Mixed Feelings On Reaction To Oakland Shooting

The police shooting last week of a 22-year-old man as he lay pinned face-down on an Oakland subway platform floor resulted in protest and even rioting this week. Youth Radio commentator Leon Sykes almost joined the protest, and has mixed feelings about community reaction to the killing.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In Oakland, California, the recent police shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant resulted in protests earlier this week. Wednesday night, after shop windows were smashed and cars burned, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums tried to calm the crowd.

(Soundbite of protest, January 7, 2009)

Unidentified Protestor: Why are you firing teachers? Why don't you fire police?

Mayor RON DELLUMS (Democrat, Oakland, California): I'm just asking people to disperse. Let's leave in a spirit of peace. I don't want anybody hurt. I don't want anybody jailed.

NORRIS: Youth Radio commentator Leon Sykes lives in Oakland. He says many young people are upset about Grant's killing, but uncertain how to react.

LEON SYKES: I decided not to join in the protests in Oakland this week, even though a lot of my friends were there. I was worried random protesters would be there, looking for trouble. I felt like their voices will be louder than the people looking for justice. I stayed home and watched the news. I saw two different stories unfold. The first channel I watched: senseless violence, people running around with unfocused anger, causing chaos. Later on, I saw riot police grabbing kids and dragging them off by their necks. Just seeing police in riot gear can be a provocation. But we all know you can't touch the police. It's like being a child on punishment; you can't hit your parent, so you hit a wall, flip over a desk. Unfortunately, innocent people's cars and businesses became that wall this week in Oakland.

Being a black man who's lived my whole life in the town, I see the violence as the boiling point of our frustration with police abuse of power. This is 2009, you know, the year of change? But we're still facing problems like police brutality, the same problems my mother and father faced more than 40 years ago. The difference now is Oaklanders are enraged by a crime that can't be covered up. Oscar Grant's killing was recorded with bystanders' cell phones. Anyone with the Internet connection can witness the whole scene. You hear the crowd yelling at the officers just before Grant is shot in the back, pointblank. With the BART police officers still on the streets, I'm feeling like I'm watching one of these cliche gangster movies, where the bad guy is so powerful, no one wants to touch him. I know if I shot someone in front of a crowd, or even pulled out a gun, for that matter, there'd be no walking away. That's why those kids rocked police cars and broke windows.

Don't get me wrong; Oakland's not a model city. Unfortunately, citizens are shooting each other too. But I saw something different on Election Day. I didn't hear about one shooting that night. We were in the streets like 500 deep, singing GObama, GObama(ph). People were playing capoeira and djembe drums. There were, like, barely any police and no problems, absolutely none. The presidential inauguration is days away, a dream come true for black Americans, for the country. And Oakland citizens take great pride in knowing we helped make it real by voting and grassroots action. But here in the town this week, we don't even know if we'll accomplish something simple: accountability for a publicly witnessed murder. The young people I know say, we're going to be about that action until justice is served. For NPR News, I'm Leon Sykes.

NORRIS: And that commentary comes to us from Youth Radio in Oakland, California.

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