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.

‘They Did Not Care’

One of the things that has preoccupied me this month, as I look back from its tail end:

Early the morning of New Year’s Day, a police officer with BART, the local rapid transit agency, shot and killed an unarmed man who was lying face down on a station platform. Even if you live clear across the country, you might have heard about the case. One element made it sensational: dozens of train passengers and other bystanders witnessed the shooting, and several, at least, were recording the scene on cellphones or other video devices. And one more factor added to outrage over what looks like an unprovoked shooting: the cop was white and the victim was black.

So, the past month has been marked by a slow and possibly botched investigation, the refusal of the police officer to answer any questions about what he did or why, multiple street protests that on one occasion turned into a riot in downtown Oakland, a murder charge, and today, finally, the first hint of an explanation for what the cop did.

The police officer, named Johannes Mehserle, was in court for a bail hearing yesterday. Beforehand, his lawyer filed a motion that described some of the events on the BART platform when the shooting took place. The story is simple: Mehserle and a fellow officer were having trouble subduing Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old they were trying to arrest for resisting arrest (one of my favorite circular-logic law-enforcement scenarios). Mehserle decided to use his recently issued Taser on Grant. He mistakenly pulled his semi-automatic pistol and fired a shot that killed Grant. Or maybe the story isn’t so simple: Mehserle reportedly told another officer that he shot Grant because he thought Grant was reaching for a gun.

The judge at the hearing granted bail of $3 million after noting that Mehserle’s story contained some serious inconsistencies. He’s not out of jail yet, and he has a prelminary hearing set in March. Sooner or later, he’ll be tried for some manner of homicide — either murder, as now alleged, or manslaughter.

The defense bail motion consists of nuggets picked out of about 700 pages of “discovery” — mostly interviews with witnesses and other police officers. It’s a document meant to show Mehserle in the most positive possible light so that the judge might see that justice might only be served by turning him loose on bail. My favorite tidbit in the motion’s Mehserle biography is this: “Mr. Mehserle enjoys music and has played the electric and acoustic guitars since age 14. He plays blues, jazz and rock and roll.”

The motion also tries to set the scene on the BART platform before the shooting. Other BART officers describe people screaming and swearing and advancing menacingly. Grant was cursing the cops and defying an order to sit until a BART officer struck him twice in the face. Here’s the situation as one officer recounted it:

Domenici stated she has been in other situations like Raiders games and has handled large amount of crowds. But the crowd on New Year’s Eve night was not a typical crowd. She stated everybody on the train was “out of control” and that it was “just too much.” Domenici stated the crowd did not care and was not concerned with authority figures. “They did not care what we represented as law enforcement figures. The people did not care that we were police officers.”

Domenici said, “You do what you’re trained to do and try to control the situation. But when people are not listening to you, knowing you are in full uniform and you are in authority, and they keep coming at you … I was afraid. I was afraid for my life and the officers’ lives. I kept thinking ‘I need to protect us.’ ‘I need to protect us.’ There’s all these people coming at us, not listening to us. I was afraid for my life and the other officers there. It just seemed like an eternity. We could not control the scene at all.”

I’m happy to say that except for the once of twice I’ve had an officer pull a gun and point it at me, I’ve had a mostly friendly, cooperative relationship with the police. I’ve talked to them as part of my work, I’ve been more than willing to do my part as a citizen and call them when I’ve seen a possible crime in progress, and I’ve never hesitated to call them when I need their help.

But I’m also acquainted with the fact not everyone has such a trusting feeling toward law enforcement. For lots of people–people who don’t live on a quiet little street in Berkeley, people who may be poor, who live in neighborhoods full of violent crime, who fit a certain suspect profile–law enforcement represents something else.

In fact, I can imagine there are those who see police officers, the representatives of law enforcement, as a class of people who believe their uniform confers authority and should command not only respect, but unquestioning obedience; whose default responses to resistance are threat and force; and who seem to believe that their own behavior ought to be tolerated as part of the price of keeping order.

[In case you’re curious: The Mehserle Bail Motion]