A white police officer shoots and kills a young unarmed African-American man. Angry protesters fill the streets. By day, the crowds demanding justice are peaceful. Once the skies darken, violence breaks out. People whose anger has nothing to do with the killing use the occasion as an opportunity to unleash their own pent-up rage. They throw rocks, bottles of urine and feces at the police. Opportunists bust store windows and loot. An already tense situation escalates -- endangering more lives. The media coverage focuses on the rioting, which pulls focus from the victim and the ongoing larger issue of police brutality against African-Americans.
Watching the disturbing images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, I had a sense of déjà vu. Five years ago, it was Oakland in the national spotlight after the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. BART police responding to a fight on a train detained Oscar Grant, 22, and a group of his friends on the Fruitvale station platform. While the officers were attempting to restrain Grant, BART officer Johannes Mehserle shot Grant in the back. Several passengers recorded the act on their cell phones. The videos were broadcast and rebroadcast on television and the Internet created outrage not just in Oakland but around the world.
Hundreds of people took to the streets to demand that Mehserle be charged in the killing. Those peaceful demonstrations deteriorated into a free-for-all of looting, burning and vandalizing of downtown businesses. Police in riot gear were deployed. For two weeks after Grant's killing Oakland was sitting atop a powder keg. The tension and sometimes-violent protests continued after Mehserle was charged with murder and through the pretrial hearings.
In July 2010 Mehserle was sentenced to two years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter -- a lenient sentence that angered many people. After the verdict, there were protests in Oakland that started out peacefully. But again, at night violence erupted.
The Oscar Grant protests attracted a lot of disaffected, unstable people with their own agendas. Self-professed "anarchists" and others bent on destruction streamed into Oakland from other cities, rampaging through downtown and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to local businesses.
Eighty-three people were arrested the night of the Mehserle verdict on charges including vandalism, failure to disperse and assault. Three out of four did not live in Oakland, according to then-Police Chief Anthony Batts, who blamed nonresidents for inciting much of the violence.
In Ferguson, law enforcement, clergy, political leaders and some protesters themselves have blamed people who don't live in Ferguson for making the unrest worse. Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is now in charge of security after the local police department's bungled the over-the-top militaristic response to the initial protests, said armed agitators had shot at police officers. Police reported that dozens of demonstrators, some from California and New York, have been arrested.
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French has been posting regular updates on social media about the protests. In his Twitter feed, he uploaded a photo of a man from Chicago who he said was trying to incite a riot.
Ferguson, a small town of 21,000 people that most people had never heard of, has become a media spectacle. It is drawing people from many places for many different reasons. Some are idealistic young people who want to be part of what they feel is a historic moment. Much in the way that in the 1960s, young people flocked to the South to participate in the civil rights movement.
Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant's uncle, and his wife went to Ferguson to meet with Michael Brown's parents and offer their support. Johnson told KTVU that they also participated in some of the protests. "We are outsiders," he said. "We came for the simple fact that we felt justice was being threatened again."
The problem is, there are those whose sole aim appears to be to throw gasoline on the flames.
The challenge in Ferguson as it was in Oakland is: How do you prevent one group from wreaking havoc, while preserving the right of every citizen to practice nonviolent civil disobedience?
I've read news reports that blame the violence in Ferguson on young, angry African-Americans lashing out against racial and economic injustice, but that's just a part of the story.
An emotional event like the Michael Brown shooting and the intense media coverage surrounding it attracts many people for different reasons.
In recent days, there have been protests throughout the Bay Area in support of the Ferguson protesters, including in Oakland, Richmond and San Jose.
We must keep the pressure on Ferguson local and state leaders -- as well as the federal government -- to thoroughly investigate the killing.
We need to keep the focus on Michael Brown -- not the sideshow.
Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.