Why is There So Much Hype About Riots After this George Zimmerman Verdict?

Trayvon Martin signSo as the jury deliberates for a second day around this George Zimmerman trial, talk about Rodney King style riots breaking out is being amped up..

News anchors and pundits along with the police are showing up on TV looking all somber telling us to please keep it peaceful and stay calm no matter what the verdict.. I think I saw a news report with Reverend Al Sharpton telling us not to gloat if Zimmerman is convicted..Seemingly every Civil Rights leader from Jesse Jackson to NAACP head Ben Jealous has been dragged before the cameras to plead for folks to trust in the justice system, even if it far too often, leaves us on the short end of the stick.

In preparing for this possible urban unrest, community leaders have gone out and tapped young people to do anti-violence PSA’s where they plead for peace. The whole scene reminded me of what was done on the days leading up to the Oscar Grant verdict which took place July 8th 2010.. Folks in the Bay Area may recall this PSA shown below:


This is what’s being done now around the Zimmerman trial:


Several protesters lie face down on the ground in front of of riot

Protesters lie face down on the ground in front of riot cops

With respect to this threat of riots/civil unrest, let’s unpack that for a minute. My experience over the years of covering uprisings during the Oscar Grant Movement, the Occupy Movement, various the DNC and RNC Conventions from 2000 on up, to several G20 and G8 summits has led me to the conclusion that we should always be asking the following questions; 1-Who is pushing the assertions that riots are imminent and how are they pushing it? 2-Who stands to benefit the most from the threat of unrest? (key word ‘threat’)  3-What’s the political, economic and social agenda if any, attached these threats?

Personally I think the riot talk is being hyped up to the financial benefit of two main outfits which are corporate media and the Police.. Both thrive off of fear, confusion and mayhem..

In the case of news outlets, a riot is the ultimate reality tv that falls in line with its tried and true modus operandi “if it bleeds it leads’..Trust me many of those anchors and pundits may be sitting up in their cushy chairs pleading with you to stay home, but their overall coverage and over the top on air banter is designed to push emotional buttons, ignite and incite..

OscarGrantChaos in the streets equals ratings, hence if there ain’t some windows being broken and fires being lit after this verdict comes down, you’re gonna have some disappointed news outlets..

The other outfit that benefits from all this riot talk are the police..You start talking riots and civil unrest, it becomes an all hands on deck operations. This means cops are called in on their day off while others have their vacation days cut..

Everyone is put to work as the departments deploy extra patrols and increase surveillance and intel gathering of anyone and everyone who they think might be down to set it off after the verdict is read..

In preparation for the riots..you best believe many departments are dusting off the law books and seeing how they can push the legal envelope.. This means they may do explore everything from mass arrests to pre-emptive raids and detaining of key organizers to shutting down entire blocks and neighborhoods to setting up enclosed ‘protests zones’ and ‘free speech cages’. Many are going over crowd control and kettling strategies

All this is happening to the tune of massive overtime pay for law enforcement.. This is on top of them busting out new weapons, new vehicles and new Star wars-type storm trooper outfits..

I recall during the Oscar Grant and Oakland Occupy Movements, police would hold press conferences warning fearful residents of ‘outside agitators’ and anarchists. They would then bring in as many as 500 cops from 17 different jurisdictions to the tune of 500k to one million a pop..

Police Riot gearThis scenario is playing out in cities all over the country. From Oakland to New York to Chicago to Houston.. Police in Sanford, Florida are not the only ones gearing up for ‘civil unrest’. It’s big business and a lot of folks are fixing to get paid..

The biggest irony to all this all this is while the focus and concern on riots is directed at Black folks who are continuously being demonized, civil unrest may actually come from far-right wing nuts who support George Zimmerman and feel a conviction will be a blow to Stand Your Ground Laws..Black folks do not have a monopoly on civil unrest..

This country has a sordid past where we seen angry white mobs set off some of the most devastating riots’ in history with Black people as their target. from Tulsa to Chicago to Atlanta to Bensonhurst, BK to Boston to Howard Beach.. Even in the riots most associated with Black unrest, large numbers of Black folks were killed often at the hands of the police who used the occasion to go off..We saw this during the Watts Riots in 65 to the Newark and Detroit uprisings in ’67 to Rodney King unrest  in ’92. Many of us deemed those deaths as target practice.. The recent HBO documentary about all those killed by police during the Newark Riots gives a serious breakdown on this.

