Saturday, July 10, 2010

How Oakland's Leaders Started a Riot

In April 2001, about six months into the Second Intifada, an Israeli human rights activist named Jeff Halper wrote an article called “How to start an uprising.” He explained how the Israeli government created the conditions for Palestinian unrest, which it then used to justify increased repression and oppression of Palestinian society. He described how they created a powderkeg by strangling the Palestinian economy and confining people in a virtual prison while stealing their land and portraying them in the media as the terrorists. Ariel Sharon then lit the fuse when he marched onto the Temple Mount with 1,000 soldiers, and the army (then controlled by the Labor party under Ehud Barak) added accelerant by firing a million bullets at nonviolent protesters in one week.

If Oakland’s political leaders didn’t read that article before last night’s demonstration in response to the Johannes Mehserle verdict, they should have.

Here’s how they started a mini-riot:

First they - not by themselves, of course, but as part of a system that is based on denying equal rights to Black and Brown people - created a tinderbox of high unemployment, political disenfranchisement and police harassment. Tony Pirone and Johannes Mehserle lit the match by killing Oscar Grant in cold blood and in plain view of dozens of witnesses; BART management and the DA’s office (no doubt in consultation with the mayor and other political leaders) accelerated the blaze by not charging Mehserle for weeks and keeping Pirone on the payroll for more than a year; the court helped by moving the trial to LA, where the judge allowed all the African Americans to be kicked off the jury and a number of whites with family members on the police force to be seated.

Okay, you might say that all of that was the result of long-term systemic injustice and not under the control of Mayor Dellums and police chief Batts and all the others. And you would be right, except that they have had a full year to offer African American youth in Oakland something that would make them part of the life of the city, they’ve gotten stimulus money that could have been used creatively to employ people who have never had a chance to start innovative community-based projects for health, literacy, training, entertainment – you name it – and they have not done it.

But here’s where they bear direct responsibility for dumping buckets of turpentine on an already smoldering fire.

First, they allowed, or even encouraged, the media to hype and hype and hype the threat of violence for weeks in advance of the verdict, and to film the cops practicing draconian riot-control tactics using dangerous new equipment bought with Homeland Security money. This sent a clear message to young people in the community that once again, they were guilty before they stepped out of their houses. The media whipped up the threat to white people into hysteria that led to every state office building in the Bay Area being closed down at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday. At 5:30 on Friday evening, during our Women in Black vigil near Montgomery St. BART in San Francisco, there were still cops prowling around, “just in case” of a demonstration (I’m not making that up – they told me that’s why they were there).

Next they played the nonprofits and the well meaning street peace groups off against independent activists and community people who don’t identify with those groups. The people doing the 6-8 rally were the good protesters, and everyone else were bad protesters. The nonprofits did their part by worrying so much about how to keep people from doing things that they didn’t give people anything to do with their energy. No one wanted to stand around listening to speeches for two hours. There was no march, so guess what people who wanted something active to do did? You got it – went to face off with the cops.

Then they brought literally tens of thousands of cops into downtown Oakland, armed to the teeth and packed in like sardines. They outfitted them with riot masks and face shields, giving them the look of an army of Darth Vaders. They huddled with each other, targeting people they decided were trouble. A friend of a friend was busted for no reason, on such a whim. This in itself would have likely been enough to spark some confrontations, because for young people who had just been told –again – that their lives are not valued by this society, the presence of this armed camp was a slap in the face. What I saw and filmed as I was wandering around was mostly young African American men ranting at cops who remained stone-faced and silent. Some of the young men were quite sincere in trying to explain how it feels to be in their situation. The individual cops were restrained, yes. They stayed calm and did not rise to the bait. But the mere fact that they were there was a provocation.

As soon as the permitted rally was over, they declared an unlawful assembly, announcing “Anyone who is in this area, regardless of your purpose, is in violation of section 409 of the Penal Code and is subject to arrest.” Of course, to me it sounded like “blah blah blah” but I heard it very clearly on the news. I ended up giving a ride to a guy who came out of work (he works at Earth Justice) at 9:00 p.m. only to find the BART station closed. Great way to get people to leave the area – close off their exit routes.

Whenever the police are engaged in crowd control maneuvers, there’s this thing they do that I’ve never understood. For no apparent reason, about 200 of them suddenly go running down the street, straight at the back of whatever crowd they’re (allegedly) trying to control. As I say, I have no idea what the purpose is supposed to be, but the only thing it actually accomplishes is to create panic. It also obviously pumps up the adrenaline of both cops and crowd, the exact dynamic that caused the tragic killing of Oscar Grant.

What should they have done instead? I’ll tell you. They should have kept most if not all of the cops at home, saving all those millions spent on overtime and paddy wagons and jail space for schools and summer camps and youth job programs. And any cops that were out there should have been in regular uniforms, not riot gear. If all those heavily armed robots had not been on the street, there would have been no looting and no windows broken. I can absolutely tell you that from experience, and from my limited knowledge of psychology.

Yes, there were people who came from Berkeley and San Francisco and probably Walnut Creek, and even maybe a few from Oakland who planned to loot and break windows. That’s what they do, it’s what they believe in. Some of them are even friends of mine, but in this context, they’re the disrespectful assholes who spraypainted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight” on the side of a building –NO IT’S NOT, GUYS! But even those people, or maybe especially those people, would not have bothered destroying stuff if there hadn’t been an audience or anyone to give them counterattack.

It’s true that if the cops and the City had not been out in force, if they had not been guilty of overplanning, and there had been one window broken, the media and the white pundits would never have let them hear the end of it. What the media and the pundits are not pointing out, now that it has passed with the tedium of a badly scripted play, is that all that overreaction did not prevent any looting or property damage. The businesses that wanted to avoid having their windows broken knew what to do and did it – they boarded up. I watched a Vietnamese restaurant throwing up plywood sheets over their storefront as their last customers walked out with bags of takeout. It took them about 20 minutes and doubtless saved them a thousand bucks and a lot of heartache.

Anyone who was seriously interested in looting would have known that any other street in the East Bay was a better bet for it that night than downtown Oakland. You could probably have knocked over banks in Fremont and Hayward that night and gotten away with it, since nearly every cop in Alameda County was in that ten-block area of Oakland. So the people who chose to break the windows of Footlocker and Subway in downtown Oakland did it because they wanted to provoke a reaction. If the police had not obliged them, they would have gone home and the less privileged kids who followed their example, whether lured by the appeal of new shoes or the excitement of the conflict, would not have been left to pay the price.

If Oakland's leadership, political and civil, spent as much time trying to prevent the periodic recurrences of the Rodney King-Sean Bell-Oscar Grant killings as they spend trying to prevent people's anger at injustice from overflowing in unproductive ways, we might not be doomed to keep playing out this pathetic scenario over and over again.

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