Not all Oakland residents are upset by the broken windows, dumpsters set ablaze, spray-painted graffiti and looted merchandise that characterized a small nighttime riot hours after former BART officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter July 8 for killing an unarmed train passenger.
Earlier in the day nearly 1,000 people took to the streets of downtown Oakland to protest the verdict peacefully. Mehserle, who is white, was charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a black man.
In the weeks before a Los Angeles jury announced its decision, many Oakland politicians, faith organizations and nonprofits joined Grantâ€™s family in discouraging a violent response to the verdict. Yet the peaceful protests organized by both the city and activist groups turned chaotic when some began throwing bottles at police.
By the time authorities had quelled the uprising, debris and glass littered several blocks between the 12th and 19th Street BART stations, and some 50 businesses had been vandalized.
The Oakland Police Department reported Friday that 78 people were arrested, the majority for misdemeanor charges. Only 19 of them were Oakland residents. The rest were from out of town, police said.
Many who live in Oakland have expressed outrage to what they see are outsiders coming into their community to cause trouble.
But Jevon Cochran, a 20-year-old student at Laney College in Oakland, says he believes that the looting and vandalism that occurred were appropriate responses to the verdict. Cochran and other members of the Black Student Union at Laney were invited by organizers to attend a press conference held at Youth Uprising June 2.
Mayor Ron Dellums and Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts urged peaceful protesting, but Cochran said his group was concerned about ensuring a nonviolent police response.
In an interview with the Beat on Friday, he told reporter Tashina Manyak that something had to be done after Mehserle was acquitted of the second-degree murder charge.
Tashina Manyak: What were your feelings when the verdict came down?
Jevon Cochran: Like everybody else from Oakland and probably all around the country I was disappointed and angered by the verdict. They charged him with involuntary manslaughter, which implies that [the shooting] was an accident. The jury bought into the argument that [Mehserle] intended to pull out his Taser and somehow shot Oscar Grant accidentally. But when you shoot somebody whoâ€™s laying stomach down on a platform with his hands behind his back â€” thatâ€™s not manslaughter, thatâ€™s murder. And thatâ€™s what he should have been charged with. If the tables were turned and that was me or any of my friends and we had killed a police officer we would have been arrested and put in jail from day one and charged with murder. We would have suffered the consequences for it and thatâ€™s what should happen with Mehserle.
TM: Thereâ€™s a lot of hype right now about anarchists. Do you yourself identify as an anarchist?
JC: No, no Iâ€™m not an anarchist.
TM: Is it accurate to say there were a lot of people who identify as anarchists coming into Oakland that are not actually from Oakland?
JC: I mean there were a lot of people out there and I donâ€™t think itâ€™s fair to say that a lot of the people, anarchists or not, were not from Oakland. You canâ€™t tell by looking at someone where theyâ€™re from. I live in West Oakland and I know anarchists that actually live in my neighborhood. So Iâ€™m not going to speculate on where people are from.
TM: A lot of vandalism occurred last night; were you a part of any of that?
JC: I participated in the protest. I was there all night and I almost got arrested. We attempted to have a break away march and we got stopped by the cops. They threw flash grenades, or whatever, and they were arresting people. And I was there for all of that.
TM: Was there anything that instigated [the police response]?
JC: I mean, I canâ€™t say what instigated the police. I couldnâ€™t see everything. I donâ€™t know people could have instigated the cops. But I think that thatâ€™s not the most important thing. The cops and the city knew that people were going to be angry about this verdict and I believe that people have the right to be angry about it and we have the right to protest. And if they didnâ€™t want violence, if they didnâ€™t want property destruction, they should have given us justice like we demanded from the beginning.
TM: Do you think that vandalism and violence are justifiable ways to protest?
JC: Hereâ€™s my take on the issue: if you want to talk about vandalism, people are going around like â€˜oh, people are destroying our communityâ€™; the places that they targeted were like Foot Locker and Sears and other corporate spots. These are not small businesses, these are corporations and the people that run these corporations do not in any way benefit or seek to benefit the people of Oakland. They are tied to the oppression and exploitation of people in Oakland and so if people are going to get angry and smash their windows or set their stores on fire Iâ€™m not going to defend [the corporations] and stand in the way of that. Theyâ€™re not for the interests of my people. If the non-profits and the preachers want to defend Footlocker and Sears, they can do that; Iâ€™m going to fight for justice. The only person Iâ€™m going to be defending is Oscar Grant and everybody like Oscar Grant in our community that falls victim to police violence.
TM: could you tell me about what the ultimate objective is when people go out on the streets and engage in vandalism?
