So I’ve given myself a few days to process what Thursday night was like for me. Nothing traumatic happened to me or the people I was with in a non-boarded up well lit office on 14th Street in downtown Oakland the night a jury found Officer Mehserle guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter for the murder of Oscar Grant. Can that be the story? None of our reporters, photographers, videographers were harmed in the process of documenting our cities reaction to the verdict well into the night. We left the office at Midnight. That is my story. And I am grateful for it. I won’t be tagging this post under “race riot”. Do you still want to read? Are you ready to move on from my account? Go search for the real story; where OPD beat people and stores were looted and white hipster anarchists highjacked the local brown people’s peaceful protest? Are you ready to criticize and judge and roll your eyes? Go ‘head. I am not trying to be objective. This is not a news piece… maybe it’s closer to an ethnographic account.
This is what my Thursday afternoon was like:
Around 1pm I left Oakland to meet a friend at a coffee shop on College Avenue in Berkeley. We both had articles to finish. We sat side by side in the grown up version of parallel play, scowling into our laptops, mumbling non-sequitars. She is a post-doc, a brilliant scholar, and fucking serious about her work. Me? Not so much. Not yet at least. As I wrote, I had all the various forms of social media alive and clicking on my desktop:
Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant. Any verdict yet? When’s the verdict gonna come out? They better do the right thing. What verdict? Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant! No Justice No Peace! Murder 1 is not on the table. The Town’s gonna burn. What’s going on? Oakland is so ghetto. Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant. Don’t read the comment section of the Chronicle. When is the verdict gonna come? What are you talking about? I’m fixin to pass out. No Justice No Peace! Any excuse to riot. Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant, Oscar Grant. Who? Fuck.
I tell my friend that the online newsource I write for is staying open for the verdict. That the office is Downtown and when the verdict does drop, we’re going to gather there and cover whatever happens as it happens. She looks at me with that sideways glance of hers.
2:47pm I retweet that the verdict has been reached, will be announced at 4pm. I tell her it’s been decided. Oakland is about to be emptied. Who will fill the vacuum, I wonder, as all the major employers send their employees home early. I sit for a while longer. Comfy on my bench seat next to Karen, in Berkeley, with all the social media a flutter in front of me. Is retweeting enough? Is updating my Facebook status enough? Is answering emails and reposting blogs really contributing anything?
I get a phone call from Jeremy who lives in Berkeley and was working at a hospital in Oakland. His shift just ended. “Where are you?” he asks. “At a coffee shop in Berkeley.” “Good, you can come over to my house when you’re done.” “Ok, thanks, but umm I think I might go back in.” “What? The streets are crazy with people trying to leave! It’s madness.” “Ya, well, mass exodus usually is. Thanks for the offer. I’ll let you know when I leave.” I’m such an asshole I never called him back that evening.
3:20pm I finish up a blog post on Loyalty. Loyalty? Of all things about myself, I am recognizing how much I value my sense of loyalty and that of others. How important it is. How special.
3:47pm a tweet comes through my stream: “Don’t let people evacuating DT Oakland make you think riots are inevitable. They’re not. Oscar Grant’s own family has made pleas for peace.” I start to get less comfy. I feel antsy and itchy. The wooden bench all of a sudden feels unwelcoming, the creaky planks pinching my ass, as if to say, “Really? Really? You’re just gonna sit here on me in Berkeley? Coward.”
My mom calls next. She lives in East Oakland. A few blocks from Eastmont Mall. Violence surrounds her everyday. I live in a better neighborhood than she does. But she also knows me. I walked alone all around and through the last community response of Oscar Grant’s murder. The last time Oakland ‘rioted’. Drove her crazy. “Where are you?” she asks me. “In Berkeley, with Karen.” “Good. Stay there.” “Ummm…” “Airial, don’t go Downtown.” “Well this time I’ll be with other people… I’ll keep you posted, Mom.” Again, I didn’t text her till 10pm that night.
4:10pm I retweet the verdict: “Johannes Mehserle: Involuntary Manslaughter. Maximum sentence: 4 years in state prison.”
I tell Karen. She has been cursing out the submission guidelines for the journal she is writing her article for while keeping me abreast of her word count. She stops and starts swearing all over again: “What the fuck? How the fuck? Oh my God, that’s bullshit! Those racist fucking motherfuckers!” But she can’t lose focus. She wants to be pissed, she wants to express her anger at this injustice. But she also has to get her work done. No one has excused her from her deadline. No one is sending her home. I don’t say much. I just agree.
She pauses long enough to register my unease,”Where are the boys?” she asks.
“At their Dad’s.”
“Then you should go.”
A few more tweets and retweets. Some Facebook updates clarifying what a gun enhancement charge can do to an Involuntary Manslaughter ruling. Then I leave to head into a city that a lot of people were determined to get out of. Again I wondered, who is going to fill this vacuum? I didn’t go to my apartment. Just went straight to the Oakland Local office on 14th Street, two blocks from Broadway, where the official Oscar Grant Post Verdict Gathering was going to be held.
My next tweet is at 11:47pm a retweet of Oakland Local’s: “Oakland’s reaction to Mehserle verdict mostly peaceful till nightfall when looting, arrests happen.” We’re still in the office. The tweet includes a link to all of the coverage I’ve helped compile. My own photo’s and reporting included. A really great set of multi-media. Accurate, in the moment raw data. After I took my own photos and wrote my own contribution to the breaking story, I spent a lot of time crunching photos with Amy, helping to get them uploaded as quickly as possible. No time for editing, or crafting, just crunching and posting. Reporters and photographers came and went throughout the night.
Anything I have to say about that night can be found there. What is important to me was that this time I was not alone. I was with other people determined to not get caught up. Willing to document. It felt like living breathing loyalty… to my city, to the memory of Oscar Grant and his family. Of all the various people and parties and agendas that filled the vacuum of an Oakland locked down and emptied, I was here to help tell the story. Somebody has to bare witness.
My personal facebook page takes over where the tweeting left off. I tried to stay in constant dialogue with my friends and friends of friends as the afternoon turned to evening turned to nightfall turned to the next day. I wanted to clarify the rumors. I wanted to show them what I was seeing as I was seeing it. A lot of my friends in the East Bay are parents with young children, some single, some not. I felt like I was reporting for them.
My older son called me around 10pm from his father’s house in Woodland. “Mom! Are you ok? I’m watching the news there are riots in Oakland! What’s happening? You are at home right?” “I’m fine. It’s fine, honey. It’s not as bad as it looks on TV.” “But you’re home right?” It was time to lie to my ten year old: “Of course I am, you should go to bed. Don’t worry.”
We closed the office at Midnight. I drove 3 other Oakland Local folks home. Two live in East Oakland, one lives in the Laurel. I went back Downtown to the Ruby Room to meet up with the other reporters and photographers who were decompressing. It was surreal to be sitting in a bar on a night when the city was supposed to be burning. But there we were, together. Last call came and I drive Kwan home. Up through Broadway to West Oakland. Then I make my way back to my place near Lake Merritt around 3AM down Grand Ave, passing the banks that have windows smashed, the looted cafe’s near Webster, graffiti is everywhere.
I get into bed exhausted, grateful and amazed.