George Floyd protests: sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent. Which is right?

OAKLAND — Police were firing off tear gas and flashbang grenades, and demonstrators were ransacking Walgreen’s and Chase Bank and tagging buildings along Franklin Street when a young black protester’s voice rose above the crowd.

“Why we doing this to the Town?” he asked, his voice caught on video. “Why are you doing this to Oakland?”

It’s the kind of question being asked around the Bay Area and across the country as cities recover from a weekend of demonstrations and looting and brace for more. It’s not easy to answer. But the mayhem is forcing people from inner cities to suburban neighborhoods to grapple with the manifestation of outrage and frustration in the streets brought on by generations of oppression and the recent police killing of a black man in Minneapolis who was begging to breathe.

Is the message being lost by the looting? Or does the desperate disruption make the protest even stronger? Are outsiders to blame? Can we learn? Can we heal?

President Trump on Monday called the violence “acts of domestic terror.” But black leaders say that misses the point.

“If you want to talk about TVs being looted, then you’re asking the wrong question,” said Walter Wilson, a longtime South Bay civil rights leader. “It’s not about looting. It’s about murdering black people in the street. It’s about dehumanizing people. Looting is a byproduct.”

The weekend destruction has been indiscriminate. Small black-owned businesses in deep East Oakland and Fruitvale were hit as well as Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco’s Union Square and Macy’s in Walnut Creek.

Although mayors and police chiefs from Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco all have expressed solidarity with the peaceful protesters, they have also responded with curfews to keep people home, replenished police forces to disperse crowds and authorized the arrests of scores of people.

In a news conference with reporters on Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom tried to make sense of the moment.

“The black community is not responsible for what’s happening in this country right now. We are. Our institutions are responsible. We are accountable to this moment,” Newsom said. “People have lost patience because they haven’t seen progress. If you are out there saying people need to be patient, consider people have lost patience for a reason. Let’s just call that out.”

Members of the black community who have been fighting racism for decades say they understand the frustrations of young people who are turning their outrage into destruction. But they still believe in peaceful demonstrations.

Wanda Johnson, the mother of 22-year-old Oscar Grant who was killed by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale Station in 2009, said she understands the rage, but the vandalism is obscuring the message.

“All the focus on what business is being broken into, it’s putting George Floyd in the back when it should be in the front,” she said of the Minneapolis man who died after a police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring his cries that he couldn’t breathe.

There were ongoing protests that sometimes devolved into vandalism and small-scale looting in Oakland after Grant was killed, and again after a jury found the BART officer who shot Johnson’s son guilty of involuntary manslaughter but not guilty of the more serious murder charge. Ever since, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., she said, have rung clear: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

“America wrote a check it’s not cashing, especially for blacks,” Johnson said, “and some people feel that the only way they’re going to get paid is by this looting.”

She founded the Oscar Grant Foundation, she said, to fight for police accountability and criminal justice reform.

The past few days the media has been filled with scenes of young people storming places such as the Bayfair Center in San Leandro and Macy’s in Walnut Creek. But some activists say those scenes miss the provocations of police, including a San Jose police officer caught on video appearing to take glee in confrontations with protesters.

Zatia Moore, a 26-year-old San Jose State student studying to be a teacher, joined the Friday night protest in downtown San Jose to “add a black face to the front lines.” Although she started with a sense of energy and purpose, she quickly found herself running down Fourth Street with flashbang grenades exploding beside her.

“I just wanted to be as peaceful as can be,” she said. “I’m not someone who likes to fight. But once they started doing that, then I thought, what did we do to get this treatment?”

She disapproves of the looting, but her sympathies still lie with the protesters.

“These businesses are insured, but our lives are not,” she said. “It’s at the point where people are kind of tired. We’ve been peaceful and we’re not getting anywhere. What do we have to lose? That’s probably why they’re looting.”

Amid the police crackdowns across the Bay Area, there were also moments of solidarity over the weekend, when a line of Oakland police took a knee in solidarity with protesters and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo did the same in the City Hall Plaza.

Those are encouraging signs to people like Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the Silicon Valley NAACP, who still believes peaceful protests will inspire more change than violence.

“We understood it was a process and it’s going to take time and it’s a game of chess and these kids want everything right now,” Moore said. “It’s been too long, but if they can stay out there and sustain their protests for week after week, you can get change by being peaceful — like the sit-ins at the lunchrooms — you win more people to your side.”

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Author: Julia Prodis Sulek, David DeBolt