UPDATE: Johannes Mehserle has been convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter of Oscar Grant.
Oakland is boarded up.
Fearing the inevitable riots that will erupt if ex-transit cop Johannes Mehserle isn’t found guilty of murder in the Oscar Grant case, business owners around Oakland’s downtown and other areas of the city have been busy nailing plywood boards over their shop windows to minimize damage and looting. This essay documents the pre-riot preparations, and also examines to what extent the expected riot is being fomented by left-wing radical groups.
Word has gone out on the street for everyone to gather at 14th and Broadway — the intersection at the center of Oakland’s downtown — when the verdict is announced. Although the gathering is supposed to be “a positive space for people to speak out and express their feelings and to continue working for justice,” everyone knows that rabble-rousers and organizers will be on hand inciting the crowd to run wild.
The businesses at 14th and Broadway started preparing for the violence many days in advance, boarding up their windows and informing employees to lock the doors as soon as the verdict is announced.
But the fear has spread all across downtown Oakland, and businesses for many blocks in every direction have either already boarded up their windows too or have stocked up on plywood and nails for emergency protection when the time comes.
Do Riots Occur Spontaneously — or Are They Organized Ahead of Time?
For weeks a furious argument has raged through Oakland, with some civic leaders, pundits and businessmen accusing radical neighborhood activist groups of intentionally fomenting a riot on the day of the verdict. Furthermore, local African-American activists are in turn accusing outside mostly-white anarchist and communist groups of hijacking for their own agenda what is supposed to be a homegrown riot just for locals. Everybody’s pointing fingers — and everybody’s correct.
The reason law-abiding Oaklanders are so sure a riot will erupt is that there is a grand convergence of four different social forces all pushing in the same direction: chaos on verdict day:
1. There is likely to be an “organically” occurring unplanned outbreak of frustration on the part of African-Americans in Oakland who (justly or unjustly, depending on your viewpoint) feel distrustful of and victimized by police.
2. Local black-oriented activist organizations are seeking to harness and magnify this anger to intentionally bring chaos to the streets as a way of pressuring the city to advance their radical agendas.
3. Outside far-left political groups are also seeking to piggyback on the riots and to make them so large and violent that they become a national story, and (hopefully) become the spark that ignites a revolution.
4. The criminal element in the Bay Area will almost certainly take advantage of the fact the the Oakland Police will be totally preoccupied with the riot on verdict day, leading many locals to fear an unchecked crime wave even in areas where there is no rioting.
Put all these four ingredients together and you have the recipe for one ugly scene.
It doesn’t take much effort to see the hidden hands behind the scenes trying to instigate or intensify the riot.
For example, this poster has been plastered all over the city. At the lower left, you can see a drawing of bandanna-wearing white anarchists participating in the planned riot, and it’s almost certain that anarchists designed and distributed the poster. And sure enough, if you go to the local Bay Area anarchist blog, you can find them justifying their role in the riot incitement:
We are anarchists who live in the Bay. We are OUTRAGED by the murder of Oscar Grant, and we are pissed at continuing police violence and disregard of communities’ health and safety. …
Some folks have been calling us “outside agitators”. We wonder: outside of what? We are all faced by police violence…
THE PIGS STARTED THIS
Straight up, we don’t like that the police murder people. … Last year when people expressed themselves in the streets, we heard condemnation of property destruction but no rebuke of police aggression against peoples bodies. Lets not forget that the only reason Mehserle is on trial is because the people of Oakland rose up.
If Mehserle is found guilty of murder it will be historic. If he is found not guilty, or given a slap on the wrist, our response will be historic. What happens in the streets will be determined by the people in the streets, and we know that we won’t be there alone. We say to the thugs at OPD, bring your chumps in body armor. The more Bay Area cops you bring to downtown Oakland to threaten and intimidate those expressing themselves, the more targets you leave exposed. It’s open game on all your $hit from now until the job is done.
Clear enough for you?
There are also many posts online of anarchists arguing about whether their participation in the riot is justified (paste this URL into a browser window to see an example: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/07/05/18652687.php) and also announcing plans to show up in costume as “yuppies” to avoid being arrested as they smash things up (http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/07/06/18652776.php). (The site IndyBay blocks incoming direct links to discourage “outsiders” from seeing what goes on in the radical community.)
