After the Verdict on Mehserle, Black Oakland Largely Sits This One Out
All those videos and photos of the unrest in Oakland–don’t even believe the hype:
The crowd of looters and rioters were predominantly young and white. A little more than 200 were responsible for the anarchy. That’s right. As in anarchists, friendly neighborhood.
I remember one comedy routine–and it may have been one of Richard Pryor’s–from the early Seventies, in which Pryor made the observation that after rioting for several summers, the cops and the media were stunned to find inner-city blacks all over the country were spending a calm summer minding their own business instead of making Molotov cocktails. Surprised, he claimed the cops and the media would be bugging black passersby why they weren’t out in the streets on schedule, and making their lives interesting. It had me cracking up.
Well, we will come out when we feel like it. It’s usually a spontaneous, unscripted moment. And not when the media is gunning for any situation that could create ratings in a slow period in the year. After Oscar Grant was killed, I can well appreciate the hot rage–like a current–that passed through the black and Latino communities. That’s what made me predict riots like the ones after the four cops in the Rodney King case were exonerated. The anger was so thick and palpable in Oaktown, you could cut it with a knife.
But this time, it appears that the City of Oakland, under its mayor Ron Dellums, had been working overtime through its contacts in the community to placate youth and residents and to talk things through. And there were others who worked on their own to chill the situation:
If kids want to come bust the windows, I want them to come in here first and talk to me about what they’re upset about,” said Shawn Gullatt, who organized the event at the Grand Lake Coffee House. Just hours earlier, a Los Angeles jury had convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 New Year’s Day killing of Oscar Grant, who at the time was unarmed and pinned to the ground.
Gullatt, a spoken word artist who goes by the name NerCity (pronounced “Inner City”), said he organized the event to provide a “safehouse” where people could come and talk about the verdict without fear of getting caught up in potentially violent protests. “Maybe people don’t want to get in the middle of things,” he said.
While Grand Street and the path surrounding Lake Merritt were mostly empty, people trickled slowly into the coffee house, pulling up chairs in a circle. The mood was somber as participants discussed the outcome of the trial and ate sandwiches and sodas.
“Do you think the verdict was fair?” asked Gullatt.
“No,” said one woman.
“No, not at all,” said a young man.
But talk veered rapidly toward the future.
“The question is, what do we do to prevent this from happening in our communities?” asked 20-year old Tiana Wilkes.
Jasmene Miranda, 33, made a plug for more participation in local politics. “We show up for the hot topics and we don’t follow through,” Miranda said. “We need consistency.” Other nodded in agreement.
“All this b.s…with Oscar Grant, that should be our wakeup call,” said Gullatt, “because we know it’s going to happen again.” The young, racially diverse group talked of the need to create leadership and reach out to other victims of all kinds of violence.
Crowds did converge on City Hall in what became a mournful, but peaceful vigil. Their attention were fastened on those who spoke at length about the verdict, and what it meant to them, breaking down what the legal terms were for those who were not informed, and what was the next move was, and how citizens could respond. As the evening wore on, however, some people drifted away and began making trouble. Of these–83 in total–who broke windows, started fires in trash bins, set off fireworks, looted stores and destroyed other property in the downtown area were arrested and paddy wagoned to jail.
Other individuals, young and not so young–some under the auspices of organizations like Youth UpRising, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Attitudinal Healing Connection urged young people to meet as far away from the action as possible to discuss the verdict at community centers, churches, and even coffeehouses, and to suggest possible solutions. The local mainstream media, however, came in for particular scorn for their coverage of the Oscar Grant case, and some participants felt that reporters and editorialists were about fomenting further division and confrontation, the bigger the better:
The media got a harsh rap from several people in the circle. “For weeks they’ve been preparing the whole world—if you want some action, come to Oakland,” said Kokomon Clottey, executive director of the organization and Aeeshah’s husband. “And the media is the one who is selling this.”
Clottey also lamented that it takes a tragedy for the community to come together and take positive action. He said he had gotten a letter from the president of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce suggesting that all members contribute to an Oscar Grant fund for youth (the Attitudinal Healing Connection is a member of the chamber).
“The chamber could have created this fund how many years ago?” he asked rhetorically. “But for us to wait for a day like this, and all of a sudden we’re at our best?”
When it was her turn, [13-year-old Sabah] Harris called Oakland “an occupied city” and said the community needed to take more ownership of its systems, its schools and its police force. “I’d like to see more of our young people become police officers,” said Harris. “I think officers would have a lot more respect if they were from this community.”
Yeah, but in my generation, this was said as well. Only a few made it to police their own streets–or went elsewhere. Plus, these young people would have to come equipped. A high school diploma or a GED and street knowledge is not enough to police your own streets. It’s a calling, a vocation. And it means respect for life, period, not just one group’s lives.