The BART shooting: Are violent protests the answer?

What is it people used to say about urban centers during the civil rights protests of the ’60s? Tinderbox.

No question that Oakland is a full-on bonfire, soaked in gasoline and just waiting for a match or two. Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson and reporter Henry Lee have provided readers a long running and deep image of a city off its moorings, from hapless (or absent or corrupt) government leaders to rampant homicide.

So is it the fuming frustrations of Oakland that provided the tinder for riotous, violent protest Wednesday night, and the shooting of Oscar Grant in a BART station the flame?

This doesn’t make it right, as several thousand SFGate commenters made clear in a fugue of response, a sizable piece of it pulled as abusive. The damage to downtown property didn’t help anyone, didn’t solve any mysteries, didn’t make anyone’s life better, authorities more accountable or Oakland more liveable. It’s like holding yourself hostage.

I get that it’s complicated. But neither does that make it right and saying so doesn’t make me guilty, as one commenter accused other comments, of “racism, classism, and general kneejerk bigotry.”

A number of the comments that did make it on SFGate had the tint of a racial lens. It wasn’t explicit but implicit in some of the references to both the protestors and Mr. Grant as “thugs” with criminal histories and intent.

While the grainy video images of the fatal BART incident appeared to be a kind of Rodney-King, black/white showdown, the Oakland PD has come some distance from the Riders days; the Mayor, if you can find him, is African-American with a long history of activism and, in what would have been a shock to all citizens back in the 60s, a black man is about to assume the presidency of the United States.

So it’s not clear whether race was actually another match to the pyre, rather than just an easy outlet and excuse for action and comment.

Plus, as often happened over the years when race actually was a clear-cut issue, much of the rage of the crowd was directed at black-owned businesses and property.

Windows were smashed at the Creative African Braids shop and owner Leemu Topka was herself irate. “This is our business!” she shouted to a Chronicle reporter. “This is our shop. This is what you call a protest?” Demonstrator Nia Sykes said Topka “should be glad she just lost her business and not her life.” Otherwise, Ms. Sykes felt “the night is going great.”

OK, that’s some big logical leaping in there, unless you’re just out to let off steam and don’t really care who gets bashed.

But the tenor of the tirade in the streets of Oakland was in sharp contrast to the tone at Oscar Grant’s funeral. “I want to challenge every young man here today,” said Lita Gomez, the sister of Oscar’s girlfriend. “Let’s keep Oscar’s memory going. Make changes in your life, the changes that he was making in becoming a better man.”

That was not the spirit roaming in what one SFGate commenter called downtown “Smokland.”

The Chronicle funeral story itself got thrashed by some commenters as a “whitewash” of a guy (Oscar) with an apparent history of drugs and violence who was out prowling at 2 a.m. instead of at home with his young daughter and girlfriend. But like the shooting, we’re still not sure what was what that New Year’s Eve night.

We were also elbowed for running a photo of the open coffin and corpse. “Tawdry and disrespectful…horrifying,” says paris-refugee. That’s a whole other debate.

Maybe these explosive protests are like avalanches or earthquakes: they just happen and there’s very little you can do besides duck, cover or stay out of the way. The Bay Area could remedy some of our local budget problems if we could charge for exporting protest since it seems like a habitual reflex when things go bad. Since we’re not, though, what do they actually do for anyone? Will this get BART officials to hurry up their investigation into what is still a murky killing? Does it have greater force the next morning than a vigil, or some shouting at officials and peaceful demands for answers by citizens at a community meeting (which is happening today)?

I get that it has an underlying force that involves powerlessness and power? But people made a choice to be there. This whole story is about a series of choices people made.

As always, a captivating debate of its own, tinted with outrage and anger, has broken out in the SFGate comments section of Chronicle stories. Ihateprop8 says “I can’t say what I think on here’, but apparently tried to because the rest of the comment has been removed as abusive”. In fact roughly a third of all comments on this story have been removed.

A chunk of what’s left devolves into borderline hate messages, and there’s a pretty big tide against the protestors. But there are reasonable points and questions all over the boards. Responding to a comment that the crowd’s anger was justified, dani24 says “Really? So you’re saying that violence is a shame. But when you’re mad about something it’s justified?”

There’s some scolding of the black community in Oakland for not getting as exercised about the overflowing murder rate and other violent crime, which predominantly affects the black community.

A number of people asked why Oakland Police cars were burning when it was a BART policeman who pulled the trigger on Mr. Grant. See earlier reference to Oakland.

A few others are glad they live in Arizona, or SF instead of Oakland. “So much for “Change in 2009” locally, says harbinger (and we hope it isn’t one). “If this kid was shot by another kid his age, would we still be hearing about it?” asks aptonpost, who also doesn’t want Oscar Grant turned into a Saint but notes the “sad and somber trend” of young black men killed by gunfire in the Bay Area.

In all the frenzy and spleen and hot blood, both on the pavement last night and on sfgate the last day or so, there was some tilting at hope, if not change.

“RIP Oscar Grant,” says norgeboy. “Hopefully good will come from your tragic and untimely departure.”

Not yet, I’m afraid. And certainly not when people are torching cars and beauty shops

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