Boarded-up buildings all over Oakland are also plastered with the yellow flyer you see here.
This close-up view reveals that it says “The Whole Damn System is Guilty!” and “Revolution Club.”
The “Revolution Club” is of course a branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and “The Whole Damn System is Guilty!” is the RevCom slogan for the Oscar Grant case.
Elsewhere on the Revolutionary Communist Party website are essays with thinly veiled threats to incite a riot on the day of the verdict:
There are plans for a convergence in downtown Oakland at 14th and Broadway at 6 pm on the day the verdict is announced. People need to be there and elsewhere to respond politically to the verdict. …
It was the outcry and protest of the people, in many different ways, including on January 7, 2009, that forced the system to arrest and bring murder charges against Mehserle. …
The authorities are sowing confusion and also trying to intimidate people from speaking out in the wake of the verdict. Police staged a highly publicized practice “riot” in the port of Oakland. They set up a hotline for “tips, rumors and information” relating to protests or “potential problems” after the verdict. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums met with non-profit groups, urging them to inoculate their base against “outside agitators.”
But the truth is the people acted with conscience and vision when they said “we are all Oscar Grant.” Protest was needed and justified.
(January 7, 2009 is the date of the first Oscar-Grant-related riot, which erupted a week after Mehserle shot Grant in an Oakland BART station.)
Here’s another poster commonly seen around downtown. Up close…
…we see that it’s produced by the “Justice for Oscar Grant Committee,” which also turns out to be a front group for Revolution Books, a communist bookstore.
Not all the inciters are “outside agitators” — some come from within the local African-American community itself:
The Black Nationalists
The “Uhuru Solidarity Movement,” a radical black nationalist organization, is also one of many agitator groups essentially calling for a riot if there isn’t a murder conviction (paste URL: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/07/05/18652698.php):
As we prepare for the verdict in the trial of Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant, we continue to organize to build our organization in solidarity with the African People’s Socialist Party for liberation and justice for African people, which will bring liberation and justice to the world.
On the day of the verdict, we are calling on the public to show their outrage if the verdict is anything less than 2nd degree murder by joining the rally downtown at 6pm at 14th and Broadway or by coming out to a community organizing meeting at the Uhuru House in East Oakland at 7911 MacArthur Blvd.
The facade of Youth Radio, a training facility for inner-city Oakland youth, is completely plastered with Oscar Grant posters and graffiti. Inside, the Youth Radio trainees have followed the Oscar Grant case closely and produced many radio reports that were not entirely condemnatory of any post-verdict rioting.
The side of the building has an immense outdoor shrine to Oscar Grant.
Across the street are more boarded-up buildings and intriguing flyers.
The flyers, which have also been posted on poles and walls all over the Bay Area, read “HE SAYS TAZER, WE SAY MURDER. Day of the verdict, 14th and Broadway, 6pm. JUSTICE FOR OSCAR GRANT!”
Pundits and Community Leaders
Everyone wants to put in their two cents about the Oscar Grant case. And while many “responsible” pundits and leaders are of course calling for calm and nonviolence after the verdict, just as many are using their soapboxes to backhandedly inflame the protesters while pretending to act like peacemakers. For example, Jakada Imani, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (the successor to Van Jones in that role, coincidentally) published a column in the San Francisco Chronicle in which he remains unenthused about street violence — because it doesn’t go far enough to bring about “transformative justice.” In other words, he’s anti-riot because it’s too small potatoes — he’d rather see a revolution.
(The photo above has nothing to do with the pundits, but I thought it was a similarly unsettling and disturbing message: “Jury Immunity: Juries cannot be punished for their verdicts.” The implication seems to be that this law is a bad thing, and that the Meheserle jury ought to be punished if they come back with the “wrong” verdict. At least it seems to imply this within the pressure-cooker context of pre-riot Oakland. Update: Commenters point out that the sign may refer not to the Mehserle trial but instead to the ability of juries in drug cases to return innocent verdicts if they disagree with the law. Could be….)
