by Dennis Bernstein
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums had a chance to shine last Thursday, after the verdict was announced in the murder trial of transit cop Johannes Mehserle for the Jan. 1, 2009, killing of a 22-year-old unarmed Black man named Oscar Grant.
Grant was shot in the back at close range while lying face down with his hands behind his back on a BART platform. Mehserle claimed he pulled the wrong gun and meant to stun Grant with a Taser. The killing was filmed on several cell phones and witnessed by a train car full of witnesses. The killer cop was convicted in a Los Angeles court of involuntary manslaughter on July 8.
The fact that Mehserle, who is white – with a history of violent behavior against Black and Brown people – could be sentenced to as little as two years in jail or even given probation did not sit well with the Grant family or their thousands of supporters who have vowed over the last 18 months never to forget Oscar Grant.
Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, spoke out at a hastily assembled press conference in front of the Los Angles courthouse after the verdict was announced. “My son was murdered, he was murdered, he was murdered,” Johnson said repeatedly. “And the law has not held the officer accountable the way that he should be held accountable.”
“We as a family have been slapped in the face by a system that has denied us true justice,” Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson said.
The FBI has since launched a federal civil rights probe into the case to determine whether Mehserle violated Grant’s civil rights by snuffing out his life. The sentencing, originally set for early August, has been postponed until November.
After the verdict was announced, Dellums asked the people of Oakland to “show the nation” that Oakland can respond respectfully and peacefully to the verdict. Dellums said on the street Thursday night, “I don’t want anyone hurt. I don’t want anyone jailed. I don’t want the police to hurt anyone.”
But apparently Dellums and a thousand cops from around the state were not going to treat the people of Oakland peacefully or with respect. Rather, Oaklanders were about to get another dose of unbridled police power.
State of siege mentality
Instead of standing with the people, Dellums stood with his police chief, and together they turned the city of Oakland into a state of siege, proceeding to criminalize the entire community.
All those who took to the streets to protest the slap-on-the-wrist verdict of a killer cop and who then refused to scatter when the police announced, without warning, that the main legal protest had been declared an unlawful gathering faced immediate arrest.
The police were poised for action and well prepared. In the time leading up to the verdict, they had launched “Operation Verdict,” mobilizing over 1,000 cops from all over Northern California to come to Oakland. They staged a highly published rehearsal “riot” at the Port of Oakland. They even set up a hotline for “tips, rumors and information” regarding protests after the verdict. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums himself warned against “outside agitators.”
Dellums became the cheerleader for the police, collaborating with local corporate media in a sort of low-intensity fear campaign leading up to the verdict, encouraging local merchants to board up their store fronts and head for the exits and the hills as soon as they hear a verdict is near.
Indeed, the day of the verdict, there were traffic jams for miles in all directions out of Oakland, as soon as it was announced that the verdict would be made public at 4 p.m. Meanwhile, hundreds of cops streamed into the city from police departments all over the region.
By sundown, hundreds of cops were marching around downtown Oakland like it was an occupied land.
Oddly, while the main peaceful protest was declared an illegal gathering, a couple of dozen looters seemed to be given free rein by the police. Dozens of police just stood around, some in plain clothes filming, as people looted a Foot Locker store and lit some trash cans on fire. The local media picked up the ball and ran with it. And all the coverage centered on “violent looters,” “outsiders” and “anarchists.”
Outside agitator or legal observer?
At a press conference Friday, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said Molotov cocktails were used by “anarchists” and that police headquarters had been hit by one.
“There’s a time that we have to say that people coming from outside,” he said, “that impact our city, our town, the place that we live, that we work, that we play in, needs to stop.”
Chief Batts readily admitted moving to greatly limit the legal protesters, that it was a “purposeful decision” not to allow the protests to expand throughout the city. “I wanted to confine it to a small area, to allow people to … have their rights, but at the same time not let this city be overrun or impacted,” he said.
Among the dozens of “outside agitators” and “violent troublemakers” arrested was noted civil rights attorney Walter Riley, whose law offices are down the block from the Foot Locker, where dozens of fully dressed riot cops were still standing around and watching the looting of the shoe store unfold.
Riley, a mild mannered, highly respected member of the Bay Area community, works closely with actor Danny Glover on various humanitarian projects. He was heading back into his law offices in Oakland with his son Manuel when he was violently confronted by police, who shoved him around, roughed him up and ultimately arrested him, “illegally.” Riley was held in custody for over 18 hours.