JC: I canâ€™t speak for everybody, but Iâ€™m sure the one thing everybody there had on their minds was justice â€” the cause of justice. From the very beginning our only demand was simple: that this police officer be treated just like every other citizen. Like I said before, if that was me, or some other young black kid from Oakland, and we murdered somebody, we would be held accountable, we would be brought up on charges of murder, convicted and we would serve our time in jail. And just because Mehserle is a police officer that does not give him the right, he does not have a license to come into our community and abuse and murder my people. So thatâ€™s all weâ€™re asking for is a simple demand of justice. And I think thatâ€™s what everybody was fighting for last night. The state justice system let us down. This crime was committed by Mehserle and weâ€™re going to continue fighting. Itâ€™s not over.
TM: Itâ€™s definitely not over; the sentencing hasnâ€™t happened yet. Do you think what happened last night â€” broken windows, fires, etc. â€” do you think those specific actions will put pressure on Judge Perry to give a stiffer sentence to Mehserle?
JC: I hope so. We can look back on history to shed light on what can happen now. In 2009, a week after Oscar Grant was murdered, people took to the streets and people raised holy hell. Downtown Oakland went up in flames. And it was because of that and only that, that Mehserle was arrested and brought up on charges of murder. I think before that, the state apparatus had no intention of charging this police officer. But the people of Oakland, we stood up and we fought back â€” just as we did last night. And I expect that the powers that be are going to listen [â€¦] Martin Luther King said that the riot is the language of the unheard. Last night the people of Oakland were heard. And the justice department stepped in, so hopefully Judge Perry gets the message too. When we say ‘no justice, no peace’ we mean it.
TM: There has been a lot of criticism. People are saying, â€˜Why are you tearing up Oakland to get justice for Oscar Grant when there are so many people in Oakland that support thatâ€™? What would you say to those people?
JC: I would first just direct people to history like I said. The fact remains that in 2009 there was a riot, there was a street rebellion, and that was the only thing that got Mehserle arrested and charged with murder and if it wasnâ€™t for that, I donâ€™t even think we would be talking about justice right now. And second I would point out that people keep talking about how weâ€™re destroying and tearing up Oakland; the businesses that were targeted were corporate businesses [â€¦] the people that run these corporate spots do not come from Oakland, they do not benefit our community. A friend of mine had a good quote when the media was criticizing the so-called looters who left Footlocker with shoe boxes in their hands. She said all they were doing is getting shoes for the same price Footlocker pays people to make them; and thatâ€™s how I feel. If people want to destroy Footlocker’s property Iâ€™m not going to stand in the way of it. Iâ€™m never going to defend the oppressor.
TM: Some people who took shoes tried selling them. Doesnâ€™t that seem a little more on the self-interested side rather than fighting for justice?
JC: Well what makes people think that young black kids in Oakland donâ€™t have the right to have shoes and have money? Iâ€™m never going to criticize people who take what they canâ€™t have. Itâ€™s not their fault that they live in a society where they live in poverty and they canâ€™t afford these kinds of things. And so when they go directly to the oppressor and they steal, thatâ€™s what I call poetic justice.
TM: The OPD has said that of those arrested, about 75 percent were from outside Oakland. What is your take on that?
JC: The Oakland Police and BART Police have been on a mission from the beginning to misrepresent and discredit protesters demanding justice for Oscar Grant. I know a lot of times they said the same thing, that there are all these people coming in from outside Oakland and rioting. But the people I saw going into Footlocker, those were black and brown people from Oakland that were busting those windows and setting stuff on fire because they were angry.
And there were white people who were anarchists or whatever you want to call them, but the police in Oakland and the media have no right to just assume that people are not from Oakland. Oakland is a multiracial, multi-ethnic community and a lot of those people could have been from Oakland. And even if they werenâ€™t from Oakland, and were so-called â€œoutside agitatorsâ€? I donâ€™t buy that argument. [â€¦] The only people I consider outsiders in this are the people on the wrong side of the fight and thatâ€™s the police. These people come from places like Napa and Lafayette and Walnut Creek and they come into my community and they abuse and assault my people. Then they call our brothers and sisters outsiders â€” no, theyâ€™re the outsiders.
TM: So youâ€™re saying that even if theyâ€™re not from Oakland, the fact that theyâ€™re engaging in this fight makes you stand in solidarity with them?
JC: Right, we identify with them way more than we identify with police officers who victimize and abuse us. If people are coming from out of Oakland, theyâ€™re coming as our allies who for whatever reason, whatever abuse and oppression theyâ€™ve faced in their lives, identify and stand in solidarity with oppressed people.
TM: Some of the graffiti said some things like â€œOakland is our playground tonight.â€? What do you think about that type of attitude?
JC: That sounds like an accurate description of what took place last night and what should be our idea in life. Oakland is a place where because there is a majority of minorities and so many people live in poverty, itâ€™s really a city of oppression. I think statements like that are testaments to how empowered people feel when they act together. Oakland is our playground and weâ€™re boycotting this cycle of oppression and we can actually live together mutually and have fun living life.