MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we're going to hear from one of the nation's most prominent rabbis about two issues reverberating in the Jewish community: the ongoing conflict in Gaza and the scandal surrounding Bernie Madoff's investment firm. That's next in our weekly Faith Matters conversation.
But first, we want to tell you about a police shooting in Oakland, California, that has started the new year off on a violent note. On New Year's Day, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. He was among those responding to reports of men fighting on a train. Now, the shooting, captured by an amateur video and later broadcast on television, showed an immobilized Grant lying face down on the subway platform when he was shot.
That has sparked street protests this week that turned violent. More than 100 people have been arrested, and many downtown stores were vandalized. One of those stores belongs to Leemu Topka. Her salon, Creative African Braids, an African braiding salon, was vandalized. She's with us now to tell us about it, and also with us is Demian Bulwa. He's a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he's been covering the story. Welcome to the program both of you. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. DEMIAN BULWA (Staff Writer, San Francisco Chronicle): Thanks.
MARTIN: And Leemu, I want to get to you in a minute, but Demian, if you could just start us off by telling us, what's the situation in Oakland right now? What's the atmosphere?
Mr. BULWA: Well, after the - after people took to the street, they're just basically trying to keep that down. There was a high police presence last night in Oakland, trying to make sure that no violence occurred, a large show of force. There was about 100 protesters that still came out. The police kind of cornered them in, and there was no further situation. There's also a lot of efforts by authorities, and also the family of the young man who was killed, to calm the city. The family actually had a press conference and pleaded for calm. So, there's a lot of efforts politically and public-relations wise to make sure this doesn't happen again.
MARTIN: Have - has anyone been hurt in these protests, or has it mainly been property damage? Which is not to minimize that, but have there been any injuries as a result of these protests?
Mr. BULWA: I believe there were a couple of minor injuries. I was out there for several hours, watching the protesters, and I actually didn't see any. They were really heavy on the vandalism. There were some streets where men were just climbing from car to car and smashing the windows. That was the typical action.
MARTIN: Now, you were out at the protests from the beginning. Did you have a sense - you know how sometimes you get kind of a gut feeling that something's going to happen? Did you have that gut feeling when you first went out to cover the protests, that there was something in the air?
Mr. BULWA: You know, it was very difficult to tell. By the time I got out there, though, there had already been a police car that had been smashed, and so, there was definitely that potential. There was a long standoff after that in downtown Oakland, and I actually told a reporter back at the news desk that perhaps this was going to die down, and then things started to be inflamed, police started to try to disperse people, and it just really went off. And it was really at that moment it began that Miss Topka, who I met briefly out there, had her window smashed.
MARTIN: Leemu, can you tell us what happened? What were you doing when all this was starting? Did you have a feeling, a bad feeling, that day that something was going to happen?
Ms. LEEMU TOPKA (Owner, Creative African Braids Salon, Oakland, California): Well, I was in the shop working, and after I got done with my client, and she left the shop. She had just walked out of the door, and I locked the door, trying to clean the shop, and I saw the group of guys just coming from across the street. I saw them hitting the door across the street, and they crossed on the other side the street to my salon. They started hitting the door, trying to force the door open, but it was locked, and they started taking the bottles and hitting the glass and broke the door, the window, everything. And I said to them, why you guys are doing this to me? And - but they wouldn't listen, I guess, because they were angry or - I don't know. They ain't listening. They started to do what they do.
MARTIN: When you asked them why they're doing this, did anybody say anything to you?
Ms. TOPKA: No, they didn't say anything. I only heard they're using a bad word, like cussing, like, F-word, you know?
MARTIN: Just cussing, but - just cussing in general, but not necessarily at you.
Ms. TOPKA: No. Yeah, they were just saying - well, the other guy was saying, hit it, man. You hit the, you know, (unintelligible) you hit the damn, motherfucking door.
MARTIN: I see. OK. I see what you're saying, just a lot of sort of free-flowing kind of anger out there. Demian, when you were out talking to people, did you get a chance to ask them? I know it's kind of hard to - I mean, having been in these situations, it's not like people are standing there to, you know, give you a long discourse in what they're doing. But did you get a chance to ask anybody what they were doing and why they were doing it?
Ms. TOPKA: Well...
MARTIN: No, I'm sorry. I was going to ask Demian.
Ms. TOPKA: OK.
Mr. BULWA: Yeah, I did. And you know, people were saying that basically, enough is enough, and they feel like this is just the latest example of an abusive power, most specifically by police, against young men of color in the Bay Area and beyond. And then, that was the general feeling, and the people were quite different. It was sort of a mix of people who were kind of profess - almost professional protesters and also some locals as well. And they were, I think, clearly feeling like this was a statement they could make somehow. Others just seemed to be getting a thrill out of it as well, although they might argue that they feel like they needed to make that statement as well.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Demian Bulwa, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Leemu Topka, whose shop was damaged in a violent protest that followed a police shooting in Oakland on New Year's Day. Leemu, I just - if I could just have a couple more minutes with you, because I know you have other things to do, but can I just ask, are you able to work in your shop now? Was the damage so bad that you can't work there?
