The setting sun ushered in a cascade of bottles and rocks set to the tune of shouts and smashing windows in downtown Oakland on Thursday, as a peaceful protest against Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer who shot and killed passenger Oscar Grant on a crowded BART platform on January 1, 2009, quickly turned violent around 8PM.
An estimated crowd of 1,000 people converged on the corner of 14th and Broadway shortly after four o’clock, when a twelve-person jury in Los Angeles found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a verdict that infuriated many protestors.
“I think it’s an outrage that a cop who cold bloodly murders a black citizen in front of the whole world gets involuntary manslaughter,” said Berkeley resident Chris Taaffe. “This is more of the same kind of police violence against black people and people of color in this world…and everyone in the Bay Area should be out protesting this.”
A protestor who wished to remain anonymous said that they had mixed reactions when the verdict was announced.
“Part of me was [surprised] and a part of me wasn’t,” the protestor said. “The part of me that was surprised was because I thought he was going to get a harsher sentence, but the part of me that isn’t is just, ‘Well it’s just another long line of events where people can get killed and it doesn’t matter. The cops can get away with everything.’”
Oscar Grant Senior, the grandfather of Grant, said he was not particularly shocked by the verdict but that he had been hoping for Mehserle to be convicted of second-degree murder, the highest possible sentencing since Judge Robert Perry took first-degree murder off the table.
“I didn’t expect no more or no less,” Grant Senior said. “I felt he should’ve gotten second degree murder, but then I wasn’t on the jury.”
Grant Senior added that he came to the protest to ask participants to remain calm and peaceful as they voiced their displeasure with the verdict.
“I came down here to try to rally these people together not to tear up this city, not to tear up the Bay Area,” he said. “You don’t tear up where you live in…. Don’t dishonor my grandson by being violent.”
BART Board President James Fang also called for civility in a statement released shortly after the involuntary manslaughter verdict was read.
“Oakland, indeed the whole Bay Area, is one of the best places to live in the entire world,” Fang said. “We must not let the initial emotional reaction of the verdict have long-lasting negative effects on the place we call home.”
Their words were not heeded come sundown, however, as the violence and destruction that the Oakland Police Department had prepared for and that many Bay Area residents and Oakland businessowners had feared for came to fruition.
Shortly after eight o’clock, after the official organized event ended peacefully, a group of protestors, many of whom were later verified as anarchist agitators, began shouting at police and throwing bottles and rocks.
As a result, officers declared unlawful assembly and ordered remaining protestors to vacate the premises or risk exposure to tear gas and arrest.
That did not deter the group, however as they began smashing windows and looting nearby storefronts. Foot Locker and the Far East National Bank on Broadway were amongst the first businesses to be vandalized. Protestors also set off fireworks and set fire to several dumpsters and trash cans in the area.
All in all, 83 people were arrested and booked on a range of crimes, everything from failure to disperse and resisting arrest to burglary and assault of a police officer.
As Oakland businessowners picked up the pieces of their damaged storefronts and Bay Area residents reflected on the night of mayhem that stemmed from a peaceful protest, many people realized that this case is still not over. Mehserle still has to be sentenced on August 6 and faces a possible sentencing ranging from probation to 14 years behind bars. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division has announced their intent to investigate the incident.
Protestor Lucille Beaty, who came to represent the Justice Council of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Oakland, said that she intends to get more involved with community outreach in the aftermath of the Grant case.
“[I plan on] working more within in the community and working for justice not only with the criminal justice system but also with the immigrant rights within the city,” Beaty said. “We need to find unity and change in the way the system is right now.”
Meanwhile, Oscar Grant’s grandfather spoke on behalf of his family and the city of Oakland as a whole when he said that one thing will remain true no matter what happens next.
“We gonna survive,” Grant Senior said.