Protests, looting follow Mehserle verdict
Small mobs formed after dark, smashing windows and setting fires
By Matthai Kuruvila, Kevin Fagan, Carolyn Jones and Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
OAKLAND, Calif — 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.
The violence was contained for much of the early evening within a one-block area near City Hall by an army of police officers in riot gear, but around 10 p.m. a knot of rioters broke loose and headed north on Broadway toward 22nd Street with police in pursuit.
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."
JJ Fryzel, an Oakland artist who just moved into a gallery called Show And Tell Art on Thursday, said a group of looters threw rocks through her window.
"They were throwing rocks at me," Fryzel said. "I was standing right there. I said, 'Oh s-, spare me.' ... They have no idea what they are doing. No clue."
Outside, the windshield of Fryzel's Mazda four-door sedan was shattered and the side view mirrors were knocked off.
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.
That's when things got ugly.
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.
Rioters ran down the street with officers in pursuit, and some were tackled as other protesters tossed debris at the police. The BART stations at 12th and 19th streets were closed down at times to avoid problems, and at one point officers used smoke bombs to disperse crowds.
Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said the people causing trouble did not seem to be Oakland residents bent on voicing displeasure at the Mehserle verdict. He described them as outsiders "who are almost professional people who go into crowds like this and cause problems."
"We don't do exactly what they want us to do, and that is to overreact."
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.
"I'm angry as hell, but he was found guilty of something," he said into a microphone. Then, referring to calls for federal civil rights officials to look further into the Mehserle matter, he added: "It ain't over yet."
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.
About 100 people at Youth UpRising, one of the speakout centers, watched Grant's uncle Cephus "Bobby" Johnson on television from Los Angeles saying that he felt the family had "been slapped in the face by this system that has denied us true justice."
To some, the words appeared to invite outrage, perhaps violence.
"Damn," said Youth UpRising Director Olis Simmons, "He just opened the door. Kicked it open. I don't think he meant to, but he did it."
Back downtown, another relative of Grant's - his grandfather - appealed for calm as people were still learning of the verdict.
"Please, let's keep peace," grandfather Oscar Grant, 65, said on a loudspeaker at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway. "I know what went on down there was wrong. Please don't tear up the Bay Area.
"Don't dishonor my grandson's death by tearing up Oakland. I know the verdict was wrong."
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.
At the downtown Federal Building, loudspeakers made announcements telling workers to go home. At many of the big businesses throughout the area, internal e-mails and other notices went out advising the same.
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.
"It's a clear-cut case of murder," said Larockwell who joined the growing group at 14th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. "He's Mehserle a police officer. He should know better. Justice should be served, but it's a baby step and a precedent.
"Cops never get convicted," he said. "At least there's some type of conviction."
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums held a press conference to call for nonviolent demonstrations.
He said that, like the Grant family, he disagreed with the verdict, but emphasized that the federal government can now be turned to for further prosecution.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger conferred with Dellums after the verdict and promised state aid if things got out of hand. "I encourage Californians to remain calm in light of the verdict and not to resort to violence," he said in a statement.
Copyright 2010 San Francisco Chronicle