OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – Carrying banners reading “Oakland Says Guilty,” and “Jail All Racist Killer Cops,” hundreds of protesters converged on Oakland City Hall on Thursday after a Los Angeles jury found former Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter – but not of second-degree murder – for shooting to death Oscar Grant, who was unarmed. The protest turned into a melee Thursday night, as stores were looted, car windows were smashed and the contents of Dumpsters set aflame.
In anticipation of vandalism and violence, downtown stores had been boarded up and businesses around City Hall evacuated just before the verdict was handed down.
The disorganized crowd blocked traffic at 14th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland, and scuffled briefly with police in riot gear as they tried to march the two blocks to 12th Street. They were pushed back toward City Hall by police, who set up a two-block perimeter to hem them in.
Oakland Police Department Chief Anthony Batts estimated that 500 to 800 people had gathered. He said the Sheriff’s Department and police from San Leandro and Hayward were on hand to help keep the peace.
Mayor Ron Dellums said he did not believe that justice had been done.
“Many voices in this community including the family have cried out for justice. To the question of the verdict, it’s very clear and unanimously the family’s response was that justice has not been served,” Dellums said at a 5 p.m. press conference at the Oakland Emergency Operations Center.
Dellums said he would be “honored” to stand with Grant’s family “to try to take justice to the next level. The journey to justice does not have to end here.”
Dellums urged protesters to remain peaceful.
“Realizing the pain, understanding the anger, let’s express ourselves today in going forward in the manner that is profoundly respectful for the life of this young person that died way too soon. Rise to the highest in ourselves and show this nation that Oakland can respond to adversity in a manner that reflects the greatest in the human spirit,” he said.
In an interview with a local television reporter, one Oakland resident who identified himself as Mike seemed to think riots were an appropriate response.
“We gotta take over the streets and show them that this is how we gotta get our respect. If I had shot a white man like that, they probably would have buried me under the downtown jail. I wouldn’t have got no justice. So if we gotta tear up stores, we gotta tear up stores,” he said.
That’s exactly what happened as the night wore on. At least 50 people had been arrested by 10 p.m. Demonstrators looted businesses and spray-painted walls near 14th and Broadway. Car windows were broken and piles of shoes were scattered in the street outside the smashed windows of a Footlocker. Looters also shattered the windows of a jewelry store, a National Bank, and an ABC news van.
Some heavy duty fireworks were ignited, and Dumpsters and garbage cans were set aflame, reminiscent of the riots after Grant’s death in January 2009, when mobs of masked protesters smashed storefront windows, set cars ablaze and caused thousands of dollars in damage.
At a 10:30 p.m. press briefing, Chief Batts said the arrests were “at 50 plus, but by the time the night’s over it will be almost double that. We have a number of protestors out there refusing to leave.”
He said a number of protesters had thrown rocks and bottles at police, who were forced to respond with smoke.
Batts said the chief aim of the police presence was to give demonstrators room to protest peacefully, and that he was disappointed that thatwas not the case.
“I have to say I have a sense of disappointment. To come to the city of Oakland and to destroy this city is something I frown upon,” Batts said. “This city is not the wild, wild West. We are prepared throughout the weekend to address any problems that will flare as this goes on.”