More than 1,000 people descended on downtown Oakland to protest the involuntary manslaughter verdict in Johannes Mehserle’s murder trial Thursday, but the crowds were largely peaceful until sporadic clashes prompted hundreds of police in riot gear to clear the streets.
The skirmishing broke out shortly after nightfall as young protesters, many wearing bandanas, hurled rocks and water bottles at police lines. Looters smashed windows and broke into a Foot Locker store on Broadway between 14th and 15th streets; some people used shoeboxes to light a trash-can fire, and new sneakers were thrown at police.
Wearing gas masks and gripping batons, hundreds of officers took over the Broadway corridor between 12th and 15th streets at 9 p.m., corralling the protesters in side streets. There were scattered confrontations as the night wore on, but the overwhelming police force and the discretion of most protesters allowed authorities to control the downtown area.
Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said late Thursday night that more than 50 people had been arrested, and that the number was expected to double. Windows were broken at several businesses; at Sears, at 20th and Broadway, looters broke store display windows and stole clothing and furniture. At many intersections, dumpsters and trash cans were lit on fire.
“I have to say, well over 95 percent of the protesters acted very well, and well over 95 percent of the police acted very well,” said Oakland City Council member Rebecca Kaplan, escorting some of the protesters through a police barricade.
Nearby, a group of young men stood staring at the phalanx of officers.
“They outnumber us everywhere around this bitch,” said one of the men.
The relatively peaceful response was perhaps the best possible outcome Oakland officials could have expected from the verdict. A Los Angeles jury determined that Mehserle essentially made a criminal mistake – but did not commit murder – when he fired his Sig Sauer P226 pistol into the back of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black man, killing him on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009.
Even before the verdict was announced, downtown Oakland was transformed into a ghost town as people fled the city. Cars poured onto Interstate 880, commuters crowded into the 12th Street BART station and shop owners hastily boarded up their windows with sheets of plywood.
The verdict, which means that Mehserle faces no more than 14 years in prison – and theoretically could be released on parole – provoked outrage.
As the protesters began to gather downtown, Grant’s sister-in-law, Yolanda Mesa, crying, stood up on the concrete base of an American flag and said: "This is not justice. He could get six months probation. I always wonder what I'm going to tell my niece when she gets older.”
One crowd of protesters turned away a bus in a confrontation at city center. A woman was apparently clipped by an unmarked police vehicle reversing during the protest and fell into the street, writhing in pain.
By 6 p.m, about 1,000 people had gathered in the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway, and a stream of protesters grabbed a microphone to denounce the verdict. The scene was almost festive, with two men playing chess in the middle of street, others throwing a football and a band playing nearby while, at the same time, speaker after speaker thundered about the verdict.
“We don’t want to tear down property. We don’t want to tear down buildings. We want to tear down the whole fucking system!” said one as people in the crowd cheered and pumped their fists.
At 8 p.m., another speaker called for the crowd to disperse.
“There’s a wall of police over there,” she said. “There’s a wall of police over there, and there’s a wall of police over there. Use your heads, people. That’s all I’ll say. You guys are all grown.”
Most of the crowd left, but about 200 people walked directly toward a line of police positioned at Broadway and 12th Street, directly across from the Marriott hotel. The police moved forward about half a block, leading to a tense standoff in the middle of Broadway.
As rocks and plastic water bottles flew from the crowd, the police began to move forward in a line. A sergeant positioned on an orange Arctic Cat all-terrain vehicle announced over the loudspeaker that the protest had been declared an “unlawful assembly” and that protesters needed to leave or risk arrest or force, “which could cause serious physical injury.”
Police began to strap on gas masks and the line slowly moved forward. About a dozen people – including Oakland City Council member Jean Quan – locked arms and marched slowly in front of the police.
It was then that looters bashed in the window at the Foot Locker up the street. Swarms of men swept past the shattered glass and a bashed-in metal grate to ransack the store. Some emerged with several shoeboxes cradled in their arms.
Police stood by a half block away on 15th Street, not moving, apparently calculating that doing so would provoke more unrest.
After several minutes, Alicia English, 26, of San Francisco, stood in front of the store, screaming at the looters as she struggled to hold them back.
“If you ain’t here for Oscar Grant, bounce!” English screamed.
“Pleeeeze,” one man pleaded. “I want a pair of Nikes, just let me get some Nikes.”
“Oscar Grant would not get down with this,” she yelled. “This is not just. This is not gonna make no motherfucking change.”
With the streets littered with shoe boxes, a trash can on fire, and graffiti scrawled on the side of a nearby building, the police moved in on the crowd, pouncing on at least two men in the middle of the street and handcuffing them as officers surrounded them and braced for protesters to attack.
The police fanned out on both sides of Broadway, until the streets were entirely clear, except for the litter, and only a few stragglers remained.