What is the purpose of a riot?

by Latoya Peterson

I have a piece on the Oakland shooting scheduled to run on Monday from a frequent contributor. However, I stumbled across this article in the SF Gate and wanted to throw it out to the room to discuss.

A protest over the fatal shooting by a BART police officer of an unarmed black man mushroomed into several hours of violence Wednesday night as demonstrators smashed storefronts and cars, set several cars ablaze and blocked streets in downtown Oakland.

The roving mob expressed fury at police and frustration over society’s racial injustice. Yet the demonstrators were often indiscriminate, frequently targeting the businesses and prized possessions of people of color.

They smashed a hair salon, a pharmacy and several restaurants. Police in riot gear tried to control the crowd, but some people retreated along 14th Street and bashed cars along the way.

The mob smashed the windows at Creative African Braids on 14th Street, and a woman walked out of the shop holding a baby in her arms.

“This is our business,” shouted Leemu Topka, the black owner of the salon she started four years ago. “This is our shop. This is what you call a protest?”

Wednesday night’s vandalism victims had nothing to do with the shooting death by a BART police officer of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day – but that did little to sway the mob.

“I feel like the night is going great,” said Nia Sykes, 24, of San Francisco, one of the demonstrators. “I feel like Oakland should make some noise. This is how we need to fight back. It’s for the murder of a black male.”

Sykes, who is black, had little sympathy for the owner of Creative African Braids.

“She should be glad she just lost her business and not her life,” Sykes said. She added that she did have one worry for the night: “I just hope nobody gets shot or killed.”

What the hell was the point of destroying a black owned business to protest the murder of an unarmed black man?

As citizens, we have the right to peacefully assemble and peacefully protest. And the article mentions that the protest started off peacefully – but a smaller offshoot of participants started the violence, mainly against local businesses and parked cars. Some of the cars belonged to the city of Oakland, but others belonged to private citizens, just going about their lives.

Something that always strikes me about those who incite a riot is that they always seem to do it in our neighborhoods. If you want to tear something down after an egregious event, that feeling is understandable. (I don’t feel like it should always be acted on, but that’s another post.) However, why is it that the violence quickly spirals out of control and starts attacking innocents?

Perhaps I am biased because it was only in the last three or so years that Washington, DC finished cleaning up the traces of the last round of riots we went through. A lot of the older folks have painful memories of what it means when a protest starts of well, then turns to chants to burn the city down.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

(Photo Credit: Lacy Atkins for the Chronicle)