THE UNREST that engulfed downtown Oakland on Wednesday night was not a full-blown riot. But it was close enough that for a few minutes I was really frightened.
The protest started peacefully at the Fruitvale BART station, where Oscar Grant III was shot to death early Jan. 1. His shooting by BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle — captured in chilling detail on video and broadcast nationwide — ignited the outrage and frustration that erupted Wednesday night and tore through several city blocks. Grant's death just triggered the bitterness and a sense of unfairness that has welled up over time. Person after person said he was angry that no action has been taken against Mehserle, at least as far as anyone knows. The indignation of the crowd was like a smoldering volcano, and it erupted Wednesday night.
Protesters who broke away from the Fruitvale group and marched to the Lake Merritt BART station then down Eighth Street left in their wake a damaged Oakland Police Department car, overturned Dumpsters and decaying vegetables strewed in the roadways. The acrid smell of burning garbage and what someone told me was tear gas filled the air.
Outside the 12th Street BART station, at least 100 law enforcement officers surrounded about as many demonstrators. I was wondering how long Oakland police would remain calm as a band of demonstrators tried to provoke them, yelling insults and demanding their grievances over brutality and officer-involved shootings be heard.
Then police slipped respirator masks over their faces and formed a line along 14th Street and Broadway. My heart was pounding in my chest when a handful charged forward, to grab a demonstrator it turned out. I have stood feet from other police as they hooded and shackled two men on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and another time UC police looked like they would break the leg and arm of a protester as they handcuffed him. I was afraid of what would happen if Oakland police let loose. I ran with the pack of protesters, reporters and camera crews, a couple who had donned hard hats to protect them from the projectiles being hurled toward police. It was hard to tell whether police were pushing protesters down 14th Street toward Lake Merritt or pursuing them slowly — particularly the small group who went on a rampage and chanted "Murder! Murder! Murder!"
Like some kind of insane cat-and-mouse game, they taunted police by burning vehicles and smashing in car windows, one after another along 14th, 15th and Madison streets down to Lake Merritt and back again. The line of police stood just feet from the bright orange flames engulfing a car that had been set afire, creating a chilling silhouette. The owners of Creative African Braids came running out shortly after their store windows were smashed. The woman had a baby in her arms and a look of bafflement mixed with outrage on her face. Police with small canisters of tear gas strapped to their chests began chasing protesters in a Humvee.
The scene reminded me of the 1992 Rodney King uprising that broke out in Los Angeles. I was fresh back from Germany, and my blood froze at the sight of tanks rolling through the streets of a Southern California city.
In Oakland on Wednesday night, people chanted "We want justice!" — the same demand that sent rioters into the streets of Los Angeles.
"Every time someone is brutalized or killed by police, they are told to be calm," said a man who only gave his name as B. Rex when I asked him how to explain the destruction. It was a response to a systematic problem, he said. "If you don't get attention, nothing is going to change."
"This is not going to go away!" a man yelled at Mayor Ron Dellums, who had arrived with city officials and his bodyguard a couple of hours after the demonstration began to try to calm the situation.
"This is a peace march! Calm down," someone shouted to the crowd.
I don't know if there was anything that anyone could say to calm the crowd, who wanted nothing less than to see Mehserle in jail now during the investigations into the shooting. That is something beyond the power of Oakland officials. When Dellums turned and headed into City Hall after speaking, the violence erupted again. Protesters smashed the car window an Oakland Tribune reporter along with four City of Oakland vehicles parked outside I.B.'s Hoagies & Cheesesteaks shop on 16th and San Pablo Avenue. Windows at the eatery also were broken. Police finally fired tear gas, one canister soaring through the sky like a comet. As I walked along Broadway, patrons of the Van Kleef Cafe stared out from behind a metal gate lowered for protection, and at nearby Flora's restaurant customers were afraid to leave.
The young people are upset and have learned to solve problems with violence from adults, said Arnold Perkins, former Alameda County Public Health Department director who has aided the mayor on public safety issues. "They are a weather vane of what is happening in society as a whole."