Ground Zero: Oakland, California

The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution is often misquoted and misapplied by those who think freedom of speech applies to anything they wish to say at any time anywhere (such as yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater). Still, freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government (or its agents) for a redress of grievances is the cornerstone of democracy for the people. Peaceful protest and non-violent communication is one of the most powerful and effective tools of free speech. Sadly, when a protest descends into violence (targeted or random) that powerful tool goes mute and becomes ineffectual.

Proper use of their right to protest is what Evan Shamar and others had in mind when they organized a protest on Wednesday, Jan. 7, in Oakland. The protest was meant to be a peaceful march in support of the family of Oscar Grant, who died in the early hours of New Year’s day. He was handcuffed, sitting on a BART platform when he was shot by a uniformed BART officer.

Unfortunately for the Grants and for the organizers, the protest did not remain peaceful.

“I was devastated by it,” said Shamar, 24, a photographer who lives in Oakland. “I worked diligently for the past 72 hours, and for it to be destroyed by a group of anarchists was extremely upsetting. I felt like my integrity had been compromised.”

Anger runs very deep in the black community of Oakland and with good reason. They have been marginalized and beaten down at every turn for more than a century. Police brutality against the black community was open, obvious and went unchecked until the 1980s. The fact that a “brother” was shot in the back while handcuffed and helpless by a white person in uniform is yet one more example of brutality and oppression in the mind of a group of people already pushed too far to the fringes of community. That anger is bound to boil over, it’s bound to explode and it has to have somewhere to go.

It’s sad that mob rule mentality attaches itself to a viable host–a legitimate public protest which was formed for a specific purpose: to call for justice–like a parasite. The protest wasn’t formed in order to wreak havoc or seek revenge, but mob rule brought to the surface of the gathering the strong undercurrent of fear, outrage, anguish and hate that runs through the community.  It catches people by surprise as they try to make their voice heard in peaceful protest. It rips away the sanity and control of moderate people who believe in non-violent means to resolve issues. Chaos ensues and the anger that ignites then spreads like a wildfire through those attending.

What happens next remains to be seen. What is needed is a clear and visible road to justice for the Grant family and for the community which surrounds them.  I’m braced for more problems because Oakland does not have a good record of honesty when dealing with its citizens. To be fair the citizens don’t deal honestly with the city either, so there is a deep chasm of distrust on all sides. And now there is a federal entity involved as well.

BART is a specially formed Transit District and not a civic entity per se. The construction of BART helped drive a final nail in the coffin of the once vital Black West Oakland community. In the 1960s, the city of Oakland condemned 12 square blocks of residences and displaced more than 10,000 families so that the BART line from downtown to the West Oakland terminal could be built. The BART track runs along what was once the prosperous 7th Avenue commercial district. Few if any of those business ever re-opened. The owners received only pennies on the dollar because the city condemned the properties, they didn’t buy them outright for fair market value. The city of Oakland and BART promised revitalization and jobs but what really happened was that less than 2 percent of BART or the Department of Transportation employees was comprised of West Oaklanders. Out of 10,000 destroyed homes, less than 500 new apartments were ever built in the community and those did not appear until 10 years after the original homes were condemed and destroyed.

Those who joined in protest on Wednesday and Thursday are the direct victims of that sort of blatant discrimination. It happened to them, to their parents and grandparents. As a society we still like to pretend we’re playing the loving civic parent: “I’m only doing this for your own good, you’ll thank me later…” We play dice with peoples lives and livelihood and then we’re surprised when the camel’s back is broken and a valid protest about a terrible incident becomes incendiary. All those decades of hate, anger, fear, abuse, distrust all rise to the surface and boil over.

Mob rule is the pot unwatched on the stove while the burner is left on high, and we’re surprised by this when we shouldn’t be.