Politics & Policy

Agitators in Oakland

A California city's police department and civil society perform admirably in the wake of a controversial verdict.

Oakland, Calif. — “The silent majority of people here, eking out a living, they just want to come home and be with their family at the end of the day,” an off-duty Oakland police officer I’ll call Gary is telling me in a cop bar not far from department headquarters. It’s the night before his city will withstand a massive demonstration. The “agitators,” this veteran officer says, well, they’re mostly not even from Oakland.

Gary was giving voice to a sentiment increasingly shared by many Oaklanders, namely that they’re tired of the same old clichéd “us-versus-the-police” debates, of activists and politicians’ exploiting unfortunate situations, and, more generally, of the old ways of doing business. Whether a feverishly liberal city like Oakland, in what might be called the Rust Belt of the West Coast, can capitalize on this impulse remains an open question.

Already reeling from Great Recession–induced high unemployment and gaping budget deficits, Oakland has been convulsed over the past 18 months by occasionally violent demonstrations sparked by a police killing on a commuter-train platform.

On New Year’s Eve 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant and a few friends, African Americans all, were detained for fighting on a BART train. In front of scores of onlookers armed with cell-phone video cameras at the boisterous Fruitvale station, Grant and company — who were unarmed — lay face down while BART officer Johannes Mehserle and two colleagues attempted to handcuff them. Exactly what happened next is hotly contested, but what’s beyond dispute is that Grant absorbed a single shot in his back from Mehserle’s Sig Sauer P226 and died shortly thereafter.

The usual suspects — community organizers, civil-rights activists — decried Grant’s death as a “police murder,” claiming that the tall, white, German-born Mehserle set out to kill a black man. Mehserle resigned from the force after the shooting, and BART paid out a $1.5 million settlement to Grant’s estate.

Still, the officer claimed he meant to use his Taser on Grant, who, he believed, was reaching underneath his body for something. Prosecutors charged him with first- and second-degree murder, allegations almost unheard of against law enforcement, on the theory that Mehserle couldn’t have confused the lightweight, yellow Taser on one side of his belt for the heavy, black handgun on the other. Yet the many videos of the incident (caution: they’re graphic and disturbing) clearly show shock and surprise pervading Mehserle’s face immediately after he fired the shot.

In the days and weeks that followed, Oakland erupted. Large street protests by day and “anarchist”-infused violence by night left the city’s confidence, like its storefront windows, shattered. The unrest grew so serious that prosecutors moved Mehserle’s trial to Los Angeles to avoid the local-media spotlight.

In the meantime, in an effort to bridge the budget gap, the city council vote to lay off 80 police officers, or 10 percent of the total force, enough of a dent to ensure, as Oakland’s police chief predicted, that citizens would have to report dozens of types of crimes online, rather than to a live officer. The cuts threatened to undo the Giuliani-esque “broken windows” successes won by former mayor (and now, once again, California gubernatorial candidate) Jerry Brown.

It was thus unsurprising that as the L.A. jury deliberated in the wake of a dramatic trial, Oakland, fed by incessantly negative media coverage, braced itself for violent disorder that threatened to dwarf the earlier turbulence. Downtown businesses from mom-and-pop stores to Burger Kings and Subways boarded up their windows with thick plywood, while other shops taped pictures of Grant to their storefronts to ward off vandals.

Yet upon the arrival of the verdict — involuntary manslaughter, meaning two to four years in prison for a criminally negligent killing — the city’s worst fears went unrealized, and Gary’s silent majority seems to have prevailed. A large demonstration of close to 1,000 people tied up Broadway, the city’s main thoroughfare, for several hours, but almost all of the protesters were peaceful. When night fell, a group of some 50 hardcore troublemakers smashed windows, sprayed graffiti, looted a Foot Locker, and set a few dumpsters on fire. All in all, fewer than 100 people were arrested.

So what happened? First and foremost, the Oakland police prepared effectively, calling in backup from all around the Bay Area, running numerous crowd-control drills, but staging their massive presence along side streets, such as the one adjacent to my hotel, slightly away from the huge gathering on Broadway. The police chief won plaudits for striking a near-perfect balance between protecting and serving, i.e., preventing significant damage to property and persons while permitting protesters to blow off steam.

“It was a wholly different scene,” a San Francisco Chronicle columnist observed, “when compared with the riots that broke out after Grant was fatally shot . . . [and] mayhem ensued uncontrolled.”

Civic leaders did their part too, designating “speak-out corners” across the city where residents could peacefully express themselves. One of the protest leaders praised officials “for letting us have our space so that we . . . could speak out.”

Additionally, the vast majority of demonstrators, along with Oscar Grant’s family, preached a strong message of non-violence. A group called the “Black Elected Officials and Clergy of the East Bay” issued an open letter urging Oakland residents to “work with us to shut down anyone who would engage in destructive behavior in our community.” Youth UpRising, an inner-city group, put out a public-service video, entitled “violence is not justice,” that aimed to help Oakland’s youngsters “channel their energy in positive ways.”

Now what remains is what’s always been more difficult: digging the city out of its fiscal rut and diverting its limited funds from lavish public-employee-union contracts to the neighborhoods that most need community policing and small-business-startup grants. Interestingly, an upstart city councilwoman has begun plotting a run for mayor on, believe it or not, a platform of pension reform and job creation that hopefully won’t prove quixotic.

Either way, in the short run, disaster was averted through smart policing and a reinforced layer of civil society. Oakland showed it could transcend hoary platitudes and bolster its law-abiding majority.

Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and a writer in San Diego.

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