The Magazine

Excusing the Oakland Rioters

Looting is not a form of civil rights protest.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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In a remarkable demonstration of defining deviancy down, Oakland is congratulating itself for the scale of the riots that broke out July 8 in response to the verdict in a police shooting case. “So a hundred businesses were damaged and looted,” the conventional wisdom in Oakland holds, “so police were assaulted with rocks and bottles, a California Highway Patrol car’s windshield was smashed, and fires were set in the streets. Such violence is cause for relief because it could have been so much worse”—as indeed it was a year and a half ago, when the original incident occurred. 

Excusing the Oakland Rioters

Ray Chavez, Polaris

On New Year’s Day 2009, a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer fatally shot an unarmed man at an Oakland subway station during a melee between fighting passengers and the police, who had been called to the station to subdue the violence. Several guns had already been found along BART train tracks that night. Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old father and parolee with a gun conviction, as Grant was lying on the platform face down. Mehserle claims that Grant was resisting arrest and seemed to be reaching for a gun, a claim disputed by some witnesses. Mehserle testified that he thought that he had grabbed his Taser; instead, he mistakenly reached for his gun. Evidence was presented at trial regarding BART’s failure to properly train its officers in Taser use during high-stress situations. The shooting—Mehserle was white and Grant black—set off a month of recurrent rioting in Oakland in January 2009. It was the transit officer’s conviction of involuntary manslaughter this July 8 that triggered the current round of riots, because, according to the race agitators, the unusually severe manslaughter verdict, arrived at after an aggressively prosecuted, immaculately fair trial, was not severe enough; the officer should have been convicted of murder. 

Coverage of the violence’s effect on local businesses, already meager to begin with, has all but disappeared from the press. But before Americans’ usual oblivion regarding yesterday’s news sets in, it may be worth pondering a few matters regarding this latest episode of civil destruction.

- Who is compensating the Oakland business owners whose windows were shattered, merchandise cleaned out, and walls defaced with obscenities and slogans such as “Kill all cops!” and “Say no to work, yes to looting!”? (An entire store of sneakers, as well as jewelry—including diamond-studded “grills” worn over teeth—hair and cosmetic products, ice cream, cereal, and potato chips, were among the consolation prizes to which disappointed “justice”-seekers helped themselves. Photos show several grinning festively as they cart off their new shoes. Nearly every bank along one thoroughfare was broken into.) Even if insurance covers all the proprietors’ losses, their premiums, undoubtedly already high, will go even higher. The rioters should be forced to repay the costs of looting. The businesses that weren’t physically destroyed lost customers on Thursday as word of the impending verdict was broadcast, leading to a near evacuation of downtown as terrified commuters fled the area. Those entrepreneurs and their employees are also victims of the mayhem. 

- Where are the official voices condemning this violence? Oakland mayor Ron Dellums may well have blasted the rioters for their assault on Oakland’s fragile civic order, but the available press coverage does not reflect any such pronouncements. His website contains a statement issued in anticipation of the verdict, but nothing since. That pre-verdict message is hardly a ringing endorsement of the American judicial system: 

Voices are crying out for justice. My hope is that justice will be served. I want to reiterate that the journey to justice does not have to end here. If young Oscar Grant’s parents, who out of respect should make this decision, determine that justice has not been served, then I will commit myself to work with the family and their attorneys to continue this journey to justice.

Translation: Unless you get the verdict you want, no matter how scrupulously due process was observed, “justice” will not have been done and the cause of racial grievance will live on. Dellums has welcomed the Justice Department’s superfluous investigation into the verdict. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) backed up that support by reminding U.S. attorney general Eric Holder in a letter that “we are still not in a place where we are judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin.” 

Speaking to the press after this latest round of riots, Dellums portrayed the trashed businesses’ losses as the cost of “democracy”:

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