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Barack Obama's presidency

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Oakland Reels after Killer-Cop Verdict

By Dennis Bernstein
July 14, 2010

Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums had a chance to shine last Thursday after the verdict was announced in the murder trial of transit cop, Johannes Mehserle, for the Jan. 1, 2009, killing of a 22-year-old, unarmed black man, Oscar Grant.

Grant was shot in the back at close range, while handcuffed and lying face-down on a train-rail platform. Mehserle, 28, claimed he pulled the wrong gun and meant to stun Grant with a Tasor.

The killing was filmed on a cell phone and witnessed by a train-car full of witnesses. The killer cop was convicted in a Los Angeles court of involuntary manslaughter on July 8.

The fact that Mehserle who is white — with a history of violent behavior against black and brown people — could be sentenced to as little as two years in jail, or even given probation, did not sit well with the Grant family or their thousands of supporters who have vowed never to forget Oscar Grant.

Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, spoke out at a hastily assembled press conference in front of the Los Angeles court house after the verdict was announced.

"My son was murdered, he was murdered, he was murdered," Johnson said repeatedly. "And the law has not held the officer accountable the way that he should be held accountable."

"We as a family have been slapped in the face by a system that has denied us true justice," Grant's uncle Cephus Johnson said.

The FBI has since launched a federal civil rights probe into the case to determine whether Mehserle violated Grant’s civil rights by killing him. The manslaughter sentencing, originally set for early August, has been postponed until the fall.

After the verdict was announced, Mayor Dellums asked the people of Oakland to "show the nation" that Oakland can respond respectfully and peacefully to the verdict.

Dellums said on the street last Thursday night, “I don’t want anyone hurt. I don’t want anyone jailed. I don’t want the police to hurt anyone.”

But apparently a thousand cops from around the state were not going to treat the people of Oakland peacefully or with respect. Rather, Oaklanders were about to get another dose of police power.

State of Siege Mentality

Instead of standing with the people, Dellums stood with his police chief and together they turned the city of Oakland into a state of siege, criminalizing the entire community.

All those who took to the streets to protest the slap-on-the-wrist verdict – and who refused to scatter when the police announced, without warning, that the main legal protest had been declared an unlawful gathering – faced immediate arrest. The police were poised for action and well prepared.

Leading up to the verdict, they launched “Operation Verdict,” mobilizing over 1,000 cops from all over northern California to come to Oakland. They staged a highly published rehearsal “riot” at the Port of Oakland. They even set up a hotline for “tips, rumors and information” regarding protests after the verdict.

Mayor Dellums, a former 13-term congressman who was regarded as one of the most influential members of the Congressional Black Caucus, had a chance to stand with his wounded community and embrace their obvious suffering.

Instead, according to many community leaders and local activists, the mayor shrank from the challenge, becoming another law-and-order reactionary although one with impeccable progressive credentials.

Dellums joined in spreading alarms about “outside agitators” and became the cheerleader for the police. He also collaborated with the local news media in a sort of low-intensity fear campaign leading up to the verdict, encouraging local merchants to board up their store fronts and head for the hills when the verdict was near. 

Indeed, there were traffic jams for miles in all directions out of Oakland as soon as it was announced that the verdict would be made public at 4 p.m.

Meanwhile, hundreds of cops streamed into the city from police departments all over the region.

By sundown, hundreds of cops were marching around downtown Oakland, like it was an occupied land.

Oddly, while the main peaceful protest was declared an illegal gathering, a couple of dozen looters seemed to be given free reign by the police.

Dozens of police just stood around, some in plainclothes filming as the looters raided a Footlocker store and lit some trash cans on fire. Predictably, the local media’s coverage centered on “violent looters,” “outsiders” and “anarchists.”

Outside Agitator or Legal Observer?

At a press conference Friday, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said Molotov cocktails were used by "anarchists,” and that police headquarters had been hit by one.

”There's a time that we have to say that people coming from outside, … that impact our city, our town, the place that we live, that we work, that we play in, needs to stop," he said.

Chief Batts readily admitted restricting the legal protesters, calling it a "purposeful decision" not to allow the protests to expand throughout the city.
"I wanted to confine it to a small area, to allow people to…have their rights, but at the same time not let this city be overrun or impacted," he said.

Among the dozens of “outside agitators” and “violent troublemakers” arrested was noted civil right attorney, Walter Riley, whose law offices are down the block from the looted Footlocker.

Riley, a mild mannered and highly respected member of the Bay area community, works closely with Actor Danny Glover on various humanitarian projects.

He was heading back to his law offices in Oakland, with his son Manuel, when he was violently confronted by police, who shoved him around, roughed him up, and ultimately arrested him. Riley was held in custody for over 18 hours. 

I was monitoring local media coverage of the event when I saw Riley in handcuffs being led off to a police wagon. I called into the news line at KRON-TV, a local San Francisco station owned by the San Francisco Chronicle. The station had shown the pictures of Riley but apparently didn’t realize who he was.

A local producer and KRON host, Henry Tannenbaum, took my call. He greeted me warmly and told me he was a fan of my show “Flashpoints.” I told him that Riley had been arrested.

