The day Oakland won’t soon forget kicked off with a text message.

“Mehserle verdict at 4 p.m. today,” it said. It was 3 p.m.

After showering, I walked from my apartment at 14th and Lakeside to TechLiminal, where Oakland Local and Bay Citizen had set up an operations base to report on the aftermath of the verdict — and Oakland’s reaction. I stopped along the way to grab a tuna & avocado sandwich from Subway. The store’s plate glass windows were completely covered with thick plywood, yet there was activity inside; people having a late lunch or an early dinner. The Indian women behind the counter smiled at me as I placed my order. It was if they were trying to emphasize their humanity. The juxtaposition of plywood and people was just the first surreal experience of the day — in a day which would be defined more by its surreality than anything else.

I reached TechLiminal at about 3:45 p.m. Upstairs, in the “situation room” — actually a conference room with a power strip in the middle of the table — OL Senior Editor Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig was watching streaming video of KGO-TV, reporting live from the courthouse in Los Angeles. At about 4:05, it was reported that a verdict had been reached; a few minutes later, the severity of the crime was also revealed: Involuntary Manslaughter.

My initial thoughts were of relief; a conviction, any conviction, would remove some of the taint of injustice from the proceedings, it seemed, making it far less likely that Oakland would be razed to the ground by violent thugs, as some had predicted in the days leading up to the verdict. Yet involuntary manslaughter was the least of the crimes of which Mehserle could be convicted of. For many in the community, anything less than second-degree murder was going to seem insufficient, considering that the killer of Oscar Grant could walk away with as little as probation and time served.

Downstairs, OL’s Susan Mernit gave me a number to call: the OPD police hotline. Was there an official statement? Not yet, a female voice on the other end said. I was told to check back. I figured there would probably be an official press conference at 5 p.m., since the planned demonstration at 14th and Broadway had been scheduled for 6 p.m. Susan gave me another number to call. It was attorney John Burris’ cell phone. I called the number, but got Burris’ voice mail, advising me not to leave a message. Not that I could have, anyway — the mailbox was full.

I started to feel antsy, restless. There was tension, palpable tension, in the air. It was 4:30. F*** sitting behind a desk, monitoring news feeds and waiting for something to happen. I had to get out on the streets and talk to the people, gauge community reaction, see what was going on. As I grabbed my camera and headed out the door, Susan confirmed there was to be a press conference at City Hall at 5 p.m.

There was noticeably increased traffic along 14th as I emerged into a sunny California day. Businesses and city offices had closed. Cars were streaming out of town like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Walking up the street, I noticed two graffiti murals had been painted over plywood-covered storefronts. One read, “Get Up, Stand Up: Stop Police Executions.” The other was a picture of Oscar Grant’s face, with the words, “rest in power” and “all power to the people.”

Just up the street, a few people were congregating outside of the Joyce Gordon Gallery. Gordon was among them. I asked her if she cared to comment; she declined. Next to Gordon was another woman, a tall, beautiful African American sista in a long purple dashiki.

Identifying myself as a reporter, I asked for her reaction. Initially, she, too, was hesitant to speak on record. Yet she couldn’t hold the words back. She said she was a teacher at a local community college who had been teaching her students African American history.

“The events I’m lecturing about in my history class are still taking place in 2010,” she said. “They’ve taken nooses off our necks and put bullets in our backs instead. It’s gone from strange fruit hanging from the trees to bodies on BART.”

The woman was dissatisfied with the verdict, believing that no less than a sentence of life in prison would have been appropriate.

“This is why the Black Panthers came into existence,” she reminded me. “OPD was killing young black men. It’s an injustice.”

Frank Ogawa Plaza at 14th and Broadway was already packed with people when I arrived at about 4:45. There were protestors of all races, creeds and colors, and news media from every conceivable outlet. TV cameras filmed the crowd, which I’d describe as peaceful yet agitated. Some people were carrying signs. Others were engaging in heated debates. I asked an older Caucasian woman in the crowd why she was there.

“My name is Aisha Bey,” she said. “I’m here today because I have a black son the same age as Oscar Grant when he was killed. It could have been my son on that platform.”

Just a few feet away, I recognized B. Jess Clarke, the editor of the Urban Habitat journal. The verdict, he said, “burns me up. It’s one more instance of structural racism, denying African-American men their civil rights to transportation, freedom of travel, the ability to go to their jobs, recreation, education. You can’t even get on a BART train in the safety of security with the knowledge that you’ll get off at the other end alive.

“You look at the way they spend their money on the transit system and you see the same thing,” he continued. “No bus rides, no transit, no way to get to work. No work to do. No schools to go to. It’s systematic racism across the board. The killing of Oscar Grant is one of the most obvious symbols that we live in a deeply racist society.”

