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Demo Over BART Shooting Turns Violent

8 January 2009 No Comment

By Anna McCarthy

A peaceful demonstration over the recent fatal shooting by a BART police officer escalated into violence last night in downtown Oakland

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Fruitvale BART station at 3 p.m .Wednesday to protest the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a Hayward resident shot by the BART officer, 27-year-old Johannes Mehserle, in the early morning hours of January 1 on the Fruitvale BART station platform in front of dozens of witnesses.  Since the incident occurred, cell phone footage of the shooting, available on the Internet and other media outlets, has sparked public outrage.


Protesters marched up International Blvd. towards downtown Oakland, but didn't turn violent until one group of protesters splintered off around 6:30 p.m, according to news sources.  The AP reports that a dumpster was set afire and rolled into the street, and a police car was attacked near the Lake Merritt BART station.  Some protesters yelled expletives at the police, calling them "fascists" and "pigs."

Hundreds of Oakland police were called in, and in full riot gear-helmets, batons, and shields-tried to disperse the crowd and contain the escalating violence.

At around 9:15 p.m., Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums emerged from City Hall, met protesters on 14th street, and led a group of roughly 100 to the City Hall steps.  Speaking through a bullhorn over the sound of overhead police and news helicopters, he urged protesters to respect one another.  "I sense your pain and your frustration," Dellums said.  Protesters responded angrily, booing and shouting that the Oakland police need to show more respect.  "We need the real Black Panthers out here!" one protester shouted.

When the Mayor went back into city hall, the crowd started to chant: "No Justice, No Peace!"

The protesters demanded answers as to why BART, the Oakland police, and the city had not responded to the shooting in a more urgent manner by insisting that Mehserle provide a statement about the incident. Mehserle, who had been with the BART police for two years, abruptly resigned on Wednesday, just before he was supposed to be interviewed by BART investigators.

John Burris, an Oakland-based civil rights lawyer representing Grant's family, says he believes Mehserle quit in order to avoid being interviewed by investigators in his department.  He added that BART legally could have demanded that Mehserle and the other BART police officers at the scene give statements on the night of the incident.  So far, they have not demanded that he give a statement.

Burris also said there had been at least two prior complaints about Mehserle before the shooting.

After Dellums retreated into City Hall, roughly 25 to 30 protesters then began running throughout the blocks around Frank H. Ogawa plaza, smashing in windows of cars and businesses along the way.  They smashed the windshields of four cars belonging to the city of Oakland, and broke a window at the police station.  Some set fires to trashcans and knocked over dumpsters in the middle of the street.  At least three cars were set ablaze, and there were other small fires that police and the Oakland fire department quickly extinguished.

In their riot gear, the police tried to contain the protesters.  Some protesters threw bottles at the police officers, and into the windows and doors of downtown Oakland businesses.

By 9:30pm, three BART stations-Fruitvale, 12th Street and Lake Merritt-were closed.

At around 9:40pm, police released tear gas near City Hall to try and break up the demonstration.  Within an hour, the police had contained most of the mayhem.  More that 100 people were arrested throughout the night.

But business owners in downtown Oakland like Leemu Topka, who has run a hair salon called Creative African Braids on 14th street for the past four years, will have to deal with the aftermath.  Many spent this morning sweeping chards of glass off of their stoops.  Some store owners arrived at work this morning to find that the windows of their stores had been shattered, and others, like Topka, were around to see it happen.

Topka says she was working in the shop around 8pm with her husband and baby when she saw a group of protesters approach her door.

"I was scared for my life," said Topka.  Although she understands why the protesters were angry, Topka says she doesn't understand why their anger was aimed at her and at her shop.  "If you're protesting that a black person was killed, why go to your black sister's shop and break all the windows?"

Topka said the protesters tried to get into the shop, but that her husband held the door shut.  She called the police, she said, but got no response.  Then one of the protesters threw a bottle through the door, she said,and broke the glass.

In lieu of this morning's planned protest, Oakland police stationed officers on nearly every block of downtown Oakland to prepare for a repeat of the previous night.

So far, this morning's protest in front of the building on 20th street in downtown Oakland, where the BART board meeting was held, has been peaceful.  Around 50 people were gathered in front of the building at 9:30 a.m. to protest BART's response to the shooting incident.  "Coach Joe," a teacher of science and physical education at the nearby Oasis high school, brought to the protest a large group of his students, ranging from ages 16 to 18--as an educational experience, the teacher said. "We didn't come to break anything," he said.  "We came to be seen and heard." He added that many of his students hadn't wanted to come to school at all because they were angry and felt that the shooting was unjustified, and BART's response to the shooting unacceptable.

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