By Ryan Hunt
When the verdict for the Johannes Mehserle trial was read on July 8, 2010, I was in a Critical Thinking class at Laney Community College in Oakland, CA, the city where BART officer Mehserle shot an unarmed black resident, Oscar Grant. The announcement came through the school’s emergency response system and my class was cut short. The college advised students to make plans to get out of downtown Oakland. The involuntary manslaughter verdict was released and protesters took to the streets, which later resulted in vandalism and looting.
After the dust settled, the business community came together to repair the windows and remove the graffiti. The larger community also came together to organize against racial profiling and issues of violence. The unfortunate reality is that it often takes a tragedy to bring people together to start to make positive changes. And now, with the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial stoking old wounds, Oakland has reached this tipping point again.
Just three years after the Mehserle verdict, I returned from a housewarming party to discover that the Zimmerman verdict had been read and that neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. Outside, in downtown Oakland, about 500 protesters gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza (also known as Oscar Grant Plaza among Oaklanders) and began to organize a demonstration. Groups of people marched through downtown Oakland and some protesters eventually broke windows, spray painted buildings, set trash cans and flags on fire, and pulled barriers into the streets.
The next day, another group of protesters met at Frank Ogawa Plaza. People took turns addressing the crowd via a bullhorn. One speaker raised a banner that said “Respect Our City,” a rally cry from a local business. This march was peaceful and wound it’s way through downtown and West Oakland. Protesters carried signs with pictures of Trayvon and banners calling for justice.
Emotions ran high in Oakland as the memory of Trayvon Martin reminded us of Oakland’s loss of young black men over the past few years. On Sunday, people held signs remembering Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Kenneth Wayne Harding Jr., and Raheim Brown, among others.
The small business community, as well as the residents of Oakland, are upset about the vandalism that occurred during the demonstrations. I am now an Urban Studies student at UC Berkeley, and I am reminded of the broken-windows theory that floats around the social sciences. This theory essentially claims that if a building that has a broken window goes ignored, it shows the city that no one cares and eventually the rest of the windows will be broken.
The important thing to focus on is not the broken windows or graffiti, it’s the community in Oakland coming together to fix both the actual broken windows on Broadway and the broken windows of the justice system in America. Creating a safe environment for everyone is not just the job of the police, it’s the job of the public to stand together and pick up the pieces. It’s collective efficacy, it’s social justice, and it’s everyone’s responsibility.
Ryan Hunt is studying Urban Studies at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley and works with Not In Our Town’s Community Engagement program.