Today’s Red Herring: Oakland’s ‘Outside Agitators’

Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, along with other city officials and community leaders, wants to find someone to blame for the vandalism and looting that followed the verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial last Thursday night. And they’ve found someone: outside agitators and faceless anarchists. Friday, the day after the mini-riot that followed an emotional but peaceful post-verdict gathering outside City Hall, Batts made a big show of breaking down the hometowns of the 78 people arrested. The police said 19 of those arrested were from Oakland, 28 were from the Bay Area outside Oakland, 19 were from elsewhere in California, and 12 were from out of state. “There’s a time that we have to say that people coming from outside that impact our city, our town, the place that we live, that we work, that we play in, needs to stop,” Batts said.

That’s a good line, especially for a guy who just moved here from Long Beach, but it’s meaningless. For one thing, it ignores how easy it is to turn the arithmetic around: You say three-quarters of those arrested came from out of town? I say three out of five of them came from our own backyard. You say there were dozens of anarchists armed for trouble? I say that of the 78 arrests you made, 66 were on misdemeanor charges, mostly failing to obey police orders to clear the area.

Batts and others also ignore that people communicate with all sorts of little devices, including cellphones with video cameras, and that lots of people from lots of places heard about and saw tape of Mehserle, a young white transit cop, shooting and killing a young, black, unarmed train passenger, Oscar Grant. The shooting, and law enforcement’s initial ham-handed response to it, enraged many–even people who live outside Oakland. News travels, and people travel, too. The killing of Oscar Grant was not an Oakland tragedy, though it was played out there.

The biggest flaw in trying to point the finger elsewhere for the troubles that have attended the Grant case is that it tries to whitewash the issue of who was actually out on the street smashing and grabbing. Check out pictures of some of the looting that broke out Thursday night--here’s a slideshow from the Oakland Tribune–or read the accounts of what happened out on Broadway. One business owner the crowd victimized told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I feel like they were familiar with the store. They knew what they wanted.”

Let’s disperse the mystery about why the hell-raising happened. It wasn’t a conspiracy, and it wasn’t a bunch of out-of-towners out to ruin Oakland. It was a crowd of thugs, opportunists, and recreational miscreants from a variety of ZIP codes and demographic profiles seizing their moment–again. Beyond the destruction and stealing, the hell of it is that this is what most of the media–meaning me and people in my line of work–end up focusing on. That, instead of the fact the thousands of people who feel wounded by the case and are doubtful of the quality of justice the system is handing down are trying to deal with the disappointment and anger in a contemplative and constructive way.

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