A Night of Anger

An unruly mob undoes decades of progress in a single evening.

Here’s the best news of the week: Rickey Henderson made it into the
Baseball Hall of Fame. As the man who carried the Athletics into its
late-’80s glory years, he got in just 28 votes shy of unanimity. One of
Oakland’s greatest and most dedicated athletes got his due on the first
round. There ya go, big O.

The Riot

Now for the rest of the story. Last Wednesday, hundreds of people
who aren’t Rickey Henderson roamed the streets of downtown Oakland,
smashing stores, setting fires, terrifying passers-by, and fighting
with the police in response to BART cop Johannes Mehserle’s fatal and
apparently unprovoked shooting of Hayward resident Oscar Grant.

The day started more in sorrow than anger. Organizers flyered up and
down the East Bay and posted notices on Facebook and Indybay.org, gathering people for a rally at
3 pm., near the Fruitvale BART station. After a few hours of speeches,
prayers, and songs, a few hundred people set off for downtown. By then
it was dark, and so was the mood. The mob reached the Lake Merritt BART
station and went to work, starting fires and tossing bottles at the
cops.

After Ron Dellums appeared and promised that he’d seek justice for
Grant’s family, the mayor coaxed the crowd into following him down to
city hall. But the mob’s trail of destruction followed the mayor’s path
down 14th Street, and Dellums himself eventually disappeared inside to
the sound of boos and jeers. People overturned garbage cans, trashed at
least one cop car, randomly smashed the windows of parked vehicles, and
set fire to Dumpsters and random cars. They hit a McDonald’s and the
independent store Creative African Braids. When the owner came out and
asked why they were targeting her, rioter Nia Sykes snorted at a
Chron reporter, “She should be glad she just lost her business,
and not her life.” The mob also struck 17th Street, at 16th and San
Pablo, and along a stretch of Telegraph Avenue near the newly renovated
Fox Theatre, which threw a gala bash just three nights later.

But you can forget about that feel-good moment. As the media whisked
images of the immolation all over the country, Oakland became the new
face of urban dysfunction. This whole affair wouldn’t have been
possible without YouTube, to which people posted videos of both the
shooting and the subsequent riots. From now until the next sad parable,
when people ask what to do about racial tension, our rotting cities, or
violence in American society, they’ll think of Oakland.

The Aftermath

BART officials are casting about, trying to understand how to manage
this anger. State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and state Senator Leland Yee
have announced legislation to set up an independent BART police
oversight board. At a meeting the next day, BART officials apologized
for Grant’s death and promised to consider such a step themselves. That
wasn’t enough to satisfy people, so the BART board held an emergency
meeting on Sunday, at which roughly one hundred people vented their
anger and suggested that another outbreak could happen if they didn’t
get justice. Meanwhile, BART has tabled discussions of its $37 million
budget deficit, as well as the possibility that it will close some
stations during the weekend. In downtown Oakland, business owners swept
up the debris and shut down their shops, fearing another incident. And
all, finally, was quiet.

The Economy

The grinding economy made more dents in our lives last week. Cost
Plus, the Oakland retail chain, announced that holiday sales took a
serious hit. As a result, the chain will have to close 26 stores, or
almost 10 percent of its fleet. Of course, store employees will have to
hit the unemployment lines. Meanwhile, the downtown shipping firm APL
announced that its regional headquarters will be relocated to Phoenix.
Some four hundred jobs will vanish from downtown Oakland in the next
few months.

Over in high-tech, a new report declared that just six
venture-backed initial public offerings debuted in 2008, marking the
industry’s lowest point since the mid-1970s. In other sectors,
declining consumer spending forced almost 10 percent of California’s
auto dealerships to close, and the price of milk was cut in half at the
wholesale level, prompting the government to intervene and buy $92
million in surplus milk.

The Rest

Thank God other things happened last week as well. Two wacky
Berkeley protesters tried to set up a tree-sit in People’s Park, in
order to stop university officials from cutting down two diseased
acacias; after a few hours, they changed their mind, and climbed down.
The trees went the way of all flesh, er, bark. No fires burned, no
stores were smashed, and no one was arrested. How refreshing.

What’s This? Good News?

Believe it or not, there was exactly one silver lining last week.
After years of lawsuits, University of California officials have bowed
to a judge’s ruling that 2003 student fee hikes were illegal. Officials
have now begun mailing some $42 million in refunds. This may not be
happy news for UC, but students and former students will see a check
averaging out to $400 apiece. Which is as close as it comes to
something pleasant in a bad, bad seven days.

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