In recent years we’ve seen a major increase in the number of Black people killed or brutalized by the police. According to the latest reports from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, every 28 hours a Black person is killed by police.  You don’t think that hostility won’t play out during a Rodney King style riot?? All one has to do is look at what unfolded during Katrina when there were threats of riots and mayhem to see how the police and folks in power get down.. There were all sorts of killings both by police and vigilante types..

tea-party-gun-advocateOver the past few years we’ve seen the uncovering of plots with white supremacist attempting to find ways to set off some sort of race war.. We’ve seen a rise in militia types who feel like this country is set to collaspe with Black and Brown folks as the blame. This is coupled with the anger and vitriol we’ve seen by Tea Party types who have shown up with guns in tow on to presidential campaign rallies and congressional townhall meetings that they’ve disrupt, who down to bring the ruckus..

During this George Zimmerman trial we’ve had a number of prominent conservative leaning journalists from Geraldo Rivera to Joe Scarborough hawking the ‘Trayvon was a hoodie wearing thug who got what he deserved‘ narrative and that if Zimmerman doesn’t get off its an indication are country is falling. Many have embraced such rhetoric to the point that in all honesty instead of just having a traditional Civil Rights leaders calling for peace, maybe we need to see folks like Pastor Rick Warren or the head of the NRA Wayne LaPierre doing PSA calling on folks to be peaceful and respect the verdict.

What’s also ironic is with many of these so-called riots we’ve seen in recent years from the one in Austin, Texas in May of 2009 when police killed a sleeping Nathaniel Sanders to the recent unrest in East Flatbush, Brooklyn after Kamani Gray was gunned down, they pale in comparison to the unrest we see breakout after sporting events.

Compare the unrest in Oakland after the Oscar Grant verdict in 2010 to the mayhem that engulfed neighboring San Francisco after the Giants won the World Series this past year.

Compare the unrest that occurred on the Penn State campus when went students went buckwyld after learning head coach Joe Paterno was fired with the lack of unrest in Detroit a few weeks ago when a mistrial ‘verdict ‘ came down for SWAT Team member Joseph Weekley who was accused of killing 7 year old Aiyana Stanley Jones while he was ‘showing off’ for a Reality TV show.

Compare the reaction to verdicts of injustice to high profile cases like Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo where officers were acquitted for shooting un-armed men to the riots in the streets we saw after the Lakers Beat the Celtics in 2010 or after the crazy riots in Vancouver after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Where was the nationwide calls for peace or even Anti-riot PSAs from the respective sports stars?

Penn State Riots

Penn State Riots

What’s going on right now with all these impending riot warnings seems like another attempt to resurrect the scary Black Boogey man..It’s the continued demonization of Black folks at all costs.  It was done during this trial where Trayvon Martin‘s character was called into question and he was depicted as a weed smoking violent prone thug vs George Zimmerman who actually has an arrest record, a criminal past and a history of violence.. It’s being done now with the goal of planting fear in the minds of many..

By feeding into that narrative of young African-Americans as the main instigators and sole participants, what gets overlooked is the fact that in many civil disturbances including the Rodney King uprisings which we are told we need to prevent, folks from all sorts of racial and ethnic backgrounds were running around kicking up dust and in the mix. We saw that during the Oscar Grant protests.. We saw that during the uprisings in London and France.. We sure as hell saw that during the Occupy, Anti-war and Anti-Globalization Protests.

What also gets lost is that many times there are no riots after any number of controversial trials.

If there is any sort of unrest after this George Zimmerman trial because he’s acquitted it won’t be only Black folks out in the streets. It’ll be folks of all stripes who are upset with a justice system that they perceive as unfair.. If there is unrest perhaps we should be exploring ways to repair a broken justice system that has left many with broken spirits and broken hearts vs worrying about broken windows which are easily replaced..