I was carefully monitoring local media coverage of the event when I saw Riley in handcuffs being led off to a police wagon. I called into the news line at KRON TV, a local San Francisco station formerly owned by the San Francisco Chronicle that had shown the live pictures of Riley but apparently didn’t realize who he was and hadn’t reported it on the air.
Local producer and KRON host, Henry Tenenbaum, took my call. He greeted me warmly and told me he was a fan of my show. I told him that Riley was arrested, and I had seen it taking place over KRON’s air waves. But Tenenbaum was not particularly interested, nor apparently were the KRON hosts who seemed to singly focused on violent looters and burning garbage cans.
At one point, Tenenbaum told me he couldn’t be sure that it was Riley and not merely my perception of Walter Riley. I explained that Riley had been on my show at least a half dozen times. (Last time I spoke to Riley, he was in Haiti doing life and death relief work after surviving the Jan. 12 earthquake.)
KRON never interviewed Riley or reported his arrest contemporaneously throughout the evening.
I spoke to Riley on Monday after he was released from police custody. He said he wasn’t surprised by KRON’s decision not to report his arrest at the time it happened, because it would have interrupted the “narrative” that all protesters were violent outsiders.
“It meets a narrative that somebody wants,” Riley said. “It meets a narrative that satisfies a certain kind of corporate media approach to what Oakland is, and it also unfortunately meets the narrative that the police department would like to have of Oakland, because it helps to develop this idea that this is this crime ridden place and that we have to give all this support and carte blanche to police departments.”
‘The narrative that the police department would like to have of Oakland [is] that this is this crime ridden place and that we have to give all this support and carte blanche to police departments.’ – Walter Riley, civil rights attorney
Riley was with his son, Manuel Riley, when he was roughed up and arrested by Oakland’s finest. The younger Riley witnessed the entire affair. “They grabbed my dad, and they definitely put the force of their billie clubs on him at least three times, right in front of me,” he said. “So in the midst of him trying to get into his door, into his office, they decided that the correct response was to pop him with their billie club, knock him back and as he is getting up, do it again and again just before grabbing him and arresting him and choking him.”
Meanwhile, Riley and at least a dozen people interviewed for this article claim the police were more brutal and “aggressive” against the peaceful protesters, who had gathered to protest the verdict and the close range police killing of a young Black father from their community. “When they started the sweep, they were sweeping up all the people who were out there engaging in their legal right for civil protests and voicing their opinions,” said the noted human rights attorney.
Riley was struck by how overtly the police were willing to stand by as the looters expanded their activities. “One thing that is striking is that they stood there and watched the Foot Locker’s windows being broke,” said Riley, “and they watched when people went inside … and they filmed it. There was a long line of police, wall to wall, down the street from it, and they could see it all.”
Riley confirmed what I had heard from my reporters and was able to see clearly from the TV coverage: That when people – protest marshals dressed in obvious identifying vests – tried to intercede and restrain the looters, the police did nothing.”
“Yes, there were people who were in orange vests trying to stop the looting, but the police didn’t come to help them,” said Riley. “They even let the people who did the looting go through their lines – and they went further up Broadway, north on Broadway through the police lines – who then set fires and did damage further up Broadway, another way of promoting their narrative.”
Chief Batts was asked at the news conference on Friday why police didn’t move in and arrest looters. He said his officers had been overrun by other protesters earlier in the evening as they tried to stop people from trying to block an AC Transit bus from passing. “You just cannot run into a crowd,” said Bates.
“Outsiders?” asks Riley rhetorically. “We live in a place,” he said, “where there is a first class, world class college, UC Berkeley. We have world class colleges in San Francisco and Stanford. These serve the entire Bay Area. From San Jose up … that is our community and we participate in each other’s activities, whether it is social or cultural, certainly political. “Berkeley is part of our community. If we live in Oakland, we live in Berkeley. Richmond is part of our community. Lafayette is part of our community. What else is …? San Leandro, Hayward … San Francisco. This is a metropolitan area. It is a mecca for much of the world.
“And if people are here,” Riley continued, “involved in the community where they live, even if it is only for a short period of time, we are going to have many people with addresses from many parts of the world. Hopefully that continues in every political activity we are engaged in, particularly something that has such universal appeal as civil rights violations, murder of people in our communities in this manner, that people from the world will be involved.