What we were witnessing at that particular moment, Clarke said, was a “preemptive police riot that’s already been organized at the Port of Oakland. We may see the police riot pre-empt the people’s riot, but basically what you see is the organized violence of the police planning to do harm to people. If we’re talking about nonviolence, the first place to look is at the people with the guns. You don’t see any guns in this crowd. These are essentially nonviolent civilians protesting against an unjust criminal justice system and an unjust society.”

Right about then, community organizer Tony Coleman announced he was moving up the start of the demonstration, since so many people were already present. With the aid of several others, Coleman moved a portable public address section into the middle of the intersection at 14th and Broadway, in effect reclaiming public space for the people. Coleman made the mic available for people who had something to say.

The crowd poured into the street, trapping an AC Transit bus in its wake. The bus driver shrugged her hands, while she waited for a supervisor to advise her on her next course of action. After a few minutes, a police officer came up to her and told her to put her bus in reverse. As she started to do so, the crowd followed her — several hundred strong.

I spotted photographer and visual artist Keba Konte in the crowd and asked him what he thought of the verdict.

“Well, it’s not justice, but I am glad to see him go to jail,” he said. “If it’s really five to 14 years, with the extra enhancement for the gun clause, you know what? I’ll take it. It’s not what we were looking for. It should have been at least manslaughter, but if he gets 10 years, I’ll take it.”

The protestors moved to 13th Street, where many more police officers and several police vehicles sat, waiting for reinforcements to arrive. The police weren’t ready to engage the crowd directly, and tried to maintain a civil distance. But upon seeing the very symbol of their dissatisfaction, the crowd surged in the direction of the officers. Some protestors ran up to the cop cars and began kicking them or hanging on windows. An almost-comical moment followed: the sight of police vehicles rapidly retreating from an oncoming surge of people, some peeling down the street with doors hanging wide open. Yet one vehicle, in its haste to leave the scene, struck a deaf woman who had been photographing the rally. The woman lay on the ground, writhing in agony. Officers were notified, and one of them came over, cleared space and called for medical assistance.

In the middle of the crowd, I saw Phil Matier, the Chronicle columnist.

“Hey, Matier,” I called. He came up, and we spoke briefly. I remarked that the mood of the crowd didn’t bode well. “I’ve seen worse,” he said. “Imagine if Mehserle had been acquitted.”

I rushed back to the situation room to upload my photo card, then headed out again.

Back at ground zero, an uneasy truce prevailed. The crowd had split off into two main groups. One was at 14th and Broadway, listening to the speakers. Another was at 13th, shouting epithets and chanting “no justice, no peace” at a phalanx of riot cops armed with tear gas-equipped shotguns and wearing heavy body armor and helmets, who ringed the perimeter, blocking off the side streets. One woman sat down on the sidewalk, sitting in a Buddhist prayer position, with a candle in front of her. A line of heavily-armored, heavily-armed cops stood behind her.

I left the scene and walked down 13th to Radio, which was still open and serving drinks. The sound system was playing “Gang Control” by Leftover Crap, one of the aliases of militant punk band MDC. “I played that on purpose,” said the bartender/DJ.

Asked his opinion of events, he said, “You can see the anger out there. Nobody thinks this is acceptable.” About five minutes later, the bar manager made an announcement: the police had informed them they were shutting down the street, so patrons had to choose if they were going to be in or out.

Sensing that nothing significant was going to happen until nightfall, I headed back tot he situation room once again. After catching my breath and grabbing a bite to eat at a nearby McDonald’s (one of the few businesses which was still open), we got a report that looting had broken out downtown, at Foot Locker. I headed back downtown. On the way I passed a police line, and briefly spoke with one of the officers. The officer didn’t appear particularly eager to bust any heads, despite his situation; he was just doing his job. “I hope things stay quiet,” he said, but both us knew that was wishful thinking.

At about 8:30 p.m., the scene downtown was quite surreal at. Masked and bandana-d anarchists mingled with Oakland residents. There was a New Orleans-style jazz band and another group of musicians playing Tabla drums. In the center of Broadway and 14th, two men were quietly playing chess in the street.

Yet back on 13th, the police commander was directing the riot squad to advance; an “unlawful assembly” had been declared and anyone who remained on the premises was to be arrested. Reading off a sheet of paper, presumably with boilerplate legalese drafted by the DA’s office, the commander read a disclaimer which advised, among other things, that force would be used if necessary. The police line began to advance up the street, moving north on Broadway, past DeLauer’s newsstand.

I walked ahead of the police line, over to Foot Locker, where a large crowd had assembled. The store’s windows had indeed been smashed and a metal roll-down gate breached. Young black people could be seen running into the store and emerging with boxes of shoes, shorts and other gear. As they came out of the store one by one, they were met with flashbulbs from the many cameras documenting the looting.

