Searching for Justice in Oakland

As the Oakland community begins to understand the meaning of Johannes Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter verdict, the streets exploded angrily last night.

Mehserle is the former BART cop who killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s morning, 2009. As Grant was lying face down on a BART platform, Mehserle stood up, grabbed his firearm, aimed down, and shot Grant. Mehserle’s next action was to handcuff the wounded 22 year old father before calling for any kind of medical assistance. Oscar Grant was killed that morning, but the Oakland community will never forget his name.

Yesterday at 4pm, an LA courthouse announced the jury’s verdict, that Mehserle killed Grant with “criminal negligence”, receiving the charge of involuntary manslaughter. From what I understand at the time of this writing, the verdict could mean that Oscar Grant’s killer will serve anywhere from two to fourteen years in jail.

It’s clear, though, that the Oakland community does not consider the conviction strong enough. Speaker after speaker at the 6pm rally in downtown Oakland told the crowd of at least a thousand that they were disappointed with the verdict. Many folks spoke out about their feelings in different ways, but no one seemed comfortable with what had happened.

At the same time, no one seemed uncomfortable by the huge amount of support given by the larger Bay Area. What many sources have called “outside agitators”, many people in the streets last night recognized as community support.

While we think about the mainstream narrative of “outsiders”, it seems important to keep in mind that Oscar Grant himself lived in Hayward, and Mehserle was not an Oakland cop, but a BART officer, which meant his jurisdiction spanned across a range of cities throughout the Bay Area. Oakland simply and justifiably is at the center of this action.

The inside agitators, which are mostly Oaklanders (although I did see some people from Berkeley, Hayward and Vallejo), clearly played a strong role in the community response to the verdict. As the formal rally came to a close at 8pm as organizers were ordered to shut it down by the city, it became clear that the police forces, whether Oakland cops, California Highway Patrol, or others from nearby cities, were excited and ready to use their new training and equipment on the people who came out to voice their opinions.

Once the rally ended, at least two people had already been arrested, but it was fully unclear to any of us witnessing the events what prompted those arrests. Only a few minutes later, I was told that a block away a Footlocker’s windows were broken and its contents ransacked by community members. When I arrived there, I watched some young people grab shoes in the store and run out before two others blocked the entrance, telling others that justice for Oscar Grant does not look like what we were seeing.

But what does justice look like?

As I walked away from Footlocker, I saw freshly sprayed graffiti covering windows and businesses with statements like “Justice 4 Oscar Grant” and “Off The Pigs”. Continuing down the street, I saw protesters running in any direction they could find to avoid confrontations with police, who were slowly marching up Broadway Avenue in Downtown Oakland.

Then the shattering started. Much of the next few hours became a blur. I watched numerous windows at the downtown Oakland Sears fall to the ground as someone lit small fireworks nearby. Sirens echoed in every direction and police announced that the gatherings were illegal and we would be arrested and possibly “removed by force which could cause serious bodily injury”. Minutes later, the wind carried a draft of pepper spray toward me as I walked by three large flaming dumpsters in the middle of Telegraph Avenue.

In the midst of all the action I searched for some kind of organization—some kind of unified goal or idea of justice. The community is angry, and there is no correct platform to address that anger. For those who are sure that Mehserle should be charged with a crime stronger than involuntary manslaughter, the legal approach did not work.

While leadership and organization seemed to have flown out the window, it did seem that the rebellions were much more calculated than those just after Grant’s murder, as most of the broken windows were concentrated at corporate giants like Footlocker and Starbucks. The strongest piece of organization I witnessed in Oakland’s streets last night were the groups of people preventing attacks on local businesses.

The police came in as a close second. They didn’t seem to know how to deal with what was going on, but they would march in formation down a street, only to watch new trash cans light up and windows shatter another block down. While they may have been organized within their small army, officers had no idea how to deal with the realities of last night. In fact, it became clear to me that they made Oakland’s streets very unsafe.

As I walked from Telegraph to Broadway on Grand Avenue, first watching a Starbucks window broken and then that of a sushi restaurant, I realized the night was getting out of hand for everyone. Trying to stay connected with some sort of normality and step away from the crazy streets, I called a friend. As soon as my conversation was over I looked down at my phone to hang up. Then a hand came out of nowhere, perhaps over my shoulder, and grabbed the phone. I tried to hold onto it until I was startled and disoriented by a fist slamming into my eye and I let the phone disappear as blood began dripping from just above my left eyelid.

But where were the police to respond to a robbery and assault in the middle of a major intersection in downtown Oakland? They were clearly not making it safe for me to be in that space, and it is still unclear who or what they made it safe for. The person or people who have the phone and gave me a black eye and some possible medical bills were not crazy and violent Oaklanders that need to be policed to help or save people like me. These were people who took advantage of a lawless space that our law enforcement officers created themselves.

The night started with people moving and becoming angry (or angrier)
because police declared a peaceful gathering in the street to be illegal. Windows were broken because people were angry and moving quickly down the streets with nowhere to voice their anger safely.

Hours later, I’m lying in bed with a black eye and a gash above my eyelid.

I can only imagine how my night would have ended if the police hadn’t declared the peaceful gathering illegal and created a sense of lawlessness in Oakland’s streets.

This is not justice for Oscar Grant. But what is? From the Grant’s murder to those of us who were endangered by police last night, law enforcement needs to be held accountable to the communities they serve. That at least seems like a good starting point.

JESSE STRAUSS was born and raised in Oakland. He is a producer for Flashpoints (www.flashpoints.net) on Pacifica Radio. Reach him at jstrauss (at) riseup.net.





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