When Do We Call a Celebration a Riot? The SF Giants Win the World Series

When the final pitch was thrown and a strike out ensued, resulting in the San Francisco Giants once again becoming World Series champs, I was tempted to hop in my car and cross the bridge like I did 2 years ago to celebrate with the tens of thousands who were already out and about at local bars or at the Civic Center watching the game on a Jumbotron.

Everyone likes a winner and even more people like the celebrations and festivities that come along with winning. Everyone was upbeat last night and San Francisco was on Fire… It was on fire emotionally speaking, but within an hour of the Giants winning SF literally was on fire.. All over the city bonfires were being lit.. One was downtown on Market street. Another was on 19th and Mission. Another on 23rd and Mission.. Still another was near the police station on 16th and Valencia which was the scene of raucous Occupy protest a few weeks ago.. With each bonfire came people by the hundreds and wasn’t long before folks were tossing in everything they could get their hands on, couches, card board paint cans and other flammable which caused loud bomb-like explosions. Eventually a bus was lit on fire around 3rd and Market in the heart of downtown. We also saw a security truck flipped over with the driver in it..he got out unharmed.

This is the SF Chronicle headline..to describe last night’s vandalism

As each fire was lit and reported on by local newscasts, I couldn’t help but note the tone and wording used to describe the scene. We didn’t hear words like anarchist, outside agitators or thugs to describe those committing wanton acts of vandalism. Instead what we heard was local news outlets like NBC described what was happening as ‘instant street parties’. Others like ABC talked about how exuberant fans and overly joyous fans were celebrating in front of bonfires.

Reporters would utter the word vandalism in the most casual tone and downplay the smashing of bank and storefront windows, crowds chanting ‘F– Tha Police and cars being burned or flipped. The main focus by these local news outlets was about highlighting the excitement around this world series win.

It was hard not to contrast the sanitizing words used to described the destruction happening all over the city of San Francisco with how many of those same news outlets described Occupy, Oscar Grant and anti-war protests where far less damage and mayhem was caused. It was hard not to contrast the way many of those media outlets described spirited celebrations in neighboring Oakland ten years ago (2003) after the Raiders won the AFC Championship.

At that time, one car was flipped over on International Blvd and burned and the entire city was described as one that was in turmoil ‘out of control ‘and the scene of a riot. If you don’t believe me take a look at the picture that ran in the same SF Chronicle where the headline this morning reads ‘SF Giant fans Delirious With Joy‘. Again this is in spite of the fact that celebrating fans burned a city bus in the middle of downtown on top of flipping a car.. As you can see the SF Chronicle headline described the much smaller Oakland celebrations in much more stark ominous tones..using words like ‘Raider Rage‘ and ‘Street Mayhem‘.

This was the scene last night on Market street.. At the time this security truck was flipped over local news outlets described it as ‘over joyous fans celebrating and getting a little out of hand’.

We could spend more time making similar comparisons to the words used to describe more recent events especially since both Occupy Oakland and Occupy SF had one year anniversaries. If you look at the coverage of given to occupy you heard news casters talk about the menacing Black Bloc and how everyone should board up their windows and be prepared. As one Facebook poster jokingly noted on my page last night, its funny that media didn’t warn businesses to watch out for the marauding bands of Orange and Black bloc folks

Even the police when interviewed held measured tones. On ABC news, one of the SF Police captains talked about how his officers were doing all they could to keep everyone safe and the celebration going. In fact at one point, officers on motorcycles came to 19th and Mission while the bonfire was going and gently moved the crowd back vs outright dispersing them.

On one of the live streams monitoring the stuff on Market street, you saw Giant fans getting all up in the face of SFPD talking smack. The police exercised lots of patience not arresting folks or anything like that..Eventually they gave dispersal orders, but the demeanor and overall tone taken was way different from when people were out marching against banks and foreclosures or when folks were protesting the shooting deaths of Kenneth Harding or Charles Hill. The tone taken by SFPD was much harsher as protestors were demonized before they even started. The police message was one of immediate containment, shut down and dispersal. If folks recall we saw over 120 people arrested during an Oscar Grant protest where no bonfires or windows were broken.. We saw over 400 people arrested during an Occupy protest here in the Bay w/ no bon fires. Last night we saw SFPD literally make a walk way to one of the bon fires people lit in celebration of the Giants winning. Throughout most of the evening hardly anyone was arrested, before the night was over close to 40 people were arrested by SFPD.

