Put Reporters on the Ground and Ground the Helicopters

Put Reporters on the Ground and Ground the Helicopters

Moments after the 1992 not guilty verdict came down in the Rodney King trial, the first violence I witnessed at the Los Angeles county courthouse came from a white man. He ran out to the courthouse parking lot screaming, “You’ve got to be kidding me!?” He then busted a car window with his well-made briefcase. It was a sign of things to come.

That night, we’d planned on using CNN’s van to transmit live shots from the streets of Los Angeles back to our Bay Area viewers. Our best laid plans unraveled as quickly as an angry South Central Neighborhood. Suddenly, a mob of young people poured gasoline on rags as they made an arsenal of Molotov cocktails.

Also See: Oakland Transforms as It Prepares for Street Rebellions

The CNN crew got spooked, slammed the doors on their “live van” and left us for dead with the crowd. We stayed with the angry mob for 48 hours and saw firsthand that, although the riots may have been sparked by the verdict in the Rodney King trial, King’s memory was little more than a dying ember in a bonfire of misdirected anger and unrequited rage.

The Los Angeles riots were about racism double square to the third power – no doubt about it. The melting pot was boiling over. white police, black police, white people, black people, Korean people, Chinese people, Mexican people, Vietnamese … all the people seemed to have as many grudges as guns. The black and white racism of blacks and whites, stoked by a long history of police brutality, faded to gray during the hours of chaos that followed. People of different races became targets of arson and random violence. Economic fault lines rumbled as it became clear other dramas were moving to center stage. A hatred-soaked environment of poverty laid the foundation of anger long before the verdict. The Los Angeles riots had become an all-encompassing, broad brush stroke, time for payback.

The racism blew me away, but it was the legion of television and police helicopters overhead that, quite literally, whipped it all up into a frenzy. If there was an organizing force to this chaos … a single element egging on the rioters … it was the half-dozen noisy helicopters following the roving mobs’ every move. Like a competent, cattle-herding dog, the helicopters gathered the crowd and propelled it into a larger and meaner force of nature.

When people on the ground cannot hear themselves think, forget about them reasoning with one another. The war zone feeling of mayhem created by the helicopters practically dares people to become more reckless. The noise drowns out their voices … giving the impression that authority is forcing them to shut up. What is a person without voice? There’s no greater sign of disrespect than to take a voice away.

Imagine helicopters so loud your ears ring. Imagine lights so bright it hurts to look up. Imagine helicopter blades swirling so fast they fan the flames of discontent … herding and goading young people with reality-TV culture mentalities to do just about anything to get on camera.

Are you getting the picture?

Bay Area, let’s be smart after this Mehserle verdict.

If local television stokes anger with uncontextualized images, turn off that station forever. Those who run it care more about profit than the communities they promised to inform.

Get experienced reporters on the ground. Keep the overbearing, loud, chaos-provoking helicopters out of the sky. At least we can do that for our beloved Oakland.

Without all that noise, we might even hear the voices of our future leaders.

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Oakland Transforms as It Prepares for Street Rebellions
By: Jesse Strauss, Truthout | Op-Ed

The trial of Johannes Mehserle, the cop who killed Oscar Grant, has reawakened a rebellious campaign against police brutality in Oakland, California. Grant, of course, was the unarmed young father who was pulled off a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) car for allegedly fighting early in the morning of January 1, 2009. After being detained by police, along with a group of his friends, he was shot in the back by Mehserle while lying on his belly on the BART platform. All this, of course, in front of a train full of witnesses, many of whom recorded the killing on cameras and cell phones. Although there is no doubt in the minds of many community members who have seen those videos as to what happened on that BART platform, the jury at Mehserle’s trial in Los Angeles may see something differently.

Throughout the past week, graffiti has appeared all over Oakland. Around Lake Merritt, powerful messages have shown up around the walkway; from “BART Targets Black People” to “Justice for Oscar Grant III or Else,” it was one of the first major public awareness campaigns to remind Oakland, as well as the law enforcement community, that the city will not rest while Mehserle’s trial comes to a close.

The graffiti that’s been appearing is only a small part of the community’s early response to, and anticipation of, the verdict. While painting these words seems to be an anonymous warning to the city, other visual cues are suggesting Oakland will be ablaze.

Ghost town images of boarded up buildings are another way the community has begun preparing for the verdict. Many businesses have covered their windows in anticipation of street rebellions which could echo those from last year. During those actions, only a few days after Grant was killed, thousands of community members took to the streets, expressing their anger over Grant’s death by marching, chanting, and in some cases, damaging cars and the property of local businesses. Those demonstrations resulted in over 100 arrests.

On the city government’s side, it seems like there is a strong potential for Oakland to rapidly turn into a police state. Reports have been out for weeks, saying that the Oakland Police Department is preparing with nothing less than intensive riot-control training. Police have taken over a part of the Port of Oakland to use as both a training ground and a home base for what they are calling “Operation Verdict.” There are also rumors that the National Guard is already on its way with hundreds if not tens of thousands of troops.

Law enforcement training and presence could inflame community response to the verdict. Is their preparation helping or hurting our situation? Does seeing police train for intensive action make people angrier, and, therefore, justify use of riot-control techniques and possibly violence by Oakland law enforcement?

As Oakland visually shifts with anti-brutality graffiti and boarded up windows, the city government could be pushing potential protesters into the streets and intensifying the militancy of already protest-bound community members.

On the other hand, from town hall meetings to boarded up windows, all sides of the community are much more organized than they were last year. No matter how people participate, an explosive potential could hit Oakland as Mehserle’s verdict comes out.

No matter the outcome of the trial or, for that matter, what happens in the streets, the police has turned these events into another win for itself, that is, at least in the sense that they are capitalizing off a potentially volatile situation. Just as we hear that 80 police officers have been laid off in Oakland, hundreds more are getting days, possibly weeks, of free training with new crowd-control and dispersal technology (toys). Moreover, overtime pay adds to the ways police are benefiting from Grant’s death. Not only are the police then capitalizing off of the trial by getting new training and toys, but they are also benefiting financially from what could turn into just another day in Oakland; that is, if the community is satisfied with the verdict.

Is there potential for a satisfying verdict?

Nothing will bring Grant back to life. Nothing will allow him to raise his young daughter. At the very most, his killer could be convicted of second degree murder, which would put him away for 40 or more years.

If not, it is sounding more and more likely that the Oakland community will not let our legal system make a ruling on justice. Given that legal means will have fallen short, for a community which is positive of the perpetrator of this crime, justice may be taken into the community’s hands. If the legal system is not holding the perpetrator accountable, maybe the legal system is broken.

Continuing around Lake Merritt, another piece of graffiti appeared, demanding justice as a price for peace: “No justice? No peace!” It is a community call to action that, for me, echoes those surrounding the Rodney King verdict.

If justice rains down, we could be preparing for a massive celebration. If not, a massive confrontation could see community members arrested or wounded. Either way, the police have already capitalized off the situation; but so has the Oakland community, which seems organized, focused and determined for justice. As graffiti artists, shopkeepers and Oakland police transform the city in anticipation of a verdict, the transformation itself could be the explosive element that lights Oakland ablaze with rebellion.

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@riseup.net.