AMERICA WATCHED, with the Martin Luther King holiday approaching, as Oakland was portrayed as a city that embodies the antithesis for what the civil rights leader lived and died.

First, there was the grainy video footage by phone cameras that shows the horrific New Year's Day death of Oscar Grant. Second, there was the court of public opinion reaching a guilty verdict as if due process of law is not applicable to this case. Third, there was the absurdity of an officer from Napa shooting an individual from Hayward at the Fruitvale BART station resulting in destruction of property in downtown Oakland.

Some Oakland elected officials and community leaders have failed in their mission, opting instead for the sensationalism of inflammatory comments that will garner the attention of cable networks.

The protesters have been conveniently morphed into a single group advocating senseless violence and destruction. Obviously, not everyone involved in the protests condones the needless displays of mayhem. But how does throwing something through a window or burning an automobile serve the memory of Oscar Grant, especially when his family is calling for calm?

Unrepentant agitators — some don't even live in Oakland — help to further stain the city's image. Their cries for justice as they vandalize property does not mute the obvious — that while they accuse the BART officer of perpetrating unmerited violence against the innocent, that's exactly what they are doing.

Now that the officer accused of firing the fatal shot, Johannes Mehserle, has been arrested, will the needless violence stop? Judging by the actions following Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff's announcement that Mehserle had been arrested and charged, the answer may be, sadly, no.

There is simply no way to justify the vandalism that occurred Wednesday night at City Center Plaza. At the time of this writing, 48 businesses had been damaged as a result of two events.

Each act of violence along with the accompanying rabble-rousing remarks merely strengthens the defense attorney's case for a change of venue. Can anyone say Simi Valley?

From the start, protesters, elected officials, community leaders and even the observers have sought to condense this tragedy into something that makes sense. But it doesn't make sense, and it won't.

One of the more oxymoronic displays was the signs that read: "Justice for Oscar Grant." What does this mean? There can be no justice for Oscar Grant or his family. There is no verdict that can be handed down that will suffice as justice.

What exactly is justice? Is it fairness?

However justice is defined it cannot be served on a platter of emotion in the court of public opinion. I suspect that justice is a moving target that is best defined by whatever one's particular self-interest is in the moment.

But there is also justifiable frustration fueled by the knowledge that most of the protesters possess that had they been caught on camera shooting someone, it is not likely they would have been afforded the luxury to go free until the district attorney decides whether or not to press charges.

The manner in which the district attorney arrived at his decision to arrest Mehserle may have been the correct procedure, but it demonstrates tone deafness toward the raw feelings of the community, enhancing the distrust that already exists.

We must collectively be mindful of King's words in moments like this: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The slow, prodding pace of justice ultimately bends toward what is right. But that pace is much slower than most of us would prefer.

There would clearly not have been a Civil Rights Movement had someone decided to set an arbitrary date for when justice should occur, especially for those who would be forced to pay the ultimate price for freedom's cause.

This is the frustrating reality that all who have historically found themselves on the underside of life have had to confront, and it is what those who say they want justice for Oscar Grant must now face today.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and a columnist for Bay Area News Group-East Bay. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or leave a message at 510-208-6417.