Oakland Mehserle verdict protest becomes unruly


The crowd marching in protest to Johannes Mehserle's sentencing earlier in the day in Los Angeles zig-zagged its way through the city chanting "We are all Oscar Grant" and ended up in a residential neighborhood in East Oakland. Eventually police created skirmish lines and boxed in the group of protesters. They issued multiple orders to disperse, but after what police say were repeated acts of vandalism in which people kicked in fences and car windows and threw rocks at officers, authorities declared the area a crime scene and eventually moved in.

One officer was injured when he was struck by another patrol car. He is in stable condition. Police say a gun was ripped off an officer's gun belt. It was recovered in the crowd of protesters, but the incident turned what had been peaceful evening into a very tense night.

Protesters were loaded on to buses and booked as fellow protesters stood on the other side of the bus and shouted at police to let them go.

Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts praised police response to the demonstrations, saying officers did a great job of allowing the group to carry out their First Amendment rights to protest while keeping the streets safe. He said officers only moved in on the group after personal property was destroyed and safety became an issue.

Batts stressed that these types of demonstrations need to stop.

"I'm trying to send a message that is clear, you don't get to do this in Oakland, you have a right to protest, you have a right to have freedom of speech, you have a right to voice your opinion to voice your opinion and your discontent, you do not have a right to tear this city up," he said.

In all, 150 people were arrested, most facing charges for unlawful assembly, some for vandalism. Police say they range in ages, from young to old, and are from around the area. Many do not live in Oakland.

Protest began as peaceful rally

The unruly march was exactly what rally organizers did not want to have happen. They had hoped Oscar Grant supporters would have a chance to speak freely and think peacefully at a rally outside Oakland City Hall earlier Friday afternoon.

The outrage over Mehserle's sentencing was expressed through signs and words.

"We all need to unify for Oscar Grant and his family; we need to try to find some way to stay close to the family as a city and neighborhood and unite," Oakland resident Kareem Williams said.

But even early in the day, emotions ran high.

"We're not surprised and what everyone should know is that the anger of the folks who will come to this rally today is righteous and the other thing that folks should know is that we are not stopping now," protest organizer Cat Brooks said.

Oscar Grant's grandfather pleaded for calm, saying violence is what killed his grandson.

"You can't blame every police officer for what one cop did because if we didn't have them we'd be in a whole lot of trouble," Oscar Grant Sr. said.

But for many the case has been about so much more than Oscar Grant.

"They protect the guilty, they protect private property, but when one of us is murdered they protect the murders," one protester said.

Police were prepared for the worst

At a Friday afternoon press briefing, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts reported minimal criminal activity on Oakland streets, less than normal for any other Friday. Of 24 calls Friday afternoon, none have been related to Mehserle verdict.

"That is probably due to our increased presence," Batts said.

The increased presence included two police helicopters and numerous officers on the ground in potential hotspots, including Frank Ogawa Plaza outside City Hall. Many of those officers also had cameras.

Officers also identified trouble makers from the verdict riots, last July, and according to Batts, "Our officers have politely introduced themselves."

Batts said the proactive plan began taking shape last March, even before the trial and the verdict. It appears to rely on a heavy, though subtle, police presence with plenty of resources and reinforcements spread about the city, but out of sight in underground parking garages.

"Well, I guess this is not my first rodeo," Batts said. "I've been doing this for 28 years, I had plenty of experience in Long Beach, I lived and worked the Rodney King riots."

With officers in Oakland from as far away as Monterey County, Batts was confident early in the day but not relaxed.

"We won't breathe easy at any point in time," Batts said. "It is hours, now, until darkness, so we are waiting to see what happens after dark."

Businesses braced for unrest

Oakland city officials were urging businesses to stay open Friday, advising merchants instead to use "common sense" and calm employees and customers.

Many stores are staying open, but many more are closing early. Still others have boarded up their businesses, fearing another night of vandalism, looting and window smashing.

The Foot Locker on Broadway right across from Oakland City Hall was ransacked in July after Johannes Mehserle was convicted. The store was boarded up and closed Friday. But Mr. Pizza Man, which was not hit by looters even though it is right next door, is still open. The manager says he will wait and see what happens before deciding to fortify the windows and close early.

The venerable DeLaurer's Bookstore, which is also on Broadway, will stay open just like it did the last time. Owner Fasil Lemma says no one did anything to his store even though protestors smashed windows right next door.

"They love Delaurer's and we're friendly as well," Lemma said.

James Cho, owner of JC's Gold Teeth Jewelry, is hoping for more police protection this time. During the verdict protest during the summer, his store was attacked by a mob, his jewelry was stolen and his employees were assaulted.

"The city of Oakland, you know, they could so something better," he said.

At Hill's shoes, co-owners Pete Chatman and Brod Lewis couldn't agree more.

"They should bring them all the way down Broadway, not just in the area of City Hall," Lewis said.

"You only need one person in the crows to start something and once that person starts something, everybody else is going to follow, so we are hoping for the best," Chatman said.

Clorox, one of Oakland's biggest employers, sent an e-mail to its employees, asking them to stay at home Friday. And at about noon, the University of California told 800 employees working in its administrative building in at 11th and Franklin Streets to go home. Oakland City Hall also sent employees home early and shut down at 3 p.m.

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