"Justice for Oscar Grant" Part 1
The day the Johannes Mehserle verdict came down, we were ready. We'd had several meetings to plan our coverage and everyone knew their assignments. We were prepared for the worst and hoping for the best, as they say. What happened was somewhere in between. It was expected that Oakland would erupt with emotion no matter what the verdict and Lord help us if it came back not guilty because the common thinking was: Rodney King riots, part 2. Mehserle is the white BART officer who shot Oscar Grant, a black man who was lying face down on a BART platform New Year's Day 2009. The defense said it was an accident, that Mehserle meant to use his Taser. The prosecution said it was second degree murder. After 7 hours of deliberation spanning five days, the jury decided involuntary manslaughter.
I was stationed at Oakland City Hall with a live van. We were near the intersection of 14th and Broadway. It was there the crowds gathered shortly after the verdict was announced at 4pm. By then, most of the city buildings were empty, a lot of businesses were closing down early, and people were simultaneously streaming out of Oakland and into it.
We started going on the air live at 5pm and continued our coverage with updates until about 8pm. Big props to the photog, Jeremy, as it was a helluva cable pull and a lot of running back and forth to deal with the truck and our live position. He heard what I was saying during my stream of live shots and paid attention to the chaos so he could find interesting things and people to show, rather than just panning the camera around the masses mindlessly without rhyme and reason. When you're in a situation like that, you need a teammate that helps you rise to the occasion, and I was lucky. Plus he pointed out Mark Curry, "Mr. Cooper" of that show "Hanging with Mr. Cooper," who happens to be from Oakland and was there to support his city. And when I did my live Q&A with him, Jeremy managed to not make me look like Sprout next to the Jolly Green Giant.
Here are the things I remember about that night, and the things I want to address because what always happens when we cover a mass protest that turns into a few jackasses setting things on fire and looting is this: wackadocious, obnoxious people show up and start shit. With the media, with small businesses, with each other.
For the most part, 98% of the people I smiled at, waved at, said hello to, or talked to, were friendly, kind, courteous, pleasant human beings. Were they angry at the involuntary manslaughter verdict? Hells to the yes. Were they civilly protesting and exercising their right to peaceful assembly? Hells to the yes. Between the time the verdict was reported to the time the sun went down, everyone I personally encountered, and obviously I'm just one person and I wasn't everywhere at all times so I'm not testifying about the whole of Oakland, but everyone I personally encountered, was cool. There were a few heated arguments and some motherfather swearing in these verbal exchanges, clashes between this group and that group about how people should be feeling after the verdict.
After the sun went down, the douchery began. Looters broke the windows of a Foot Locker and started hauling out anything that wasn't bolted down. Shoes, T-shirts, shorts, socks. People were stuffing the stolen goods into their bags and down their pants. Some went ahead and used the store's plastic bags. How convenient! Then other people broke the windows of the Far East Bank. Others were setting dumpsters on fire. Later we found out that at least a dozen small businesses were similarly smashed in and vandalized. Taggers spraypainted the words, "Racism" and "Justice for Oscar Grant" on buildings.
And that's when Shoegate started. I picked up a sneaker for one of my live shots. To show the absurdity of these people who turned a powerful peace rally into what would inevitably show up in every newscast: images of people reinforcing the stereotypes about Oakland. One of the guys who was there for the peaceful protest, WITH HIS MOTHER, summed it up well, saying "What do we do? We loot, we fight, we break windows. We give the police a reason to arrest us and beat us up. Is that what Oscar Grant's mother would've wanted? Is that justice for Oscar Grant?" His point being: here we are to send a message from the people of Oakland, and then some hoodlums come in and eff it all up because they want a free pair of Nikes. Awesome.
So I'm being counted down to my shot, sneaker in hand, and then the hecklers start jabbering. The people who love to stand on the sidelines and talk about you, but not to you. "Oh look, she got a shoe." "Why she gonna show that? That ain't what this shit is about. Naw naw. F that." Or the other ones, who like to mock report, "We're live and I'm here with a shoe," giggle giggle. What they never seem to expect, and maybe it's because I'm short and Napoleonic and sick and tired of Bitch Ass people who open their B.A. mouths, but I always catch them off guard when I turn, look them in the eye, and engage. It's like, "Surprise! I have ears! I can HEAR YOU. And I have a brain! I will address your concerns and if you have something you want to say, then let's have a go and you can say it TO me." Suddenly we don't like them apples so much.
During that particular live shot, this guy with a British-esque accent starts trying to talk over me. Now, it's loud, it's chaotic behind me, and I'm trying to form sentences and cohesive thoughts to oh, REPORT WHAT IS HAPPENING. And that particular time, the peaceful rally had splintered and some idiots were taking advantage of the night and jacking things up and looting. But JabberJaws thought it would be helpful if he kept yelling, "Did you see how the police pushed down a man and he was bleeding from his head? This is not about shoes. You are biased. You're supposed to be neutral." I don't quite remember what I said but I decided to incorporate JabberJaws and let him say his piece but he never once answered my question, "What does stealing shoes have to do with justice for Oscar Grant?" JabberJaws would only keep asking questions and repeating his same talking points. Genius!
To Be Continued...with video.