January 9, 2009
Is the violence the work of agent provocateurs, or just the emotions of a population with very little to lose coming out in whatever form possible? Both scenarios seem entirely plausible:
Wednesday night’s riot in Oakland developed quickly like a spark into a wildfire, and I was right in the middle of it. It started with a peaceful demonstration at the Fruitvale BART station. Hundreds of demonstrators carried signs, shouted into megaphones and voiced their opinions…
Suddenly, a protester pointed at a police car. Someone started cursing at the officers who were standing behind it. The crowd surged. They rolled up a dumpster and set it on fire. It escalated. Someone else threw rocks; breaking the windshield. Traffic piled up and officers started shouting to the drivers, "Roll up your windows!"
The crowd surged several times. Once, CBS 5 photojournalist Patrick Sedillo was trampled. I was right behind him, and grabbed his coat before he hit the ground. We ran a short distance for cover.
About 3 dozen officers in riot gear and what appeared to be a SWAT armored personnel carrier lined up in formation. Officers fired tear gas into the crowd, and they quickly dispersed.
Protesters scrambled everywhere. They tried to regroup at Oakland Police Headquarters, but officers chased them off.
They reassembled at 14th and Broadway, near Oakland City Hall.
For the next hour, protesters gathered more and more strength; swelling to several hundred. Officers did the same, calling in more reinforcements in riot gear.
Demonstrators would occasionally disperse, but then instigators in the crowd who appeared to be anarchists called them back.
They wouldn’t identify themselves, but those instigators wore bandanas on their faces and seemed more intent on provoking confrontations and throwing stuff at police than truly having their voices heard.
"Come stand with us," they implored. "Stand up for Oscar Grant!"
The crowd would then return. And they were getting bolder. Some protesters screamed just inches from the faces of officers. The cops stood still.
Others waved photos of Grant and called the officers "pigs" and "murderers." Other demonstrators lay face down with their arms behind their backs to demonstrate what Grant was doing when he was shot in the back by a BART police officer.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the Oakland Police gave the signal, and they slowly marched forward. Most protesters scattered; damaging cars and storefront windows on their way. They set trash cans and at least two cars on fire.
Glass started raining down. Bottles, trash – anything protesters could get their hands on – were flying at officers. They kept marching. Officers mechanically stomped over a woman’s bike as they chased her off. Other protesters who stood their ground were hit with billy clubs.
Occasionally, officers would burst into the crowd to go after the folks throwing garbage at police. In a tactical maneuver reminiscent of my rugby days, the officers would send four officers sprinting into the crowd, tackle the suspected offender, then retreat with the arrestee back behind the formation.
Photojournalist Robert Moonan was nearly knocked over several times by these surging arrests, but managed to keep his feet and shot some amazing footage.
It was shocking to see, but the officers seemed to follow their training and were quite restrained, from my perspective.
To sum up the night, it was pandemonium that seemed uncontrolled, unplanned and unnecessary. Most of the protesters were not thrilled about having their peaceful demonstration thwarted by ugly behavior of a few. Seems to me most protesters were just mad. They followed blindly and got caught up in the moment.
The anger that spilled into the streets of Oakland was real. But the actions of the mob seemed surreal and, in the end, were counterproductive.