On July 9 at around 2:30 p.m. the announcement was made that the official verdict on the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the transit pig who shot Oscar Grant in the back and killed him, would be released that day, and immediately people started gathering at the major intersection of 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland, California. At about 4:15 p.m., the verdict of involuntary manslaughter was released. This is the lowest charge that the jury could have chosen to give Mehserle, and as expected, the people of Oakland were pissed. Our comrades attended the protest, equipped with fliers emphasizing that the movement needs to be elevated from rioting into conscious revolutionary struggle generally, and national liberation struggles specifically, if people want to stop the murders of more Oscar Grants. The flier suggested Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth and Black Panther Party original documents as good starting points for a successful transition into a movement to truly end police brutality.
Government employees in the downtown area were under a mandatory evacuation, and business people were high-tailing it out of there as fast as the freeways could take them. The state and the media had hyped it up to be L.A. in 1992. That was far from the case. Still many large buildings were boarded up 20 feet high for days; others were frantically drilling in plywood as protesters converged. The hype was so extreme that even one discount grocery store located a mile from the epicenter of the protest boarded its windows as soon as the jury went into deliberation - as if a crazed mob would travel so far to loot their expired yogurt.
The City of Oakland set up a sound system in front of Town Hall that was supposed to serve as a speak-out, but was just playing funk for a few casual dancers, sometimes so loud that it seemed like they were attempting to drown out the actual protest. The rest of the 1000 people were gathered around a much smaller sound system in the adjacent intersection, having their own speak-out. The soap box ran from about 5-8 p.m., and the "don't tear up Oakland" position that was emphasized so strongly at past protests seemed to have taken a back seat on the collective agenda of the group. Most messages were that this verdict is bullshit, the system isn't going to give justice for Oscar Grant, and we need to organize. There was also a strong recognition that Black people were the targets of this violence and of the need for Black nationalism.
The typical divisive tactics that we had reported on at previous at Oscar Grant movement events was also present. One man insisted on addressing "just the Oaklanders" and advised the Black youth to not get "pimped" by "outside agitators." The response from the crowd was cold. The next speaker said he was also asked to speak on "outside agitators" and went on to point out that Martin Luther King, Jr. was called an "outside agitator" everywhere he went in the South. He said that no one is "outside" the struggle for justice, and went on to point out that the only people who are coming from outside the movement to cause problems were the pigs. This brother received enthusiastic cheers.
This theme was one that had been playing out for weeks within the organizations preparing for the verdict. Reportedly, non-profit leaders and those working with the City government were spearheading the line that the Black youth of Oakland couldn't rebel without white people from the suburbs telling them what to do. This racist bullshit had already been struggled against for weeks leading up to the verdict. While some in the crowd were dismissive of white speakers, telling them to get down, ultimately it was the content of what was being said that the protesters recognized. While there was a strong contingent of self-proclaimed locals saying "be cool" and using the local slang to attempt to create divisions, their effect seemed minimal.
During the speak out, pigs were lined up several blocks from the protest, controlling foot traffic and warning "unsuspecting" bicyclists of the "danger" ahead. At 8 p.m. the soap box was shut down by the City and everyone was hanging out in the streets, occupying several blocks of Broadway. After about thirty minutes, a trash can was lit on fire but protesters put it out within a minute. Occasional bottles were thrown at the pigs, and when any excuse was given to the pigs to attack, many of the protesters would run like hell. The pigs were surprisingly non-reactive, however, and would just occasionally change positions, pushing the protest north on Broadway. This didn't prevent "Fuck the Police" from being the most popular chant of the night.
A Foot Locker was looted, and many people made out with fresh kicks and jerseys. A group of three to four protesters started guarding the Foot Locker and tried to appeal to the protesters to not loot, which they said would prove that they are just ignorant Black people and would prove "them" right ("them" presumably being the white legislators and City officials who they hope to ask for justice). On the other hand, the guards correctly emphasized that there are Black organizations to get involved in to deal with these issues, and that looting the shoe store won't stop killings. If there was a strong Black vanguard in the area, MIM(Prisons) would have worked with them at this event rather than promoting study and building of new cadre groups. That's not to say there aren't a number of small, semi-underground formations that are worth working with, but none of them wield the power or influence to have led the rebellion.
The Black Panther Party asserted the need for a vanguard to organize and lead the masses down the most effective path to power in The Correct Handling of a Revolution, following the uprisings in 1968 across the country. It states, "There are basically three ways one can learn: through study, through observation, and through actual experience." They go on to say that the Black community generally learns through observation and participation. Unfortunately, the lessons put forth in this article were not observable at the demonstrations this year or last, indicating that study is needed. While the fires, graffiti and smashed windows grab our immediate attention, it is the serious organizing efforts that will allow the Oscar Grant movement to have a lasting effect. While it is hard to quantify these efforts now, the mood of the speakers indicate that despite the lack of a vanguard organization leading the rebellions, many are thinking and moving in this direction.
Over the next few hours the crowd gradually dwindled, smoke bombs and fire crackers were set off, windows broken, over a dozen dumpsters and trash cans lit up, graffiti was sprayed, garbage cans tossed into the transit stations, as the crowd was constantly pushed north, sectioned off, and divided by the pigs. At one point the street lights went out and three gun shots were fired from an unknown source, but apparently nobody was hit. Unlike the usual large demonstrations in the Bay Area, many protesters tonight were armed, but attacks on police were limited to rocks, bottles and, according to police, a few molotov cocktails. By 11 p.m., the protest had reduced to small groups launching hit-and-run tactics on stores. Their movement seemed guided by the police, who vastly outnumbered them. At the end of the day, there were 78 arrests.
Although our comrades were not on the front lines for the whole showdown, a tazer was only heard once, and while there were regular explosions heard, no reports are claiming that they were caused by the kkkops. Overall it seemed like the pigs were on their best behavior (for being stinking fucking pigs, anyway). This was clearly unexpected behavior by most protesters, who were constantly running at the slightest sign of action, only to return a few minutes later when they realized the tear gas and rubber bullets had yet to arrive. Activists were expecting the worst, including the use of the a $675,000 long-range acoustic device (a machine that produces sound waves that can cause permanent damage) that the Oakland Police Department recently purchased. Again, it never showed up.
The pigs outnumbered and outlasted the protesters. When the rebels had been reduced to a couple hundred, the pigs still had reinforcements coming in and surely more on standby. The fact that there was no need to resort to severe repression demonstrated their control over the situation. Evidently, they were willing to sacrifice a few downtown businesses as a pressure release. The next morning, the Oakland police chief was celebratory about their ability to control and contain the rebellions.
Mehserle's sentence is due out in November, and could range from 14 years in prison to probation. We expect the day of sentencing to re-ignite these protests all over the state.
Notes: Prisoners write us for a copy of "Oscar Grant: organization, line and strategy" printed on the anniversary of the initial rebellions following Grant's murder.