But Tannenbaum was not particularly interested, nor apparently were the KRON hosts who seemed singly focused on violent looters and burning garbage cans.

At one point, Tannenbaum told me he couldn’t be sure that it was Riley and not merely my misidentification. I explained that Riley had been on my show at least a half dozen times.

Kron never interviewed Riley nor reported his arrest contemporaneously throughout the evening.

I spoke to Riley on Monday after he was released from police custody. He said he wasn’t surprised by KRON’s decision not to report his arrest at the time it happened because it would have interrupted the “narrative” that all protesters were violent outsiders.

“It meets a narrative that somebody wants,” Riley said. “It meets a narrative that satisfies a certain kind of corporate media approach to what Oakland is, and it also unfortunately meets the narrative that the police department would like to have of Oakland, because it helps to develop this idea that this is this crime-ridden place and that we have to give all this support and carte blanche to police departments.”

Riley’s son, Manuel, witnessed the arrest.

“They grabbed my dad, and they definitely put the force of their billie clubs on him at least three times, right in front of me,” Manuel Riley said. “So in the midst of him trying to get into his door, into his office they decided that the correct response was to pop him with their billie club, knock him back and as he is getting up, do it again, and again just before grabbing him and arresting him and choking him.”

At least a dozen people interviewed for this article claimed the police were brutal and “aggressive” against the peaceful protesters who had gathered to protest the verdict.

“When they started the sweep, they were sweeping up all the people who were out there engaging in their legal right for civil protests and voicing their opinions,” said Riley, who was struck by how overtly the police were willing to stand by as the looters expanded their activities.

“One thing that is striking is that they stood there and watched the Footlocker’s windows being broke,” said Riley, “and they watched when people went inside…and they filmed it. There was a long line of police, wall to wall, down the street from it, and they could see it all.” 

Riley confirmed what I had heard from my reporters, that while protest marshals dressed in orange vests tried to restrain the looters, the police did nothing.

“Yes, there were people who were in orange vests trying to stop the looting, but the police didn’t come to help them,” said Riley.

“They even let the people who did the looting go through their lines, and they went further up Broadway, north on Broadway, through the police lines, who then set fires and did damage further up Broadway, another way of promoting their narrative.”

Chief Batts was asked at the new conference on Friday, why police didn't move in and arrest looters. He said his officers had been overrun by other protesters earlier in the evening, as they tried to stop people from trying to block an AC Transit bus from passing.

"You just cannot run into a crowd," said Batts.

As for Riley, he said he also worried about his son, “a young black man, who was standing right next to me – knowing how cops react to young black men and what happened to Oscar Grant.”

“Well, that’s funny,” said Manuel Riley, “At the same time I was worried about him and the aggression the police officers were putting on him. I was just trying to restrain them as well as helping him keep his balance, trying to … maintain some dignity and protect my father…

“I was caught off guard. We were already out there for something that was completely unnecessary, which was the killing of Oscar Grant handcuffed on his stomach. 

“The reaction of physical force against my father or any professional black man, or any citizen just exercising peacefully their right to gather,” said Manuel Riley, “was uncalled for.

“I was scared for my father, of course, caught off guard and attacked by a mob of officers: It’s not something you expect to necessarily walk away from. Especially when you are just outnumbered.”

At the end of the night, more than eight people were roughly arrested along with Riley.

The Post-Verdict Protest

Mayor Ron Dellums offered sweeping praise for the Oakland PD, saying he did not want a police force that was "oppressive" or "militaristic” but adding: “I am incredibly, extraordinarily, unwaveringly proud of the character displayed by this community.”

“I didn’t see it that way,” said Anita Johnson, a host and producer of Hardknock Radio. “I saw a tactical approach to hurting human beings, right?  I’m disappointed with our city officials. I heard Dellums earlier today. It’s insane.“

Still, Johnson believes there is a greater awareness of the pandemic of police violence since the close-range killing of Oscar Grant.

“I think this is more obvious for me on many different levels — just observing this. I feel the passion and energy was slightly different from ’09 till now. People have had a lot of time to sit with it. But people are really clear … whose at fault.”

Johnson said she saw “people of all different ages, races, colors, creeds coming together to protest the verdict. … You had a lot of people talking about Oscar Grant and really remembering him and honoring his legacy.”

Johnson said there also seemed to be a clear understanding of the larger issues of police and state violence – and the role of the media.

“Watching the media pick and choose the people they wanted to talk to, who might have had something from Footlocker, like this one male that I saw he had a shirt on … then he had his Footlocker shirt wrapped around him,” Johnson said. “And they chose him out of a group of people that were obviously there for the right reason. That was really frustrating to observe that.”

“This is not an issue…of people coming outside of Oakland,” Johnson concluded. “I think you should be allowed to come from different parts and different states. If you recognize that this is an injustice and we need to address it. …

“There are a lot of people that really organized, blood, sweat and tears, put a lot into making sure that people were mobilized…and aware of this particular situation of injustice.”

Dennis Bernstein based this report in part on interviews done for "Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at You can get in touch with the author at

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