OAKLAND — Nearly 1,000 people filled the street in front of Oakland City Hall on Thursday evening. They gathered to vent, pray, and ask how a Los Angeles jury could find Johannes Mehserle, a white former BART police officer, guilty of involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man from Hayward, in the back.
At first, the crowd was electric, but not volatile. To respond with violence would dishonor Grant's memory, they said. Hundreds of Oakland police officers watched and endured taunts, spits and rocks from a small group that tried, but failed, to incite other demonstrators. The officers, to their credit, did not retaliate.
But something happened when the sky darkened. And once again, Oakland made national headlines for all the wrong reasons. The earlier images of peaceful assembly were quickly exchanged for video of smashed windows, looters with boxes of shoes, and fires in trash bins.
From the Dec. 16, 1773, Boston Tea Party protest that helped found our nation to the 1960s
civil rights marches in the South, history has shown that it doesn't take much for rallies to escalate into trouble, whether it's the protesters or the police who spark the violence.
But the agitators who spurred the window-smashing rampage through downtown Oakland last year and again last week had their own agenda, and it did not involve justice for Grant.
As business owners boarded up their windows and surveyed the wreckage of their stores Friday morning, Oakland police confirmed that all but 19 of the 78 people arrested for parole violations, arson, property damage or failure to disperse came from outside Oakland. In fact, 19 live outside the Bay Area and 12 were from other states.
So why were they here? Is it no longer possible to stage a demonstration or protest without outsiders showing up to cause trouble?
Robin Einhorn, a professor of history at UC Berkeley, said little has changed since the 18th century, when colonists demonstrated against taxation without representation. It didn't take much to turn a peaceful demonstration into an ugly scene.
"Anything can cause crowds to go haywire," Einhorn said. "In 1886, Chicago, it was the Haymarket riots. It started with a peaceful demonstration. The mayor was there, it was all good and he goes home. Then somebody, they don't know who, threw a bomb at police."
The ensuing riots sparked by that action lasted days and resulted in the deaths of six police officers. Several anarchists were hanged, even though the authorities were never sure who threw the bomb.
"People were watching speeches — of course, it might have been incited through rabble-rousing speeches — but the point is, anything can cause something to become violent," Einhorn said. "This is not a new thing."
What has changed is the way people far and wide find out about events. Many people today predominantly communicate via social networks, YouTube, text messages and e-mail.
On Thursday, people in the Oakland crowd were incessantly texting, and hooligans who smashed store windows were stopping to snap photos and record videos of themselves to share with their friends.
Michael Walker, a member of the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, one of the groups that organized Thursday night's post-verdict rally at 14th Street and Broadway, called the peaceful gathering of young and old "monumental." He didn't condone the property damage, but he wasn't surprised that a small group of agitators was later able to excite some in the crowd, given the involuntary manslaughter verdict Mehserle received.
"People are emotional, agitated, so they are easy to influence. It doesn't take much to egg things on," he said.
"If there are large groups and if there are some who want to be (contrary), no matter how few, they will do what they intend to do," he added.
Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid was at the rally, standing near a couple of young men who said they had driven all day from Oregon to be there. They were wearing red and blue bandannas and were weighed down by heavy backpacks, clues that police used to identify members of anarchist groups that sparked the vandalism, Reid said.
As the much of the crowd started to leave before dark, he saw one of the men throw a bottle with liquid in it at the window of a Walgreens pharmacy, but the plate glass did not break.
"There were people who were there to take advantage of the situation, who were hellbent on destruction," Reid said. "There certainly were agitators who came into our city and incited some of the young Oakland folks to engage in some of the same activities they engaged in."
'A long time to recover'
Once people get caught up in the emotions of the protest, they often don't think about the consequences, Reid said. He watched that happen in his own neighborhood in Cincinnati in April 1968.
"When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, there were riots all over the country," he said. "(African-Americans) have a tendency to destroy our own communities and it takes such a long time to recover."
That didn't happen in black communities in Oakland and San Francisco back then, largely because the Black Panther Party went to the communities and urged people to stay calm, said Billy X Jennings, the party's historian.
"The Black Panther Party did not believe in rioting," Jennings said. "It was formed after the Watts riots (in Los Angeles) and most of the destruction happened in the black community. So one of the first party policies was to forget mass rioting in the streets because it is so unorganized and properties and homes are destroyed."
He said he's not against anarchy, but some groups advocate destruction, regardless of the situation.
"Some people might have been bent on revenge and destruction, but that's not the way you do it, because it's short-lived and misguided," Jennings said. "You might think you are striking a blow against the system, but you might be destroying some small-businessperson's livelihood. Just because you are mad at the system doesn't give you the right to tear up property."
'Wild, ruffian behavior'
Paul Cobb, publisher of the Oakland Post newspaper, was a student when he joined King on the Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama in March 1965. He is amazed by what now goes on at demonstrations in Oakland, and how a few outsiders can hijack a cause for their own enjoyment. They care nothing about Grant, they just want to get on TV so their friends can see them smashing things up, he said.
"The nature of the protest hasn't changed, but the people who are organizing have changed," Cobb said. "In the '60s it was usually clergy, or community leaders. They didn't need to destroy anything, they wanted to peacefully assemble.
"The people who (cause trouble in Oakland) are poachers. They say, 'Hey let's go have some fun, let's hustle this black protest and show our friends how we can really (expletive) things up.' There's a lot of wild, ruffian behavior."
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said he was proud of the peaceful actions of most Oakland citizens and the way police conducted themselves in the hours after the verdict was announced. But he said that such openness allowed some people to exploit the situation.
Walker, of the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, said such trade-offs are to be expected, and he said the police were smart to contain it to a small area and let it play out.
"The stuff that happened later aside, what we were able to do between the hours of 4 and 8:30 was monumental," Walker said. "More than 1,000 people flooded the streets "... young and old alike, regardless of generational barriers. We can come together as people and force change."