“We have asked people in Europe to participate in our campaigns for peace,” Riley continued. “We have asked people to participate in the campaign against the death penalty, against police brutality. We have asked people to come to demonstrations from all over the world. When we have a demonstration in Oakland around some political point that we want to make, some issue, whether it is local housing or something on a national level, we want people from the entire community to be involved. That is the entire Bay Area.”
For Riley, his arrest was doubly charged, he said. “I was worried about my son, a young Black man who was standing right next to me – knowing how cops react to young Black men and what happened to Oscar Grant.”
“Well, that’s funny,” said Manuel Riley. “At the same time I was worried about him and the aggression the police officers were putting on him. I was just trying to restrain them as well as helping him keep his balance, trying to … maintain some dignity and protect my father …
“I was caught off guard. We were already out there for something that was completely unnecessary, which was the killing of Oscar Grant, handcuffed on his stomach.
“The reaction of physical force against my father or any professional Black man or any citizen just exercising peacefully their right to gather,” said Manuel Riley, “was uncalled for. I was scared for my father, of course, caught off guard and attacked by a mob of officers: It’s not something you expect to necessarily walk away from. Especially when you are just outnumbered.”
At the end of the night, more than 80 people were roughly arrested along with Riley.
At the core of the post-verdict protest
Mayor Ron Dellums offered unlimited praise for the Oakland PD “for doing a bang up job, dealing with the anarchists” and outsiders while giving the legitimate protesters a chance to exercise their constitutional rights to protest.
Dellums said on Friday, July 9, that he did not want a police force that was “oppressive” or “militaristic. … I am incredibly, extraordinarily, unwaveringly proud of the character displayed by this community.”
“I didn’t see it that way,” said Anita Johnson, well known host and producer of Hard Knock Radio. “I saw a tactical approach to hurting human beings, right? I’m disappointed with our city officials. I heard Dellums earlier today … It’s insane.”
But Johnson believes there is a greater awareness of the pandemic of police violence since the close-range killing of Oscar Grant. “And I think this is more obvious for me on many different levels – just observing this. I feel the passion and energy was slightly different from ‘09 till now. People have had a lot of time to sit with it. But people are really clear … who’s at fault.”
“What I noticed,” added Anita Johnson, “was people of all different ages, races, colors, creeds coming together to protest the verdict. People were obviously not happy with the involuntary manslaughter verdict,” she said. “People seemed to come together and understand [that] this was definitely bigger than that moment … [that] there was a lot of work that needed to be done as well. You had a lot of people talking about Oscar Grant and really remembering him and honoring his legacy.”
Johnson said there also seemed to be a clear understanding as to the larger issues of police and state violence that have had an impact on the Black community and all communities. “People [were] exploring the larger issues around police terrorism and how it affects and impacts our community. And that was really powerful to hear, people from, you know, everyone from Oakland – some looked like me and some looked like you – and really having … this solid message of solidarity. That for me was really important.”
“Dennis, it’s very clear … for me,” said Johnson, “the relationship between media and law enforcement.. Watching the media pick and choose the people they wanted to talk to, who might have had something from Foot Locker. Like this one male that I saw: He had a shirt on; he had his shirt that he was wearing, then he had his Foot Locker shirt wrapped around him. And they chose him out of a group of people that were obviously there for the right reason. That was really frustrating to observe that.
“I think the larger conversation is the way in which we must remember this is about community,” she said. “This is about us standing up for ourselves and demanding justice, not only for Oscar but for the numerous individuals who have fallen victim to police terrorism. I spoke with a young woman [who] said we need to remember this, this is what we need to remember, not what people are trying to make it about, you know, white and Black.”
Mayor Dellums, who was once one of the most influential and respected men in Washington, had a chance to rise and shine again – to stand with his wounded community and embrace their obvious suffering. To be the people’s representitive. But according to many community leaders and local activists, the mayor shrank from the challenge and shirked his ultimate responsibility.
Instead, they say, he became another law and order reactionary, with impeccable progressive credentials. The former federal lawmaker – and chairman of a powerful congressional committee who had been known as the master of the noble compromise – compromised his city and turned his back on his community.
“This is not an issue … of people coming from outside of Oakland,” Johnson concluded. “I think you should be allowed to come from different parts (of the Bay Area) and different states if you recognize that this is an injustice and we need to address it. I think that that is what I want people to remember. There are a lot of people that really organized – blood, sweat and tears – put a lot into making sure that people were mobilized … and aware of this particular situation of injustice.”