Imagine if this was an Occupy protest.. would the news outlets reporting this use such sanitizing words?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not pointing all this out because I want to see a police state nor am I condoning vandalism.. I’m also not naive, I realize that after most sports wins there are crazy celebrations that take place all over the world.

It was just last year we had folks going nuts in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup was won. I attended UC Berkeley and recall after damn near every Big Game between Cal and Stanford folks went nuts busting windows and setting fires.Heck I recall how folks flipped car and set fires after Penn Sate coach Joe Paterno was fired..

What I do want people to note is how and when media outlets and the police themselves turn up the ‘fear and danger’ ratchets and when they don’t . I want people to ask themselves and the people doing the reporting why they take particular tones. Last night I tweeted several requests to Bay Area ABC News publicly asking them what do they consider the difference between a riot and a celebration? I never got a response. What I concluded is they and other news outlets are quite deliberate in the tone that they set . More often than not that tone is attached to a political and economic agenda.

This is a scene from an Occupy Oakland demonstration. here the words anarchist, black bloc and outside agitators were used to describe the scene before police moved in in full riot gear w/ weapons drawn.

San Francisco is a tourist city and image is everything if it expects to attract visitors and businesses. The result of this is all hands are on deck to keep a smiling face on what many would consider unacceptable and outrageously dangerous conditions. Hence a riot in San Francisco when done by a whiter and more affluent crowd is just a few ‘delirious with joy fans celebrating a bit too hard‘. The police are restrained and they go all out to ‘protect and serve..

When its a protest challenging the police, unfair economic conditions or a mostly Black and Brown fan base in a city like Oakland ‘expressing their joy, than ‘celebrations‘ turn in ‘street mayhem over run by thugs‘.. Protestors are tarred as out of control anarchists etc. Police are no longer restrained but instead use the large crowds as an excuse to test out new weaponry and crowd control maneuvers. Its social engineering at its best..

Something to think about as we gear up for a big parade to celebrate the San Francisco Giants being World Series champs once again…

written by Davey D

The scene on 19th and Mission Last night after the Giants won and people began ‘celebrating photo: Jill Filipovic

Searching for Justice as Oakland Streets Turn Lawless

Searching for Justice as Oakland Streets Turn Lawless

by Jesse Strauss

check out yesterday’s radio show to get a blow by blow account of what happened on the streets of Oakland the night of the verdict


As the Oakland community begins to understand the meaning of Johannes Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter verdict, the streets exploded angrily last night.

Mehserle is the former BART cop who killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s morning, 2009. As Grant was lying face down on a BART platform, Mehserle stood up, grabbed his firearm, aimed down, and shot Grant. Mehserle’s next action was to handcuff the wounded 22 year old father before calling for any kind of medical assistance. Oscar Grant was killed that morning, but the Oakland community will never forget his name.

Yesterday at 4pm, an LA courthouse announced the jury’s verdict, that Mehserle killed Grant with “criminal negligence”, receiving the charge of involuntary manslaughter. From what I understand at the time of this writing, the verdict could mean that Oscar Grant’s killer will serve anywhere from two to fourteen years in jail.

It’s clear, though, that the Oakland community does not consider the conviction strong enough. Speaker after speaker at the 6pm rally in downtown Oakland told the crowd of at least a thousand that they were disappointed with the verdict. Many folks spoke out about their feelings in different ways, but no one seemed comfortable with what had happened.

At the same time, no one seemed uncomfortable by the huge amount of support given by the larger Bay Area. What many sources have called “outside agitators”, many people in the streets last night recognized as community support.

While we think about the mainstream narrative of “outsiders”, it seems important to keep in mind that Oscar Grant himself lived in Hayward, and Mehserle was not an Oakland cop, but a BART officer, which meant his jurisdiction spanned across a range of cities throughout the Bay Area. Oakland simply and justifiably is at the center of this action.

