The Oakland Riots, in Retrospect

Violence stemmed from racial tensions and legal injustice

Massive and violent riots sprung up in Oakland, California this November. Despite citizens’ surprise when encountering broken windows and other forms of vandalism, these revolts were not sudden: they were the result of extended racial tension in the city.

On Jan. 1, 2009, transit officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant, whom he was trying to arrest at a train station. Grant was lying face down on the ground, defenseless, when he was shot, and Mehserle claimed that he mistook his gun for a taser. Despite his rationale, the violence triggered a strong emotional response. Here, again, was the all-too-familiar incident of a white cop shooting an unarmed black man.

In July 2010, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter instead of the graver charge of second-degree murder. To many, Mehserle’s luck in court seemed the product of racial favoritism. In response to the rulings, sporadic protests exploded abruptly, resulting in the destruction of residential and commercial property.

Then, in early November, the former officer received the minimum sentence of two years in prison. Though the jury recommended a longer sentence, the judge overruled, and Mehserle is not expected to spend any extra time in prison. Given that a white officer killed an unarmed black man who was lying on the ground, the short sentence surprised many.

Hal Fairchild, Pitzer Professor of Psychology and Black Studies, explains, “The African American community has been besieged with assaults to its human dignity for centuries.” The Mehserle case, he says, was particularly egregious. “When a murderous cop gets two years – with time served – for killing an innocent black person, it is time to rebel.”

And that is what happened. The perceived racism within the justice system spurred another violent outburst on the streets of Oakland. In addition to reports of personal and public property damage, many complained about the aggression toward the police attempting to quell the rioters. A car hit one officer; another’s gun was stolen and used against him.

The police arrested 152 protesters for reasons ranging from “disturbing the peace” to “vandalism.” Over a third of those arrested were not even from Oakland, but had travelled there to demand racial justice within the court system.

Indeed, Grant has become the poster child for racial injustice: not only was he a victim of police violence when he was unarmed and on the ground, but his assailant was granted an abnormally short punishment in light of the crime. Neither peaceful nor quiet, Oakland’s uprising was a direct response to the court’s ruling and highlights the violent nature of the crime at stake.

Yet few acknowledge these parallels to Oakland’s legacy of racial tension. Given the media attention surrounding Grant and the smaller protests that occurred before November, the underlying issues leading up to this outburst were well-publicized for over two years. In the court case itself, a clear gap exists: a white judge ruled in favor of a white officer, and the length of his prison sentence seems to suggest racial acknowledgment and consideration.

This gap in justice correlates invariably to a gap in perception. As Fairchild explains, “The powerless have few means to challenge authority, and so they resort to strategies that look, to some, like a ‘riot.’ To others, it is a ‘rebellion.’”

Danielle Holstein is a freshman at Pomona College. She hopes to major in either PPE or English, and enjoys reading and long walks on the beach.

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Published with support from Generation Progress.

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