For weeks now, a riot of grandiose proportions was expected in downtown Oakland following the verdict in the Oscar Grant trial.
In preparation, cops went through simulation trainings and even got a military machine that creates ear-piercing sounds to disperse rioters. Business owners started boarding up their stores when it was rumored the verdict was coming early this week. The management of a Burger King in downtown Oakland went as far as to board up a location in a neighboring town, anticipating perhaps that the big riot would start in Oakland and spread like wild fire. The National Guard was put on standby as a last resort, city officials said.
The city was prepared for thousands of black and brown people to explode in rage. But it didn’t happen. The question today is where was the big riot?
Yes, people broke into a Foot Locker and stole Nikes. They also smashed into a jewelry shop, a beauty supply store, and Sears and took merchandise there. They apparently broke a glass door at the local Whole Foods. They threw bottles at the cops, put trash bins on fire and spray painted businesses.
It was an unnerving sight, yes. But a riot? That’s a stretch.
Admittedly, it’s a matter of perspective. One person’s riot is another person’s night of vandalism or someone’s idea of a protest. But it’s important to have a shared language about communal events like this, especially when it centers on race and police violence. Without that shared language we risk collapsing into absurd statements like the person who tweeted, “Foot Locker has been liberated” and we walk away understanding very little about what happened.
So what did happen last night? Why did we expect a huge riot that never happened?
For the last week, city officials, organizers and media outlets alike said concerns stemmed from the violence after Oscar Grant’s funeral last year. But last year’s outrage didn’t result in days of rioting. It didn’t turn the city upside down. It didn’t result in murders of innocent people. It was broken storefront windows, trash bins on fires, rocks thrown at police. It was painful, yes, but as Dori J. Maynard wrote at the time: “To me a riot is a city come to a standstill. It’s big and it’s terrifying, not only to the people who are there, but to most of the people who live in the city, if not the rest of the country.”
What created the anticipation for a big riot last night probably had more to do with the haunting memories of Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict and Detroit and Newark more than 40 years ago. Those images from the past of black and brown people—hurt, enraged, striking out— are still alive today, slipping into the backdrop of every new case of police violence. So the moment a trash bin is set on fire in Oakland, the unspoken warning call goes out: Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, riots! And with it the memory of dead bodies, of police in riot gear, of shattered glass and cities.
The memories remain fresh in our collective consciousness because the reality has not budged, let alone changed. This remains a country where black men are still dying, unarmed, face down, at the hands of police, and where we all know that communities have very little recourse.
With those memories and reality so firmly etched into the national conscious, it becomes impossible to predict with any accuracy what will happen when a verdict comes down in a case of a cop killing a black man. The past informs too much of what we expect.
Last night didn’t turn out to be LA in 1992 or ‘65. It was Oakland in 2010, which is to say not a riot but a mixed reaction coupled with nighttime looting and hundreds of armed police officers prepared for LA ‘92.
On the corner of 14th Street and Broadway, near city hall, last night, community advocates set up a microphone and speakers around 6 pm. The young and old called for peace, criticized the government and remembered Grant. An hour later, lounge music was played, leading a colleague to smile and note, “It’s almost relaxing.” Mark Curry, the actor from the show “Hanging’ with Mr. Cooper,” was spotted in the crowd and posed for pictures.
Two blocks away, a smaller group of people were in front of police cars, yelling at the officers. Lines of police officers stood in riot gear, guns in hands. One officer had his gun raised and pointed at the group. A man showed up with a speaker on this bike playing the song “F- -k da police” and people began rapping along and dancing. A boy, who didn’t look older than 9, banged his skateboard against a newspaper vending machine.
The riot that had been so expected didn’t happen with either of those groups. What came was looting and vandalism later as night began to fall and most people had gone home. The “looters” – as a local news station called them— made their way up Broadway running away from cops, breaking glass, and taking the opportunity to pick up jewelry and hair weaves. What they most wanted perhaps was justice of the economic variety. By 10:30 pm last night, a man had already been arrested in another town for selling Air Jordans with the price tags from Foot Locker.
Today, police said about 83 people had been arrested, though it’s not clear how many of those were for looting and vandalism rather than just not leaving the scene, which was the cause of at least 25 arrests. A news outlet reported that 75 percent of those arrested weren’t from Oakland.
But it’s hard to let go of the past. Hard to let go of the big riot idea.
So city officials praised their officers last night for showing restraint in the face of the riot that never happened and Oakland residents for not rioting. Media outlets have called it a riot and warned that Oakland might erupt again when Johannes Mehserle, the transit cop who killed Grant, is sentenced next month.
If last night is any indication, it’ll be another big riot that doesn’t happen.