OAKLAND — Mayor Ron Dellums stood before a fuming crowd on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday night trying to restore calm after angry protesters rampaged through the streets of downtown Oakland, creating a surreal near-riot that lasted several hours.
"Number one, let's deal with each other with respect," Dellums told the crowd over a bullhorn, referring to the Jan. 1 shooting of Oscar Grant III by former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle — captured on cell phone and digital camera videos and replayed on national television stations. "I sense your anger, I sense your pain and your frustration."
Although Oakland has no direct jurisdiction over the incident, Dellums pledged that the city would investigate Grant's shooting "like any other homicide." Unappeased, the crowd of about 50 protesters erupted in jeers and boos at the mayor's words as he retreated into City Hall, demanding that Mehserle be brought to justice for the unarmed 22-year-old father's death.
About a dozen of the protesters then began smashing windows of nearby businesses and cars, including several city of Oakland vehicles parked near 17th Street and on San Pablo Avenue, just north of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza.
In response, police fired what appeared to be tear gas for the second time after a relatively peaceful demonstration began at the Fruitvale BART Station.
By the time a marching crowd left the Fruitvale station and reached the Lake Merritt BART
The protesters also threw bottles in the direction of officers, and as many as 200 police, including Oakland's Tactical Operations Team, were called to the scene. BART police and officers from the Housing Authority were sent in for backup.
Ken Epstein, assistant editor of the Oakland Post, who was finishing an article about Grant's death, watched from the 12th story of his office at 14th and Franklin streets as his 2002 Honda CR-V disintegrated in a roar of flames as the police continued to push protesters down 14th Street from the intersection with Broadway, smashing store windows and setting trash cans on fire.
The protesters were outraged that the officer involved had not been interviewed, he said, adding that he shared their anger. It was clear from the videotape that Grant was lying facedown and he hadn't been accused of a crime, Epstein added.
"I'm sorry my car was burned but the issue is very upsetting," he said.
As the standoff escalated, protesters chanted "murder, murder, murder" and were forced by heavily armed police toward Madison and 15th streets. It was at that time protesters set ablaze another car and smashed shop windows, including Creative African Braids, Oakland Yoon's Pharmacy and the McDonald's on 14th and Madison streets. Damage estimates were impossible to gather late Wednesday, as was the extent of the damage.
BART spokesman Linton Johnson said three stations got shut down by protesters Wednesday — 12th Street, Fruitvale and Lake Merritt.
Johnson said no one was seriously hurt at those stations and no BART property was damaged. "There will be beefed-up security and BART police on standby" at the BART board of directors meeting at 9 a.m. this morning, he said.
The protesters were "calling attention to something that is a systematic problem, which won't go away with an apology," said a 29-year-old who identified himself only as B. Rex. He was arrested and taken by police in a squad car soon after.