Television only captures a small part of the swirling sights, sounds of cacophonic chaos of out-of-control mobs rampaging and destroying everything in their path.
A live broadcast can't capture the overwhelming up-close, personal fear and adrenaline of being in the middle of a riot. The closest it comes is hearing the fear in the voices of on-scene reporters clamoring for police. Riots are chaotic, destructive, dangerous, and often deadly.
Some riots are predictable, giving police time to plan and prepare a response. Such was the case with the July 8 riot in Oakland. The January 2009 protests-turned-riots in Oakland were a preview of what police could expect depending on the former BART officer verdict.
When a guilty verdict of involuntary manslaughter was announced mid-afternoon on July 8, you could sense "something" was likely to happen. The city of Oakland, and especially the Oakland PD, had been preparing for possible violence for 18 months. During the trial, Bay Area TV stations showed OPD training for possible riots, while not revealing any "strategy or tactics."
How did OPD plan and prepare for potential rioting? Any plan is only as good as its leadership. OPD's new Chief Anthony Batts brings a wealth of experience as Long Beach (Calif.) PD's chief and SWAT commander. He's assisted by a cadre of able, experienced OPD command personnel.
As with many Bay Area cities, OPD is well trained, equipped and has a wealth of experience in crowd control, demonstrations and riots. This, combined with effective leadership, only needs a sound strategic and tactical plan and implementation to be an effective riot control response.
Anarchists, who played a central role in the January 2009 Oakland/BART riots, would be expected to do it again on July 8. The Bay Area is noted for its many anarchist groups. Anarchists had plenty of recent "practice" causing mayhem, violence, vandalism and confronting police at the 2010 Toronto G-20 Summit and Vancouver Winter Olympics, and 2009 Pittsburgh G-20 Summit.
In 2009, the anarchists were joined by "opportunist"—street thugs using the occasion to wreak their own havoc. Police had every reason to believe July 8 would be no different than January 2009. This time, police would be ready.
July 8 afternoon protests started slowly with only a few, peaceful protesters venting against the "too lenient" sentence. The city of Oakland even provided the City Hall lawn for peaceful demonstrations.
Slowly and steadily, the protest in front of City Hall became larger and louder, but remained peaceful. Meanwhile, not wanting to provoke confrontation, officers remained in hidden staging areas. The first real sign of the massive police presence was overhead TV aerial footage of a large formation of field force vehicles moving slowly in the direction of the growing City Hall demonstration.
The first reports of trouble were reported with nightfall. Strategically located TV reporters provided play-by-play coverage of a number of simultaneous incidents, including at least one confrontation between demonstrators and police.
TV viewers could sense the rapidly growing tension and buildup toward trouble. TV cameras on the ground and in the air showed massive numbers of police in riot gear methodically advancing on foot toward demonstrators—some of whom were throwing objects at officers.
Aerial views showed police were deploying in what can be described as a "collapsing containment" strategy. Slowly herding the now-violent demonstrators into a smaller space and easier containment.
Police were now being pelted with thrown objects, and while field force front lines remained intact, arrest teams of ample officers conducted forays into the mobs to arrest select targets, and then whisked them back behind the lines. These arrest forays were repeated again and again.
Meanwhile, the crowds turned mobs had turned violent, throwing objects at police, wearing the typical Black Bloc "uniform" (all black clothing, bandanas, hoodies and backpacks containing improvised weapons. As organized as police were, the anarchists appeared nearly as well organized, and were clearly acting according to their own plan.
Suddenly, at least one TV station ground reporter said there was a splinter mob breaking into a Foot Locker store, just beyond the police containment area. The reporter provided live coverage as the mob broke windows, ransacked and looted the store. Then, emboldened by their "success," they searched for more targets. Soon, the mob was rampaging, breaking windows with hammers, looting, spray painting buildings, setting trash-dumpster fires and rioting.
Sixty to 80 businesses were damaged, vandalized, or looted. Ultimately, 78 rioters were arrested for various charges—mostly misdemeanors—but 12 for felonies that included assaulting and/or resisting police, rioting, and looting.
Several business owners criticized police for a "too slow response" and OPD promised to look into how to improve in the future. OPD also said there were communications breakdowns that was due to the 15 participating LE agencies on different radio frequencies and/or unfamiliarity with using borrowed OPD portables.
The plan called for all assignments to come from the Command Post. However, there were instances where individual non-OPD units responded independently of the CP. Also, one 100-officer contingent was never deployed due to a communication breakdown.
But overall, the OPD plan was executed with disciplined effectiveness that was impressive considering that 15 LE agencies, representing a reported 900 officers, were involved. And as most of us know, "a plan is a plan, until s*** hits the fan."
I was particularly impressed by the "collapsing containment" tactic that effectively took ground away from rioters. What I was most impressed with was the disciplined professionalism by all the officers I saw. This, despite their being subjected for five hours to non-stop attacks by determined rioters and anarchists.
Former BART officer Mehserle's sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 5. Meanwhile, 80 Oakland police officers were laid off only days after the July 8 riot, including many who were involved in the riot. Amidst threats of possibly more OPD layoffs, Chief Batts has promised that next time, police will be even better prepared. After what I saw, I'd have to agree.