials.

"This city is not the wild, wild west," Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said at a press conference Thursday evening after the arrests.

As Tensions Rise, Protesters Separate

The crowd's response to the verdict of involuntary manslaughter - punishable by five to 14 years in state prison - was divided.

Shortly after a bicyclist stopped an AC Transit bus attempting to pass through the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway, Oakland police officials addressed the crowd from a loudspeaker mounted on a nearby all-terrain vehicle (ATV).

After surrounding the ATV and chasing it out of the intersection, protesters rushed a police SUV and began to yell at officers outside the vehicle. The crowd then surrounded an approaching police car and began kicking it in order to force it out of the area.

As the car was backing up toward the intersection of 12th Street and Broadway, its left rear wheel ran over an unidentified woman's foot, prompting some in the crowd to intensify their assault on the car as it left the scene.

Riot police spread themselves across Broadway at 11th Street as a crowd of about 200 stood opposite them, angered over the incident.

Simultaneously, about 300 gathered two blocks away, at 14th and Broadway to attend the rally.

Oakland resident Veronyca Redmond, 24, said although the two groups were not interacting, they were there for a similar purpose.

"What we're here to focus on is the positive and not the negative," she said during the rally. "We're doing our thing, they're doing their thing. It's really about Oscar Grant today."

Members of Critical Resistance, an organization opposing the prison-industrial complex, carried signs depicting the names and faces of people who have been fatally shot by Bay Area police officers, according to Campaign Director Lisa Marie Alatorre.

"We haven't come together yet to address this larger system of policing," she said. "For us, it is a matter of wanting to push the conversation past just Mehserle."

With Rally's End, Chaos Ensues

After the stage was dismantled at 8 p.m., the crowd spread up and down Broadway while police declared an unlawful assembly, telling the crowd there to disperse.

Protesters then broke into a Foot Locker near the intersection of 14th and Broadway, throwing shoes and clothing into the crowd and setting at least one trash can ablaze.

Spray-painted phrases including "Off the Pigs," "Involuntary Property Destruction" and "Riot for Oscar" covered walls, windows and pavement throughout Downtown Oakland.

Violence escalated throughout the evening with sporadic moments of chaos erupting amid long periods of calm as police made efforts to clear the area of rioters.

As officers from OPD, Alameda County Sheriff's Office and California Highway Patrol progressively moved the dwindling mob north on Broadway, some rioters lit several trash cans and four dumpsters on fire in a line across Broadway at 19th Street.

At about 9:55 p.m., street lights went out between 16th and 20th Streets on Broadway as members of the crowd set off fireworks and police officers fired flash-bang grenades.

Power returned shortly before going out again five minutes later. The crowd proceeded to a Sears department store on Telegraph Avenue and 20th Street, kicking in windows as people, cars and buses fled the area.

Once the crowd turned to more drastic action, some began to question the direction the protest had taken. Ricardo Gomez, ASUC External Affairs Vice President, said the escalation of events is sometimes necessary for community needs to be addressed.

"There are certain voices that don't get heard unless there is a lot of drama behind them and unfortunately our power structure validates that," Gomez said, recalling the protest in an interview Sunday.

Sellassie Blackwell, 33, came to the protest urging nonviolence in the wake of the verdict. Blackwell, a San Francisco hip-hop artist who was present at the riots that initially followed Grant's death, said he wanted to avoid the vandalism and looting that marked the January 2009 demonstration.

"I'm not here to riot, I'm not here to yell, I'm not here to talk to reporters - I am here for Oscar," he said after the looting and initial arrests began. "I came here to make sure people keep Oscar Grant in mind - there are still people here with Oscar in mind."


Contact Allie Bidwell, Nick Myers and Javier Panzar at [email protected]

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