Zimmerman protests: Oakland residents stand up against violence
OAKLAND — Business owners and staff members at downtown nonprofits here have spent the past several mornings sweeping up broken glass — a reminder of the destructive protests over George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin.
But overriding their sense of frustration has been a determination to end the window-smashing that has overshadowed substantive issues raised by the verdict.
Those struck by the seemingly random vandalism have included Youth Radio, an organization that aims to teach young people in Oakland’s minority and low-income communities tools they can use to further their educations and get jobs.
Also awaiting new — and costly — custom plate glass is Oaklandish, which channels proceeds from the sale of civic pride apparel to community groups like the East Oakland Boxing Assn., another haven for minority teens.
As a community, Oakland has lived through many of the issues central to the Zimmerman-Martin case: Residents still are tending wounds over the 2009 slaying of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. And the Oakland Police Department is only now making progress on mandated decade-old reforms aimed at ending racial profiling.
“There are people who are marching who care about Oakland, about the issues,” Anyka Barber said Tuesday, the windows of her downtown gallery papered with cathartic writings on Martin’s death and the response to it. “And there’s an element that is just about destruction.”
Hundreds of people here have protested without incident — expressing their grief and anger — since the Florida jury reached its verdict Saturday. But as with the Occupy protests, a small number of masked vandals have grabbed the headlines.
Youth Radio’s executive director, Richard Raya, said the teens who began their journalism summer session this week would focus on the feelings stirred by the acquittal rather than the vandalism. He noted, however, that the response to the violence has in a way proved healing.
“Last night I was shoveling glass with an art gallery director and two bartenders,” Raya said Tuesday. “And we became closer for it.”
Now those people who in recent years have been trying to breathe new life into Oakland’s downtown are vowing to stand up against future unrest.
Barber, who is African American, opened a gallery and community space a year ago not far from City Hall. At 11:30 p.m. on Monday, the 34-year-old was among those helping Raya a few blocks away.
On Saturday, she had been in front of her Betti Ono gallery when protesters across the street damaged Oaklandish — considered by many to be an icon of city unity. At Awaken Cafe, next door to the gallery, two patrons were hurt when that window was shattered.
The police presence that night was light (Chief Sean Whent has vowed to provide a heavier one going forward). And so it was a community member who stepped into the crowd to yell that these were local businesses being destroyed, Barber said. The masked group moved on, bashing in cars along the way.
The madness, Barber said, prompted her to open her doors to anyone wishing to express themselves peacefully.
“Brotha Trayvon, You deserved better,” read one of dozens of hand-written messages taped to the Betti Ono windows Tuesday. “I don’t know what my next move is, but it will be more focused and visionary than smashing windows of local businesses and burning flags. We need to build, to heal, to make moves toward long-term survival.”
Barber echoed that, saying property damage trickles down and leads to loss of jobs, loss of livelihood. The reviving downtown — a mix of community groups, galleries, bars and restaurants — is helping to channel economic life into a city that needs it.
“I just feel like we have to show up and say we value this as residents,” she said. “When you leave,” she said of the vandals, “we’re going to be here to pick up the pieces. And we’re not going to stand for this.”
Of the nine people arrested during Monday’s protests, police said, six were from outside Oakland — bolstering Mayor Jean Quan’s assertion that “most of the people committing violence are from out of town.” That was also the case with Occupy Oakland protests that turned destructive in the fall of 2011.
Sarah Sexton, who has produced music events for Awaken Cafe for the past eight months, also is a veteran of the Occupy movement. “Not the Occupy that destroyed local businesses — the Occupy that fed people, that got them medical care,” she said.
“There’s a small crew of people who believe the only way to create change is to bring down the entire system,” Sexton said. “Most of us don’t believe that. There has to be a plan to rebuild.”
“The bottom line,” she added, “is you can’t attack your own community. You’re just going to be that snake, eating its own tail.”
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