Column: Undercurrents: Media Reports Muddle Questions on Oakland Shooting By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday September 02, 2005

Did someone fire seven shots “at” Oakland police officers following a motorcycle club charity event at the Kaiser Convention Center last Saturday night? Were the motorcycle clubs—composed of mostly black members—in any way connected with the fired shots or the reported “chaos” that surrounded it, including what has been described by police officials as a “massive sideshow” that rolled from the downtown area out into East Oakland? And what were the exact events that led to the fired shots? 

It would seem that the City of Oakland would want to know the answers to those questions in order to prepare the proper response. 

I don’t know what information the Police Department or some city officials have, but following the various reports in the local media, it is pretty much impossible to get an accurate picture of what happened. 

According to the Oakland Tribune article by reporter Heather MacDonald published the next day, “the disturbance began about 11 p.m. as the [Kaiser Convention Center event hosted by the Shadows of the Knight, Kings of Cali, Wiseguys and Goodfellas local motorcycle clubs] began breaking up. At 2 a.m.—an hour after police ordered the crowd to disperse—someone fired seven shots at two police officers who were attempting to direct the traffic outside the Convention Center near Lake Merritt. Neither was hit. … To quell the chaos, officers pushed the vehicles out of the area, only to have hundreds of vehicles swarm the streets near Jack London Square less than a hour later, touching off a massive reckless driving ‘sideshow’ near Fourth Street and Broadway that involved several hundred people and vehicles.” 

The puzzlement begins with this newspaper account. What type of “disturbance” was taking place at 11 p.m. and if it was serious enough to be noted in the newspaper, why did Oakland police not order the crowd to disperse until two hours later? (The MacDonald article says the shots were fired at 2 a.m., an hour after they began the dispersal.) 

A San Francisco Chronicle article on the 29th by reporter Demian Bulwa mentioned no 11 p.m. disturbance, but only said that “[a]t 1 a.m. Sunday, police responded to the city-owned Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center downtown on 10th Street, as a canned food drive and charity dance organized by four motorcycle clubs was letting out.” Responded to what? Unfortunately, Mr. Bulwa doesn’t let us know. 

The reporter goes on to say, however, that ‘[a]s people hung out in the parking lot and traffic backed up in the area, a sideshow—an illegal street party where some participants perform tricks with their cars—was starting.” 

But to believe this account, you have to believe that a sideshow continued in the Kaiser Convention Center parking lot after Oakland police responded to the scene and continued on for an hour in full police presence. 

Is that what happened? Perhaps, but it doesn’t fit any of the scenarios I’ve witnessed over the past several years when Oakland police came out to disperse sideshow events. In all such events that I have seen or heard of, sideshow participants have dispersed almost immediately as soon as the police showed up. Are we being told that sideshow participants are now ignoring the police and going on with their activities, regardless? Or, in the alternative, was this merely a dispersal of cars from a parking lot that later developed into a sideshow at another downtown location several blocks away, Fourth and Broadway. 

And where, exactly, were the shots fired? 

The Tribune articles puts the shooting outside the Convention Center while two police officers were directing traffic. That shooting location appeared to be confirmed by KPIX and KTVU television stations, both of which posted the almost identical lead paragraphs on their websites that “about a thousand people were involved in a sideshow at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland Saturday night when shots were fired at police.” 

But the Chronicle article quotes a motorcycle club member from Vallejo, identified only by his club name Fireworks, saying that “(the shooting) happened up the street from us.” Up the street, where? Meaning the parking lot? Or was he talking about the Fourth and Broadway location where sideshow events reportedly took place somewhere around 2 o’clock? 

The question is more than idle curiosity. Various city officials—including City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Brown, and Oakland Police Lieutenant Paul Berlin—have all put the cause for the disturbances on the motorcycle clubs, with Lt. Berlin telling the Tribune he was going to ask city officials to revoke a permit for the clubs to have a similar event at the Convention Center this weekend. “We have enough problems here in Oakland,” Berlin said. And while Mr. Brown’s spokesperson Gil Duran said the organizers of the charity event are not “personally responsible for the actions of individuals,” Mr. Duran noted that “we don’t need to be sanctioning events that have our officers shot at in the middle of the night.” 

But shouldn’t we determine if the motorcycle clubs were at fault in some way-other than for simply holding an event in Oakland-before deciding to initiate a ban on their activities. How far away did the disturbances occur from their event? Was it reasonable to suppose in advance that there would be trouble? If so, did city or police officials anticipate such trouble and, if so, did they require any extra security efforts by the motorcycle clubs that the clubs did not follow? Or did the police not anticipate trouble, but are now holding the motorcycle clubs to a higher standard? 

Another important question to be answered is were the seven shots actually intentionally fired at the officers, or did they simply go by the officers because they happened to be there? 

Don’t get me wrong. Discharging a weapon in a crowded, public place is a serious, dangerous act, and people can end up just as dead from it regardless of whether or not their deaths were intentional. But it seems we would all agree that the intentional firing of a weapon at police officers trying to disperse a crowd would have enormous implications for any and all police and public activities in this city, so shouldn’t we know for sure? Is there a video available that can show—or witnesses who can say—that someone pointed a weapon directly at the two officers and fired at them? 

And finally—in the past, Oakland police have been accused of escalating crowd problems by their attitude, particularly crowds involving young African-Americans (Carijama, the Festival at the Lake, and, of course, Oakland’s sideshows come quickest to mind). Nobody has made that charge about Saturday night’s disturbances, although it must be noted that because neither the two newspapers or the two television stations quoted anyone who says they were in the parking lot when police were dispersing the drivers, or admitted being involved in the later sideshow at Fourth and Broadway, we haven’t yet heard from the individuals who were in a good position to make that charge. We will have to wait and see if any such accusations surface. If such accusations of police escalation of the problem do come forward, they should not necessarily be believed, but they should be taken seriously and made part of the investigation of this event. 

And an investigation of the events that occurred surrounding the Kaiser Convention Center benefit is certainly in order. Although some people have already drawn their conclusions, the public, at least, has not been presented with nearly enough information to be able to make up our minds about what happened, and why.