Become a photojournalist and witness first hand how life works. The good, bad and downright ugly.
Call it whatever you want.
It was with trepidation and nervousness when assigned to photograph on Thursday night, Oakland’s reaction to the involuntary manslaughter verdict on Johannes Mehserle, a former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer convicted in the shooting death of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station on New Years Day 2009.
I get picked for these assignments because:
A) I have a hard time turning down assignments.
B) It’s my job.
C) I’ve covered several riots (demonstrations) including the 1989 Overtown riot in Miami, The Rodney King riots in LA and the north coast’s Redwood Summer in 1990 which was filled with days of civil disobedience. I even got a big whiff of pepper spray in Roseland during a few Cinco de Mayo celebrations gone awry.
Quite by accident I’ve become the de facto conflict photographer here at the PD; although every photographer on the Press Democrat staff is quite capable of shooting these events.
So Thursday afternoon, reporter Julie Johnson and I set out for the East Bay (in different vehicles). Beside the usual tie up on Highway 80 through Berkeley, it was comical how simple it was getting in to Oakland and finding a parking space. I parked two blocks from 14th and Broadway, the eventual flash point of violence. In five minutes, I was photographing riot clad police officers. Downtown was utterly deserted. It was the same way during the Rodney King Riots.
There is something about a crowd in the daytime. The atmosphere, although this one tinged with a tempest of stress, is almost laid back. A band was playing upbeat music in the crowd, two men matched wits while playing chess on Broadway, there was even a three way game of football catch going on. The scene was surreal.
I know better though. It’s calm frenetic energy. I’ve experienced this eeriness many times, it’s a beast that lurks in every large, amped crowd. Trust me.
I made myself as visible as I could with law enforcement with lots of eye contact. The media was pretty much free to go behind and in front of the police lines that were in place. It was remarkable access.
As much as a crowd can be passive in the daytime, nightfall is a much different feeling. The hair stands up on ones neck. The tension of the Oakland crowd was palpable. Little skirmishes broke out between the crowd and police. The crowd became more bold as riot police started to clear Broadway, steadily marching forward with batons out. In an instant there was one arrest. Then another. Parts of the crowd started to run. I heard the whoosh of a 40 ounce bottle of beer flying over my head, landing inches from a line of police. Then rocks. Where did the rocks come from? Then more bottles. Signs were thrown. More arrests. More bottles.
Shattering of windows. Looting of Foot Locker. The events were rapid fire. Fluid. Rioters threatening photographers.
Fellow photographers Jeff Chiu of the Associated Press, freelancer Peter DaSilva, Karl Mondon of the Contra Costa Times, John Mabanglo of European Press Agency and I all stuck together. There was power in numbers, we had each others back. More bottles, more windows. People running, sprinting in every direction. A fire was lit in a trash can fed by boxes from the looted shoe store.
Still, the police marched north on Broadway in greater numbers, clearing violence from the pavement. There was anger on the Oakland streets. Undeniable unabashed anger. Broadway was a dangerous, frightening place for thirty minutes Thursday night.
Visual vignettes come back to me. A woman barely five-two, standing in front of Foot Locker keeping looters at bay, yelling “STOP!” at the top of her lungs.
A man with a beard pushing people away from a burning trash bin. “HEY! THIS IS MY TOWN! STOP BURNING IT!
A police officer telling an arrested man he was sorry, “but I’m just doing my job” in a conciliatory tone.
A man apologizing to an officer for getting in the way.
I saw fear on both sides, anguish and at times, mutual respect.
Just like that, deadline for the newspaper loomed. Five quick minutes and I was back in my car sending photos to the newsroom. It was peaceful. In 45 minutes I was on the road back to Sonoma County in what seemed a continent away from the days news. Whew.
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