The inside agitators, which are mostly Oaklanders (although I did see some people from Berkeley, Hayward and Vallejo), clearly played a strong role in the community response to the verdict. As the formal rally came to a close at 8pm as organizers were ordered to shut it down by the city, it became clear that the police forces, whether Oakland cops, California Highway Patrol, or others from nearby cities, were excited and ready to use their new training and equipment on the people who came out to voice their opinions.

Once the rally ended, at least two people had already been arrested, but it was fully unclear to any of us witnessing the events what prompted those arrests. Only a few minutes later, I was told that a block away a Footlocker’s windows were broken and its contents ransacked by community members. When I arrived there, I watched some young people grab shoes in the store and run out before two others blocked the entrance, telling others that justice for Oscar Grant does not look like what we were seeing.

But what does justice look like?

As I walked away from Footlocker, I saw freshly sprayed graffiti covering windows and businesses with statements like “Justice 4 Oscar Grant” and “Off The Pigs”. Continuing down the street, I saw protesters running in any direction they could find to avoid confrontations with police, who were slowly marching up Broadway Avenue in Downtown Oakland.

Then the shattering started. Much of the next few hours became a blur. I watched numerous windows at the downtown Oakland Sears fall to the ground as someone lit small fireworks nearby. Sirens echoed in every direction and police announced that the gatherings were illegal and we would be arrested and possibly “removed by force which could cause serious bodily injury”. Minutes later, the wind carried a draft of pepper spray toward me as I walked by three large flaming dumpsters in the middle of Telegraph Avenue.

In the midst of all the action I searched for some kind of organization—some kind of unified goal or idea of justice. The community is angry, and there is no correct platform to address that anger. For those who are sure that Mehserle should be charged with a crime stronger than involuntary manslaughter, the legal approach did not work.

While leadership and organization seemed to have flown out the window, it did seem that the rebellions were much more calculated than those just after Grant’s murder, as most of the broken windows were concentrated at corporate giants like Footlocker and Starbucks. The strongest piece of organization I witnessed in Oakland’s streets last night were the groups of people preventing attacks on local businesses.

The police came in as a close second. They didn’t seem to know how to deal with what was going on, but they would march in formation down a street, only to watch new trash cans light up and windows shatter another block down. While they may have been organized within their small army, officers had no idea how to deal with the realities of last night. In fact, it became clear to me that they made Oakland’s streets very unsafe.

As I walked from Telegraph to Broadway on Grand Avenue, first watching a Starbucks window broken and then that of a sushi restaurant, I realized the night was getting out of hand for everyone. Trying to stay connected with some sort of normality and step away from the crazy streets, I called a friend. As soon as my conversation was over I looked down at my phone to hang up. Then a hand came out of nowhere, perhaps over my shoulder, and grabbed the phone. I tried to hold onto it until I was startled and disoriented by a fist slamming into my eye and I let the phone disappear as blood began dripping from just above my left eyelid.

But where were the police to respond to a robbery and assault in the middle of a major intersection in downtown Oakland? They were clearly not making it safe for me to be in that space, and it is still unclear who or what they made it safe for. The person or people who have the phone and gave me a black eye and some possible medical bills were not crazy and violent Oaklanders that need to be policed to help or save people like me. These were people who took advantage of a lawless space that our law enforcement officers created themselves.

The night started with people moving and becoming angry (or angrier) because police declared a peaceful gathering in the street to be illegal. Windows were broken because people were angry and moving quickly down the streets with nowhere to voice their anger safely.

Hours later, I’m lying in bed with a black eye and a gash above my eyelid. I can only imagine how my night would have ended if the police hadn’t declared the peaceful gathering illegal and created a sense of lawlessness in Oakland’s streets.

This is not justice for Oscar Grant. But what is? From the Grant’s murder to those of us who were endangered by police last night, law enforcement needs to be held accountable to the communities they serve. That at least seems like a good starting point.


Born and raised in Oakland, Jesse Strauss is a producer for Flashpoints (www.flashpoints.net) on Pacifica Radio. His articles have been published on Truthout, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Consortium News, and other sources. Reach him at jstrauss (at) riseup.net.

check out yesterday’s radio show to get a blow by blow account of what happened on the streets of Oakland the night of the verdict



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