Two older African Americans, a man and a woman, eventually moved to the front of the store, telling people not to steal, that that was dishonoring Grant’s memory.

“It’s just people being opportunistic,” said the man, who identified himself as Terrell Galloway.
Back at Broadway and 14th, things began to get heated and chaotic. Officers gathered at the west corner slowly advanced on the crowd, as a commander exhorted them to “make arrests. Make arrests.” Up ahead, at the east corner, arrests were already taking place. Bottles were being thrown at police; at least one innocent bystander was hit in the face. People — mainly Caucasians — were being dragged back behind police lines by three or four officers.

As one handcuffed man passed, he shouted to no one in particular, “see how they’ve treating me,” as he was roughly manhandled. Others lay face down on the sidewalk as officers stood over them, applying cuffs behind their backs.

I made my way down to 1605 MLK, where Police Chief Batts was scheduled to give a 9 p.m. press conference. I had to pass several police lines to get to the building. When I arrived at 9:05, the conference was already underway. Batts was explaining to reporters that at 7:45, his department had received a tip from a confidential informant that an anarchist action had been planned for 8 p.m. That’s when, he said, he gave the order to declare an unlawful assembly.

“When the masks started to come on, you began to see the crowd thinning out,” he said. “The anarchists were getting ready and [Oakland residents] didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They wanted to have peaceful protests. What we saw was about 50 anarchists in a crowd. We had been watching them the entire time, anticipating that they were going to have a splinter group. So we responded to that.”

Several arrests had been made, Batts confirmed. “Most of the people arrested were dressed all in black, with masks and backpacks. It’s not unusual in other locations that anarchists come to the scene with backpacks with rocks, with feces, with urine, with ball bearings in that backpack, to cause trouble. And those are all the things that we’re anticipating.”
Asked about the use of force, Batts responded by saying police were mainly using “force of presence.” Once the illegal dispersal order was given, he added, most of the crowd moved out of the way of the advancing lines of officers.

“When we do that, the people that are left, it’s gonna be the hardcore anarchists who are gonna try to take us on. We’re trying to give enough time and enough space that people can leave if they want to.” Batts concluded his remarks with a joke, that the looters “took my pair of Michael Jordan shoes that I was gonna buy.”

Walking back to the situation room, I had to go several blocks out of my way, due to police blockades. Downtown had effectively been placed under martial law. Things were fairly quiet as I returned to TechLiminal.

We did see several groups of young black men walking down the street, with nowhere, apparently, to go. One carried a large rock, as if searching for an appropriate target. There also were scattered reports of more looting and damage, mainly at businesses along Broadway: Ozumo, Gold Teeth Master and Whole Foods. Occasionally, we heard loud booms from M-1000s which made it seem like we were not in the middle of a downtown city, but a war zone. After uploading another batch of photos, I headed out to the Oasis nightclub, where I was told people were gathering.
Inside, I found a small group of spoken word aficionados, whose weekly open mic event had become a forum on the verdict and its aftermath. I asked Nazelah Jamison, the organizer, what her thoughts were.

“We felt like we needed to come down here and open the space up for people to express themselves,” she said. “There’s so much [emotion], you have to release the pressure. I feel like, the more of these places are around, hopefully, the less people riot.”

The poets, she said, “have been talking about their disagreement with the verdict, and how it wasn’t enough. It’s mixed feelings … on one hand, you’re glad because he wasn’t [found] not guilty. If a not guilty verdict would have been handed down, I don’t think there would have even been a rally. I think we would have just gone straight to the riot. I think they managed to quell the general population with the guilty verdict … but it’s almost like he’s getting off anyway.”

When it comes down to it, Jamison said, “[Mehserle] was a person who shot a person. But it’s kind of representative of the ongoing issues between the cops and minorities. Just another black man who got shot. Honestly, I feel like, if the people on the train hadn’t been filming, and had the train operator not pulled away so they could keep their cameras, and actually have the footage, this would have been just another incident, brushed under the rug.”

As for myself, I’m still processing the shooting, the trial, the verdict and the aftermath. As a reporter, you want to remain objective. Yet as an Oakland resident and African American, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of the issue.

I do feel happy that Oakland is still standing the day after and that my worst fears didn’t come to pass. At the same time, the riots and damage were unfortunate, yet perhaps inevitable. I’m glad that Oakland residents got to speak their minds and express themselves, but looting Foot Locker and Gold Teeth Master? Come on now, that’s just “ig’nant.” I admire the restraint most of the police showed, but I can’t say I respect the anarchists for disturbing the peace. What is obvious is that neither a police state nor total anarchy are viable solutions.

The verdict? Well, that’s a Band-aid, but not a blessing. It’s better than nothing, but not entirely vindicating. Like many others in the community — both black and white — I don’t think there’s a sense that justice has been achieved. More like, interrupted.