While sports world, news outlets and most people in between were transfixed on LeBron James leaving Cleveland, something else unfolded that appeared to garner little attention in its first angry stages that same evening. Tempers flared in downtown Oakland, CA over the “lesser” conviction of Johannes Mehserle, a 28-year old White transit police officer caught on video fatally shooting 22-year old Oscar Grant, who is Black, in the back. Prosecutors aggressively pushed for murder while a Los Angeles jury pushed the other way with involuntary manslaughter.
Of course, conventional analysis will cite shades of the Rodney King verdict. Remix: another Los Angeles-area jury opts for the more controversial decision, fanning the flames of California’s international reputation for racial unrest. Bad enough the judicial venue was dramatically altered. That niggling question over the historic rift between law enforcement and African Americans will remain unresolved. That’s particularly prevalent in a town like Oakland, 30% Black with Black Mayor Ronald Dellums, hit hard by recession and long time urban neglect. And, since the jury found Mehserle accidentally pulled his gun while going for a Taser, where’s the debate on police usage of those weapons and safety protocols preventing another unfortunate moment?
Somewhat more telling – beyond the fixation on basketball free agency moves amid racial tension in the record temperature summer of high unemployment – are conflicting media reports on exactly what happened in the wake of this particular verdict. Report Maria Laganga and Abby Sewell from Oakland in the Los Angeles Times:
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.
While Laganga and Sewell, on the ground, report Oakland police declaring the “unlawful assembly” in the midst of what started as peaceful, the Associated Press Gregg Risling and Terry Collins disagree:
Police in riot gear Thursday had maintained a watchful eye over a crowd of protesters as emotions ran high with about 500 people marching in the street. Members of a crowd near City Hall moaned and cursed when they heard the verdict.
Sporadic violence later broke out and police said they made 83 arrests throughout the night for violations that included failure to disperse, vandalism and assaulting a police officer.
Although American news reports cite damage less severe than the previous Oakland “riots” in 2009 in the aftermath of the BART train shooting, it was interesting that a rival foreign press outlet, Russia Today, provided the top YouTube footage of the moment. Ultimately, a larger conversation takes place about the distinction between “protests” and “riots” and how they are defined – especially when people of color are involved. How are the opposing parties perceived in these instances? And, what constitutes appropriate police response?