“The Wrong People Are in Control”

By Jamilah King Jul 09, 2010

By now, you’ve seen the headlines recounting last night’s reaction to the involuntary manslaughter verdict in the Johannes Mehserle murder trial. The San Francisco Chronicle’s reporting that angry mobs smashed windows and looted from stores. CNN’s reporting that angry crowds stormed the streets, and the AP’s supposedly got it captured on raw video.

For many in Oakland, it’s a disappointing ending to an already frustrating story. What’s being reported today in national news is a small and attractive part of what was largely a peaceful gathering.

Yet even yesterday, as hundreds joined together to commemorate Grant’s death and plan how this community could move forward, a sense of dread hung in the air. Even as community activists worked hard for weeks to dispel media expectations of violence after the verdict, a palpable tension was in the air at yesterday’s rally. Certainly, aggressive police posturing didn’t help matters any. Even as crowds gathered in prayer and offered condolences to Grant’s family, hundreds of police officers armed in riot gear and carrying semiautomatic weapons lined the streets.

The reaction on the part of cops and the community rested largely on the Oscar Grant case’s fiery past in Oakland. Shortly after video footage of Mehersle’s shooting of an unarmed and handcuffed Grant on New Year’s 2009 went viral, protestors began demanding widespread accountability from local police agencies. On January 7, 2009, the day that Grant was laid to rest, a march from the Fruitvale train station where he had been shot to downtown Oakland turned violent. Protestors clashed with police, some broke storefront windows and several trash cans were set on fire. At least 100 people were arrested as Mayor Ron Dellums urged the city to be calm.

Protests over the next several days also resulted in skirmishes with police and more arrests. Many believe that these public displays of outrage were what ultimately led to Mehserle’s murder trial in the first place.

Still, organizers wanted yesterday to remain peaceful. As activist Christina Gomez told me last week, "Whether you believe in violent uprising or not, it’s a wedge issue, and we’re biting."

Even as organizers planned a community gathering for the night of the verdict, whether or not the rally would turn violent became a divisive issue. After yesterday’s involuntary manslaughter verdict was read, nearly a thousand protestors gathered at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland. It was a crowd that skewed largely young, Black and brown. Most were disappointed by the verdict, but no one seemed surprised.

"We knew the verdict wasn’t going to be satisfactory," said Charles DuBois, a local activist who said his son was also the victim of a police shooting. "I’m out here advocating for the people to get organized to make mindful decisions. Breaking windows and turning over cars is not a revolution."

Still, there was deep dissatisfaction with the jury’s ruling.

"There’s nothing involuntary about pulling a trigger," said Jessica, a 22-year-old from Oakland who declined to give her last name. "You have a whole community that’s losing young people every single day while the police and powers-that-be are doing just fine.

"This is a beautiful community," she added. "Unfortunately, the wrong people are in control of it."

Speakers at the rally had a similar message. Several young people of color took the mic, echoing frustration with police, but gratitude with the community’s outpouring of support. Mourners held banners emblazoned with Grant’s face, along with tributes to several other victims of Oakland police shootings, including Gary King, Jr. and Andrew Moppin.

"From the first time I heard about Oscar Grant, I didn’t expect justice," said one young Black man who spoke at the rally. "I expected this, Oakland, to stand up and come together."

Moods pitched as the evening went on. By the time the community-led rally began at 6 p.m., the crowd had fractured along Broadway, which is the main thoroughfare in downtown Oakland. The mood was still peaceful. Some led prayers. Others danced in Grant’s honor. At one point, the remnants of a brass band even began playing up and down the boulevard.

As the evening progressed, riot police began doubling their numbers with reinforcements brought in from neighboring Fremont. Later, Twitter was ablaze with reports of tear gas, property damage, and at least 83 arrests.

Still, the sentiment last night seemed to straddle the fence between collective outrage and personal conviction. "I really feel sorry for [Grant’s] daughter," said Lai-San Seto earlier at the rally. "Her father, for better or for worse, is becoming a symbol. And I’m sure she probably just wants her dad back."