It’s three days after the verdict, and Oakland is quiet. People are at church, or watching the World Cup finals — which, for some people, is the same thing. The streets of downtown are eerily calm, a concrete island after the storm. Or maybe before another one arrives.
I’m standing at the corner of 14th and Broadway, the same place where this past Thursday, over a thousand people gathered to protest the slap-on-the-wrist verdict that Johannes Mehserle received for the murder of Oscar Grant. What started as a grassroots speak-out about the case, and the larger culture of unaccountable police violence it represents, soon turned into three blocks of downtown chaos that fulfilled the prophecy of a “riot” as told to us by the media, the police, and even some of our own community leaders.
I was in downtown Oakland for many hours on Thursday night, and for anyone who wasn’t there — don’t believe the media’s hype. But before I get to our response, let’s talk about the actual verdict.
When I heard it on the radio, my heart sunk to a place it hasn’t been since I first heard the name Oscar Grant. Involuntary manslaughter? Are you serious?? There was nothing ‘involuntary’ about what Mehserle did. Not how he and his fellow BART officers pulled Oscar and his friends out of the train for false suspicions, not how he smashed Oscar to the ground, not how he pulled his gun (which weighs three times that of his taser, and is on the other side of his belt and another color), and not how he pulled the trigger. And if it really was an accident, he would have tried to administer first aid rather than handcuff a dying man, and he wouldn’t have waited until after the verdict to issue a sham of an apology letter.
Mehserle murdered Oscar Grant. And he could get as little as two years time or even probation, unless we do something about it.
Oscar Grant’s family did not get justice on Thursday. Neither did the people of Oakland, Hayward (where Oscar Grant is from), or the state of California. At its core, the victim of Thursday’s verdict was young black men across America. On the same day that millions of people watched Lebron James and his massive ego (so big it’s a separate person) announce they were moving to Miami, the twelve jurors in Los Angeles (none of them African-American) decided that, unless he can put a ball through a hoop, a black man’s life is worth very little in America.
At the same time, I do want to recognize that there was at least some victory in the verdict. This was the first time in California history that a cop was convicted of a crime in the murder of a civilian. As my friend Lauren Whitehead put it, “The guilty verdict was one small step for black mankind — but what we need is a giant leap.”
One week before the verdict came out, I was at an emergency edition of the weekly Town Halls on the case that have taken place at Olivet Baptist Church. Minister Keith Muhammad and Oscar Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, gave updates on the trial, and then Tony Coleman (General Assembly for Justice) quickly announced that on the day of the verdict they were going to gather at 14th and Broadway. There was no time allowed for questions or dialogue, but I heard many people ask on their way out the door: “Well, what exactly is going to happen at 14th and Broadway?”
The truth is, no one knew what was going to happen. Meaning no one had organized strongly enough to be able to say, “This is what we are going to do.” And because of that, anything could – and, to some degree, did – happen. On the day of the verdict, Oakland responded with anger, love…and some other stuff too. But let me make one thing clear: what the corporate media told you happened, it’s just not true.
There was no riot in Oakland after the verdict. Whether you were for or against a riot in this situation is one question (some folks argue that the militant actions last January immediately after Oscar’s death were what forced the District Attorney to bring charges against Mehserle), but either way, what happened on Thursday was not that. There was some window-breaking, some looting, some graffiti — all of it within 4 blocks on Broadway, and all of which took place while hundreds of police had the crowd surrounded on all sides. It was not a riot, and calling it so does nothing but justify the police’s massive overtime pay and the media’s misplaced frenzy.
What was happening in downtown Oakland, instead, was a lack of leadership — and it showed. The event started with the community speak-out organized by the General Assembly (and which I ended up helping provide sound for at the last minute). Speaker after speaker, mostly young people, got on the mic to vent their fears and frustrations of the verdict and their own experiences dealing with the American police state. Like any open mic, some speakers were more eloquent than others, but the power of the event was its embrace of free speech. Everyone could speak their piece, and while they could, there was peace.
There was around 1,000 people on Broadway at that point, a relatively small crowd given the publicity of the case and the size of previous protests. The group assembled was mostly black, but with a decent amount of white people, and Latino and Asian folks here and there. Talking to friends and students of mine around the Bay, it seemed like many people stayed home out of fear of what might happen. In that regard, the police and media’s scare tactics – and our lack of organization – had already done much of their job.
At 8:00pm, the rally organizers announced that they were closing up shop, and encouraged people to “be safe and be peaceful.” I turned off the sound system, and all of a sudden, of the 1,000 people standing in the streets, no one knew what to do. There was no march to BART headquarters. There was no sit-in at the federal building down the block. There was no chants, no prayer circle, no decisive next step to make our demand for justice known. But no one was ready to leave either. So in the absence of any organization, and as the sun began to set, the energy in the air shifted. Everyone got nervous, or excited. What cop, or protester, or undercover cop posing as a protester, would make the next move?