Ms. TOPKA: No, I didn't work yesterday, and I'm not sure I'm going to work today, because I already contacted the glass company; they supposed to come by to see if they can fix the stuff for me.
MARTIN: Can I ask you, Leemu? It seems - maybe it's a silly question. But how did this make you feel? I know it must have been frightening, but how did it make you feel when these guys - I don't know if you knew any of them from the neighborhood - were smashing in your store?
Ms. TOPKA: Well, I feel bad, you know, by them breaking the glass, but I also have sympathy with what happened, too, you know.
MARTIN: Really? How so?
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MARTIN: Why so? You said you have some sympathy with their feelings?
Ms. TOPKA: Yeah. I said I feel bad for breaking the glass on my - you know, damaging my salon, I feel bad. But I'm also in sympathy with what happened, you know.
MARTIN: I see. I see. Well, thank you. Demian, can you tell us what happens next? You said that a lot of the political leaders, even the family of Oscar Grant, have been very visible appealing for calm. What happens next? Are there formal investigations? I know the police officer who is at issue here resigned from the force a day or so ago. So, what's next?
Mr. BULWA: Well, you know, what happened was that there was some criticism over the response to this. The BART Agency didn't put out much information. In fact, in the beginning, they just said that the gun discharged, and so, that was fueling a lot of the anger. And so, as the investigations went forward, there hasn't been enough information out there for people, and BART has also been criticized for not immediately compelling the officer to speak at least to Internal Affairs, which they could have done.
MARTIN: They could have done that.
Mr. BULWA: So...
MARTIN: They did have the authority to compel him to speak.
Mr. BULWA: Yes.
MARTIN: And they did not.
Mr. BULWA: They did not, and they finally did that on Wednesday and set up a meeting, but instead of coming down - now the videos are all out there, and the thing has heated up. Instead of coming down, the officer's attorney handed over his resignation, and so, we may never hear from the officer. But the investigations are going forward. Yesterday, the Oakland Police Department was brought in, another effort to restore some faith in this process, and we may see some results, the district attorney says, in about two weeks.
MARTIN: The investigating body is the Oakland Police Department, and this is a different agency than is at issue in the shooting; is that correct?
Mr. BULWA: Actually, BART is going to continue to investigate. They have a full-service police department, and the district attorney is going to be involved, and now Oakland's investigators are going to also be involved. And so, both of these agencies are going to be feeding their information to the district attorney, and all of these things are going to be running parallel to each other.
MARTIN: And what about the mayor, Ron Dellums? Where has he been on this issue? What has he been saying?
Mr. BULWA: Well, he was the one who called for Oakland Police to get involved to try to restore some faith. An interesting scene at the protests, Dellums and a number of other leaders actually walked down from City Hall and tried to cool off the protests, and then people followed the mayor in a group like the pied piper back up to City Hall, and he had all these individual conversations with people who expressed their theory to him. And I mean, he talked to maybe 100 people individually. He gets to the steps of City Hall, delivers a speech asking for calm, goes back inside the door; within a minute, it was like a shot, people took off and started smashing things again.
MARTIN: What do you think that means?
Mr. BULWA: Well, I think that it was a few people in the crowd that listened to Mr. Dellums' message and agreed with it. But I think most people were committed to doing what they were doing for several hours that night, and I think they would give different reasons for it, but they were committed to doing it, you know?
MARTIN: And Demian, can I just ask you very briefly - and I apologize for that - but there's just been - you get the sense that some people consider this a racial - there's a racial aspect to this because the young man is African-American and the police officer was not, and yet, this is a majority black city with a lot of African-Americans in of positions of authority. So, what do you think people see this as? Do you think - is it more of a reaction to the police, or is it a racial piece, or is it all of that?
Mr. BULWA: Well, I think it's all of these. I think probably the attorney for the family expressed it best yesterday when he said that he didn't think that the officer shot because Mr. Grant is African-American. However, he's not sure that this whole situation on the platform would have come about at all and the men would have been in the position they were if they were a bunch of white, young men.
MARTIN: Demian Bulwa is a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He's been following this story. Leemu Topka is a braider and owns a hair salon. Her salon, Creative African Braids, was damaged by the violent protests connected to the shooting of Oscar Grant. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BULWA: Thanks.
Ms. TOPKA: Bye.
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MARTIN: You're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Stay with us.
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