Oakland is quiet and battered today. It could have been much worse. It could have been a little better. Watching the riots develop last night, surfing through the local news channels, evoked memories of that surreal White Bronco chase in 1994. But this was a different kind of drama.
Regardless of the verdict, some element of violent protest was inevitable. Ironically, most of those arrested were white, suburban anarchist, rather than black activists. Some people look for an excuse to go off on anything.
Throughout the night, I found myself on the musical track, “Motor City ’s Burning” by John Lee Hooker. What a great, tragic song. John Lee laments the burning of his own city, and the injustice that led to it. That song was about the 1967 riots in Detroit – that summer saw widespread violence in many American cities.
I was thankful for the calming wisdom of Oscar Grant Sr. the grandfather of the victim. In a local TV interview, he repeated comments he made at the protest open mike. Mr. Grant’s comments were very thoughtful and pragmatic in a TV interview: “I believe he didn’t mean to shoot him, but still the verdict wasn’t fair. We wanted a 2nd degree murder charge.” Mr. Grant went on to appeal for peace to honor his late grandson in the TV interviews and at the protest scene. Good man.
When I was 18 I had a summer job that had me driving around with a veteran campus activist from the 1960s. I learned a lot from him. One of his nuggets of wisdom was this: “A sign of a true radical is if you’ve been in ONE riot. If you’ve been in more than one you’re not a radical, you’re stupid or self-destructive.” Yep, something to do only ONCE.
My close call came in Nashville in 1978 when Dick Gregory spoke at a massive anti-apartheid demonstration. Demonstrations occurred in coordination with a US-South Africa Davis Cup match at Vanderbilt. After meeting and talking with Dick, one of my idols at the time, my photog buddy and I saw and heard a loud disturbance. Then a cordon of cops in riot gear was moving quickly toward us, so we bolted for the car and drove back to Memphis. Something about their helmets, shields and batons give them a patina of invincibility. My motto: “Never throw rocks at riot policemen.”
Watching the so-called (suburban) “anarchist” face up to the lines of riot cops, spitting and cursing at them, brought back memories of the ONLY time I stood at the line of scrimmage of riot cops. A Nazi group was permitted to demonstrate in Ann Arbor one gray, March Saturday in the mid-1980’s. Demos were planned well in advance. That morning I got an early start for the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market. While passing by City Hall, I saw several undercover cops coming out of the basement, wearing a broad spectrum of civilian clothes. It was intimidating and comical at the same time. I quietly observed as they fanned out through the neighborhood, taking their positions.
When I returned to the confrontation scene a few hours later, I knew who most of the undercover cops were and stayed out of their way. And my motto of “Never Throw Rocks at Riot Policeman” had been operable for a few years by then. But these were Nazis and I’m a Jew. So, while the cops formed a protective semi-circle around the embattled Nazis, I couldn’t resist the compulsion to walk right up to the line. But I didn’t taunt the cops. I taunted the Nazis. And because they were Nazis and I’m a Jew, I was ready for anything, EXCEPT for a confrontation with the riot cops. The cops were sympathetic to the anti-Nazi protesters and the crowd sensed that. Only a few morons actually taunted the cops, and they just sat there and took it. As the Ann Arbor riot unit jogged back to City Hall in formation, one of them smiled at me like, “Yeah man, we’re all glad this is over.”
It is not surprising that many members of the East Bay black community suspect and fear the worst from the justice system. They’re entitled to feel that way. Yet, I’ll proffer a value judgment and say this was a thoughtful and fair verdict. Consider:
- A police officer, Johannes Meserle was convicted for a fatal shooting that happened on duty, “with enhancement of a firearm.” This is unprecedented. The latter qualification means that Meserle WILL face substantial jail time, likely between 5 and 14 years. Convicted “murderers” sometimes get less. Irresponsible leaders have been saying he’ll get off with six months probation – an example of a reckless and brazen lie that will only inflame people.
- A federal investigation has already been announced by the U.S. Department of Justice. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) was interviewed by local news stations last night and made references to her “close relationship with the Justice Department” and that she was trying to prompt a federal investigation. Then after the federal investigation was announced, Lee was giving another TV interview, parroting the same comments an hour later. Apparently, no one told her proposed investigation had been confirmed by the DOJ in between interviews.
No one would blame Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant Jr’s mother, for her post-trial comments that “My son was murdered . . . and the system slapped us in the face and denied us true justice.” Under the circumstances she’s entitled to feel as she does and say what she wishes. But other community leaders and even news organs should be more responsible. Mother Jones News ran the crassly sensational headline, “Oscar Grant Killer Found Semi-Guilty.” That story that accompanied it was a grossly irresponsible piece of journalism that ended with, “But he's a white cop and the jury apparently concluded that Grant was just black riffraff. The whole thing is just appalling.”
Race baiting s no form of healing. Mother Jones held itself to higher standards at one time. Oh, and the writer is a middle-aged white guy who lives in Irvine. Just the wrong form of inspiration for the white suburban anarchists who trashed our city last night.
There was a huge, unexpected, and beautiful ray of hope last night, which underscored the successful effort of educators and leaders in the Oakland black* community. A group of black teenagers confronted and surrounded a group of white suburban “anarchists” and screamed at them to leave Oakland , to leave Oakland alone, and to NOT destroy our town. I slept a little better than expected, knowing that this is the pool for the next generation of Oakland leaders.
*I REFUSE to use the word “African-American”. Many black Americans have no traceable relationship to Africa and find the term to be patronizing. The phrase seems to have gained more traction among Republicans who are struggling to be politically correct, and mask their racism. They were afraid to say “black” in the 60’s; and they still are. Then we have the issue of “economy of phrasing,” the bedrock of my editorial philosophy. “African-American” – 7 syllables. “Black” – 1 syllable. Save your breath – wax poetic!
Scott Prostermanis a music, film and dance historian in Berkeley. He worked as a disc jockey in Pittsburgh and Memphis, where he grew up and where it all began. He was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, thrived in the 70s, barely survived the 80s, and re-grouped in the 90s.