Thursday, January 8, 2009

Oakland Riots

I will write an actual article about this later but while it's fresh in my mind I want to jot down the more personal side of this evening for you...

I pulled up to my house in Oakland shortly after 5pm. It wasn't until I stepped out of the car that I began to notice there were half a dozen helicopters circling directly above. Not believing there could be so many traffic choppers flying for the 5-o-clock news hour, I called Christopher and asked him to turn on the news and find out what was going on. He said there was a protest at the Fruitvale BART. I stifled my initial impulse to grab my camera and head over, since it was only a mile away, and headed inside instead. I set down my purse and slipped off my coat, fully intending to settle in for the evening, but as I reached into the closet to put away my coat I saw my camera bag sitting on the floor. Knowing I would later regret not checking things out for myself, I grabbed out my camera, flash, my Zoom audio recorder, and some extra AA batteries. After changing into jeans and a hoodie I headed back to my car and called my good friend Joe Vasquez, a reporter at CBS 5 News in San Francisco. Joe told me there had been a gathering outside the Fruitvale BART protesting the death of a young man who was shot by a BART police officer at that station only a few days ago. The crowds were marching down International toward the Lake Merritt BART, and he suggested I meet up there.

Using the GPS in my IPhone I managed to find my way to the Lake Merritt BART parking lot shortly after dusk. I considered parking on the street to avoid a parking ticket but crossed my fingers for luck, parked, and made my way to the corner where I saw a CBS 5 News van. Inside was photographer named Robert who I'd met while he was doing a story about gift cards a couple months ago in San Francisco. I reintroduced myself and told him I was looking for Joe. Robert told me Joe had arrived with Patrick, another photographer, but said it would be fine for me to tag along until we found them. I pulled out my audio recorder and camera and began gathering some initial clips of the the crowd chanting and marching. 

Within a few minutes we located Joe, just in time to watch the crowd turn into a mob as the first police vehicle arrived. The car drove into the middle of the intersection but had little time to act as dozens of protesters began jumping on the car, bashing in the windows, and rocking the car in a failed attempt to overturn it. A dumpster was set ablaze a few feet away. Riot police who had begun gathering prior to the incident rushed in to control the rioters. Tear gas was fired into the crowd in response to glass bottles and other debris being thrown at their lineup. As the police closed in the mob dispersed.

We followed the larger group several blocks toward city hall and waited to see what would happen next. Fifteen minutes later I began to see police units heading around to the far side of the block where we stood, and a chopper's spotlight was aimed the same direction. We ran toward the reassembling mob and began filming. They made their way down 14th street leaving behind a trail of overturned garbage cans, some set ablaze. Broken glass littered the streets, and through Chinatown boxes of vegetables set out for the garbage had been thrown around the street and on top of police cars.

An estimated 150 riot police gradually surrounded the mob until they were surrounded on three sides of an intersection. Several protesters lay on the ground in front of the police lines mimicking the position Grant was in when he was shot; laying on their bellies with their hands behind their backs. An unmarked police vehicle approached the intersection and over a bull horn the driver was heard beginning a ten minute countdown by the end of which protesters would be forcefully removed. Despite the police's attempts to hold off additional protesters hoping to enter the intersection, the mob continued to grow in size and intensity. A dozen photographers, videographers, and reporters remained inside the intersection, attempting to remain close to the action. 

At the end of the ten minute count down the lines of riot police in full gear began to close in on all three sides. A vehicle resembling a cross between a tank and armored truck entered the intersection with a dozen officers hanging off the sides. Many protesters attempted to hold their ground, but were forced backward by hard shoves and billy club jabs to the chest. As the police closed in the crowd became violent once again, throwing debris and setting more garbage cans on fire. They jumped on the civilian vehicles lining the street, bashing in windshields and denting hoods. At one point a few of the offers charged at the mob near us and we may have been trampled if not for being pressed up against a store wall. A vehicle exploded into flames a dozen feet away. I could not raise my arms to free my camera and get the shot. Another surge of bodies came, during which one of our camera men was punched in the chest by a rioter and told that he didn't belong there. I was hit with a glass bottle and other debris. Fearful of being separated from the CBS team, I reached out and grabbed Joe by his press pass lanyard and gripped it for dear life as I pulled away from the mob and tore down the street. We choked air through our sleeves, trying to block the thick gray smoke from our noses. Again the mob dispersed.

Joe, Robert and I reconnecting with Patrick, the second CBS videographer, at his news van nearby. Taking advantage of the lull, the CBS team began cutting their footage for the 10-o-clock news hour. I watched outside the van as small groups of looters ran past, shouting and kicking at the mounds of newspaper stands and garbage cans. The owner of the car that had been engulfed in flames not a full hour before came down from his office one block away and gave a short interview. Ken Epstein, a reporter for the Oakland Post, had been in his 12th floor office working on a story about what a tragedy Grants death was, when he looked down at the street and saw his own car being demolished. Parked behind him was a young woman, who did not wish to on the record, who had been enjoying her birthday dinner with friends at a nearby restaurant. She returned to her car only to find that all the windows had been smashed in and her belongings were scattered all over the sidewalk.

Around half an hour passed before we saw the Mayor headed down 14th street right toward us, surrounded by dozens of rioters and media. Patrick grabbed his video camera and I the microphone, and we worked our way into the center of the crowd until I could get the mic close enough the the Mayor to record as he attempted to answer the questions being shouted. The media wanted to know what was being done by law enforcement, and the public wanted to know what was being done to avenge the death of Grant. 

Patrick and I headed back to the news van, and he prepared footage as I slipped into the tail end of a small press conference being held in the lobby of the police station. By 9:30, 15 people had been arrested, 14 adults and one minor. The charges were a combination of assault on an officer, vandalism, and failure to disperse. I raced back to the news van, where Joe and Robert were now setting up with Patrick for the 10-o-clock live shot and gave them the update. During the next hour we stayed near the police station even though there were riots continuing on in front of City Hall. They were smaller and the police seemed to have altered their initial strategy of simply dispersing people and began making dozens of arrests. It seemed to be affective, since by the time Joe did his live shot for the 11-o-clock news the rioters appeared to have finally finished their rampage through downtown.

Once the 11-o-clock was wrapped, Robert headed back to CBS's station in San Francisco with all the footage that had been shot that night. Patrick and Joe dropped me off at my car back at our starting point, the Lake Merritt BART parking lot, where thankfully my car remained unharmed and un-ticketed. I tried to map the freeway on ramp with my IPhone GPS again but was having difficulties when a BART officer pulled up next to me and offered for me to follow him there. We introduced ourselves, his name was Donald. He mentioned I was lucky to have just missed the action. I laughed and told him I'd been in the middle of it from the beginning. He confided that he was torn on the entire ordeal, being a BART cop but also a black man, and feeling that the race card was being overplayed. He believed the shooting was controversial but was disappointed at the public's violent and destructive reaction to it. 

And now here I am at a quarter past one, starving and sore and tired, but feeling rejuvenated by having seized the opportunity to contribute to CBS's coverage of the day's events and validated by the journalist's instinct I displayed. There might not be any media jobs out there for me right now, but it's maximizing experiences like this that will keep me on top of my game. Before any worse exhaustion induced delirium sets in, I'll skip proofing this entry and will post it for you to read just as raw as it flowed through my mind and onto my keyboard. But I promise I'll organize my thoughts, review my note pad for better details, edit my photos and audio, and construct something more palatable for you tomorrow.

Sweet dreams.