Dozens in downtown Oakland clashed with police in riot gear late Thursday, throwing rocks and bottles at officers, starting small fires in the street and breaking into area businesses.
The demonstrators were angry that a Los Angeles County jury found former Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in a racially charged shooting instead of on a more severe second-degree murder charge.
The crowd had been largely peaceful in the hours after the verdict was announced. But trouble erupted about 8:30 p.m. when police declared an unlawful assembly and ordered the crowd to disperse. At one point several hundred people had gathered.
At least 50 people had been arrested.
A demonstrator smashed the windshield of a California Highway Patrol cruiser. Looters stormed a Foot Locker sporting goods store near City Hall and broke windows at the Far East National Bank. A Rite-Aid pharmacy was spray-painted with graffiti, including the slogan, “You Can’t Shoot Us All.”
Oakland councilwomen Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan marched up Broadway arm-in-arm with other demonstrators in front of a large contingent of police.
“We’re very grateful for everyone who has spoken for justice peacefully,” Kaplan said.
“Some people have thrown things. That is not the right way to react. I’m hoping they will not escalate. I’ve asked police to behave accordingly.”
Shortly after 9 p.m., police herded much of the crowd around 17th Street. One officer lobbed a flash-bang device into the street to disperse the crowd after another officer was hit in the head with a bottle.
Police far outnumbered protesters by late evening, and those arrested were immediately hauled away.
By 11 p.m., the heart of downtown was a mess. A Foot Locker was smashed after looters took off with shoes and bags of athletic gear. People shoved trash cans in the street and set rubbish on fire.
Hours before, Oakland seemed to be heading off a repeat of the vandalism and violence that broke out after Mehserle shot Oscar Grant III to death on New Year’s Day 2009.
Other than the protesters, downtown was mostly deserted as workers from many businesses and offices cleared out before the verdict was announced at 4 p.m.
At that point demonstrators were calm and orderly.
Tony Coleman, with the Oakland General Assembly for Justice for Oscar Grant, took to the small stage at 14th Street and Broadway and derided the verdict: “We want some more justice,” he cried, urging onlookers to gather next week to plan further action. “We ain’t satisfied.”
A woman who introduced herself as Sister Jerry invoked the names of black activists Marcus Garvey and Fannie Lou Hamer and said she came to the demonstration and grabbed the microphone to show her love for Grant’s family and her outrage at the system.
“I want to say to the youth, I want to say to our people, that when I heard the verdict, I couldn’t contain myself,” she called out. “But I got to do it, ‘cause my children and grandchildren are watching.”
Oscar Grant’s grandfather, Oscar Grant Sr., a 64-year-old veteran from Hayward, begged the demonstrators to “keep the peace and honor my grandson.”
“I know what went down today was wrong,” he said. “But please don’t tear up the Bay Area. We live here. In 1965, they tore up Watts in L.A. Watts is still tore down. I don’t want my home like that.”
A group of Unitarian Universalists — neatly dressed and older — waved signs that proclaimed they were “fighting racism.”
A woman sold copies of the Workers Vanguard and a member of the Labor Black League for Social Defense held a placard that promised, “Oscar Grant: killed in cold blood — we will not forget.”
George Holland Sr., president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People’s Oakland branch, was the rare voice in support of the verdict.
Standing in the crowd, surrounded by television cameras, he said that, as a lawyer, “I recognize you can’t always get what you want.
“I know what could have happened,” he continued. “Not guilty would have been worse. I think [Mehserle] ought to go to jail. But we got a verdict.”
In Los Angeles, a few dozen protesters gathered at a mostly peaceful rally at Leimert Park after the verdict.
Holding signs that proclaimed “Justice for Oscar Grant” and “Jail Killer Cops! Justice Now!” they gathered to hear speakers vent frustration about the case.
Stevie Merino, 22, of Long Beach, an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition, a social justice organization, said, “Involuntary manslaughter is basically just a slap on the wrist [for the former transit officer], but it’s a slap in the face to Oscar Grant’s family, his daughter and his girlfriend.”
Some speakers drew parallels between the Grant case and the Rodney King beating, venting frustration about racial profiling and the lack of police response and media attention to violent crime in South Los Angeles.
“Officer Mehserle — guilty, guilty!,” the crowd chanted. “The whole damn system is — guilty, guilty.”
Not everyone at the park was outraged, however.
Nathaniel Cross, 67, of Los Angeles, said he was glad the officer wasn’t acquitted, but he said he didn’t believe the shooting was murder.
“I’m glad he didn’t walk, didn’t get off scot-free,” he said. “The guy made a hell of a mistake and cost someone their life, but it had to be a mistake.”