I didn’t see who did it, but I definitely heard it. Someone busted the windows of Foot Locker, and suddenly there were dozens of Air Jordans and basketball shorts being thrown in the air for people to take. Then someone lit a shoebox on fire, and a few people started breaking windows. Some of my friends confronted young men (who were carrying lighters and hammers), and a shoving match broke out between people who were supposedly on the same side of justice. All of this while the police looked on, and began encroaching for their camps where they had surrounded us.
The police apparently decided enough was enough, and they swooped in. Hard and fast. Lots of innocent protesters were caught up and arrested, including my boy Raphael Cohen (pictured in today’s New York Times), Oakland school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, and civil rights attorney Walter Riley. Raphael got out after 22 hours in jail, and reported that of the 25 people he personally was in a cell with, none of them were the ones breaking windows or anything.
When the police made their official, fuck-free-speech “This is an unlawful demonstration…if you do not leave, you WILL be arrested” announcement and started charging the crowd, it was time for me and my crew to be out. I heard there were more broken windows, even all the way up Whole Foods a mile away. Don’t buy into the media hype about out-of-town instigators being the problem. The only ‘outside agitators’ in Oakland are the cops.
Local activist Mervyn Marcano put it well: “Last night wasn’t violence. That was one burnt trash can and a block of broken windows. I wish all the cops did in our neighborhoods was burn a trash can.”
I agree, and would add a caveat. It might not have been violence, but it wasn’t progress either.
What Happens Now?
Like a lot of people, I left Thursday’s demonstrations even more upset than when I arrived. Fortunately, some friends of mine with similar feelings decided to be proactive about the situation, and quickly organized a small, but incredibly powerful community debrief on Friday evening. The discussion, which was held at Arise High School (just across the street from the Fruitvale BART station where Oscar was murdered), included around 30 young organizers, artists, journalists, and some incredibly brilliant people. People shared their feelings on the verdict and the aftermath, and an unofficial consensus quickly emerged: there was little grassroots organizing or plan of action leading up the verdict, which enabled the chaos that unfolded on Thursday night. If we were all charged with not doing our part over the last year and half, I for one would plead guilty.
Guilt, however, is not a productive emotion. We need action, not remorse. But we also need to know our history, and not reinvent the wheel. One of the highlights of Friday’s debrief was hearing the story of CAPE (the Coalition Against Police Execution), which was the main coalition that emerged in the immediate aftermath of Oscar Grant’s murder. CAPE was a wide, diverse array of East Bay organizations and individuals (I attended a couple meetings), and unfortunately, it couldn’t hold up under the weight of its own diversity — and individual egos.
According to Krea Gomez, who I first met through CAPE, the group’s internal divisions started after the initial march from Fruitvale. “The media created this wedge of ‘good protesters vs. bad protesters, peaceful vs. violent’ — and we bit.” Less than three months after CAPE formed, it quietly dissolved, leaving a gap of organizational leadership that continued through last week’s verdict and reaction. After CAPE’s collapse, smaller groups continued to organize around the Mehserle trial, but the bigger questions that the trial represented (disarming BART police, challenging racial profiling) were left by the wayside.
Mervin Marcano explained the context of why the oh-so-liberal Bay Area couldn’t produce a victory, or even a strong response, in this internationally-watched campaign. “We have lots of progressive non-profits and individual organizers in Oakland,” he said, “but we have very weak political infrastructure. We just haven’t built power at that level.” Nor is there strong leadership from former progressive champion and current do-nothing mayor Ron Dellums or other elected officials.
With this understanding, what can we do? The issue is hot, and people are ready to take action. How can we build power and turn the momentum back to the side of collective justice?
As Dennis Kim said at the debrief, “We need some small victories right now. We need to show people, to show ourselves that we can win some actual things.” There were two demands that came up over and over again, things that I think most of the Bay Area could get behind:
1. A maximum sentence for Mehserle. And/or a federal investigation.
Now that Mehserle has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the judge could sentence him to as much prison time as 14 years (with a gun enhancement) — or possibly as little as probation. As a critic of the prison-industrial complex, I don’t usually advocate for tougher sentences — but it’s never been a cop under consideration before. Even if the judge does give the maximum sentence, many activists are calling for the Department of Justice to step in and pursue a stronger conviction, as they did in the Rodney King case. President Obama, Eric Holder, that’s on you.
2. Disarm BART police.
It’s that simple. Transit cops, especially poorly trained cops like those on BART, don’t need guns. One way to stop police violence is by stopping their ability to carry weapons.
Mehserle’s sentencing has been postponed past the original date of August 6. Demonstrations are expected before and on that date. If you want to get involved with the General Assembly for Justice, there is an open meeting this Thursday at 7pm at the Continental Club in West Oakland. And there may be actions coming out of Friday’s debrief as well. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have re-committed myself to doing my part in this movement. It’s not too late, and I don’t want to do too little anymore.
After sharing the rise and fall of CAPE, Krea Gomez offered her most important lesson from that story. “You don’t have to be asked to organize,” she said. “ You don’t have to wait, you don’t have to be invited by anyone. You just need a reason.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty reasons to organize right now. Let’s do this.