On the evening of the verdict, near 1,000 people gathered in downtown Oakland in a city-sanctioned protest. People chanted, cried, played chess and shouted obscenities at the police and the media. But there was no violence until after nightfall, when a small group vandalized and looted downtown businesses.

“I think [Oakland Police] Chief [Anthony] Batts did a great job,” said Judith Katz, project manager for the Bay Area Non-Violent Communication Group, one of several groups that joined with the city prior to the verdict announcement to plan for the protests. “I’m proud to be from Oakland,” said Katz.

Michael Nagler, president of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Berkeley, which promotes non-violent social change, said he was impressed with behavior on both sides of police lines. “Given the level of emotion that was reached by the verdict, you could give people very high marks for the level of restraint,” said Nagler.

The Oakland Police Department, city government and community groups had been preparing for the verdict for weeks, hoping to avoid a repeat of the chaotic protests in January 2009 following Grant’s killing, in which over 100 people were arrested and dozens of businesses damaged. This time, over a dozen organizations, church leaders and business groups joined in the planning process, mapping out ways to facilitate free speech, defuse potential violence and educate the community on the criminal justice system.

...Several days before the verdict was announced, the Bay Area Non-Violent Communication Group held a training for community organizers on how to diffuse tensions “in a situation where people are freaking out,” as Katz described it. At the protest on Thursday, her group, along with representatives of the city’s Measure Y violence prevention program and the ad hoc group Oaklanders for Peace, Justice and Healing patrolled the area around 14th and Broadway, attempting to calm enraged protestors and engage people in “empathic reflections.”  The strategy, explained Katz, helps get to the bottom of people’s anger and prevent them from lashing out. “It’s a reflection process where people feel heard,” said Katz, “and it reduces tension.”

...Besides using the strategy to calm protestors, Katz said she talked supportively with anti-riot police deployed to the protest, some of whom, besides being taunted, spit on and pelted with rocks and bottles, were soon to be laid off because of the city’s budget shortfall. “They need empathy too,” said Katz.

Fania Davis, executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which was also involved in the pre-verdict planning, said the organizers were largely successful in implementing their goal to create a safe space for people to voice their opinion about the verdict. On verdict day, young people from the group helped calm angry protestors and intervened between them and the police, said Davis.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth also helped plan the five healing centers opened on Thursday evening at various locations around the city. At the centers, residents were invited to express their feelings about the verdict and talk about ways to move forward.

“You had an organized force for peace and justice that you haven’t seen before,” said Davis. Nevertheless, she lamented the damage done to some businesses and the handful of injuries. “I don’t know what we could have done to have prevented that, and that’s the conversation we need to have now.” She also said some peaceful protestors got unfairly caught up in the officers’ nighttime sweep of looters and vandals.

 

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