Chip Johnson, a more insightful and level-headed S.F. Chronicle columnist, documented how local youths are being inflamed by agitators and politically-driven community activists.
And even supposedly unbiased “news stories” often read like they’re justifying any post-verdict outbreak of violence — this article in the San Jose Mercury News being a good example:
But what is justice? What constitutes a just response to the killing of the 22-year-old grocery store worker, a man memorialized in hip-hop songs and murals, discussed in barbershops and living rooms as an iconic victim of police brutality that some say happens all too often?
Is a murder conviction justice? Is a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter conviction justice? If Mehserle, who says he intended to stun Grant with a Taser and accidentally shot him instead, is acquitted, can there still be a sense of justice for those who have come to view this case as a for long-simmering tension between minorities and law enforcement?
The boarding up of a city
The rest of this essay consists of photos showing what downtown Oakland looks like on the verge of a riot.
In some areas of downtown, entire city blocks are boarded up.
Big retailers with lootable merchandise are among the most nervous. The largest stores had to cover up (at great expense) long façades ahead of time, while still trying to run their businesses normally.
In case you might think that these stores are boarded up not because they fear a riot but instead because they’re actually out of business … you can see here that the Men’s Wearhouse in the above photo is still open to customers, behind the plywood façade.
In fact all sorts of storefronts which at first glance look “out of business” are actually still open as normal…
…but are hunkered down behind anti-riot measures.
Everyone’s affected, from banks…
…to health spas…
…and office buildings.
…and national chains.
Not all the anti-riot measures were equally effective. This building was so big, the owners settled for just covering the bottom halves of the lower windows.
And this cash-strapped barbershop had to make do with cardboard instead of plywood.
I found it interesting that the adjacent barbershop still had up signs apparently left over from the aftermath of 9/11, when many immigrant-owned businesses placed patriotic signs in their windows to defuse the anti-foreigner violence which never materialized despite numerous predictions in the media. Hopefully the cardboard won’t stay up as long as the “Proud to be American” poster, and hopefully this current threat of rioting and violence will also never materialize.
In fact, many businesses, particularly in Oakland’s Chinatown (which is adjacent to downtown), are attempting to use mass psychology to sidestep the rioters and looters, by not using plywood but instead placing Oscar Grant posters on their façades and windows. The intent seems to be to convince the rioters that the business is sympathetic to their cause, and thus ought to be immune to looting. Will it work? If not, the smell of durian should drive the rioters away.
Another tactic to avoid the wrath of the crowd is to adorn businesses with posters pleading for peace and nonviolence.
“We’re on your side! Please don’t smash up our restaurant!”
This Chinatown restaurant is taking no chances and trying both tactics simultaneously — Oscar posters and plywood at the ready, in case Oscar doesn’t work.
Even the city government has put up signs pleading with the rioters — or so it seems. Actually, these pleas have been up for quite some time and are just there on general principle, and have nothing to do with the riot specifically.
As documented in my previous report, nearby Lake Merritt was recently festooned with bloodthirsty graffiti calling for the death of Jonannes Mehserle, his child…
…and other police officers.
Meanwhile, over in Berkeley, overtly inflammatory posters have been plastered on fences and construction sites, trying to not only foment a riot over Oscar Grant but also turn it into an immigration riot as well.
These stickers have also cropped up around Berkeley, showing the logo of the Berkeley Police (and/or the UC Police, both of which are seven-pointed stars) transformed into a pig’s face. Anti-police sentiment is high around here!
Back in Oakland, the wall of one entire building was covered with anarchist poster art and a gigantic Oscar.
The “mural” featured a nearly life-sized rendition of riot cops and a burning car.
Not to worry, though — Sunny Relax!
There were so many Oscar Grant posters on so many windows, after a while it was like a game of Where’s Waldo? Can you spot the four Oscars in this scene?
In the middle of all this, I encountered the Cannabis Cruiser…
…which you can take to have an Oscar-themed Happy Burrito.
Oscar and Obama — together at last.
The last six pictures are presented without captions: Scenes from a boarded-up city, awaiting its grim fate:
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