One of the most noted tragedies in recent Bay Area history was the death of Oscar Grant. The unarmed 22-year-old was shot and killed by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle two years ago on in the early morning hours of January 1st at the Fruitvale BART station.
The shooting sent shock waves throughout the Bay Area, setting off rounds of protests and civil disturbances over the following year and a half.
One of the largest demonstrations took place last July 8th, when Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. More than a thousand people gathered in Downtown Oakland to protest the jury’s decision. As darkness fell, there were running battles between police and protesters. Scores of people were arrested.
The Oakland Police Department prepared for the night of protests well in advance, calling it “Operation Verdict,” according to internal documents obtained by KALW’s Ali Winston.
HOLLY KERNAN: So Ali, you recently broke a story about how state and federal law enforcement were keeping tabs on protesters in Oakland for several months.
ALI WINSTON: Right, and the question I was exploring was why, specifically, the federal agents were there. Were they helping out as a one-off? Or was there something more to this.
KERNAN: And so was there something more to this?
WINSTON: So the documents show that before the verdict, there were confidential informants passing information to authorities at different events. And after the verdict, you had officers recording the actions of protesters from above Frank Ogawa Plaza in Downtown Oakland. There were other officers mingling with the crowd and sending information back to the police department. Now, they can argue that this kind of surveillance was warranted. There was property destruction in Oakland during earlier demonstrations, and there was concern by authorities that it wasn’t just Oaklanders involved – that it was anarchists.
KERNAN: So when we say anarchists, what are we talking about here?
WINSTON: We’re talking about folks who are part of anti-status, anti-establishment organizations that view the police and military and other branches of the state as oppressive. And they got a lot of play at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle several years ago. They’ve also clashed with police recently in Europe, particularly in Greece, and maybe Italy and England as well. And, law enforcement around the world tends to view anarchism as a terrorist threat. The FBI even has a primer about them on their website, under the domestic terrorism section.
KERNAN: So was the FBI in Oakland to keep an eye on anarchists? Or was there something more to this?
WINSTON: Well, when I first came across this set of documents, I did think that this was something being run out of the San Francisco Joint Terrorism Task Force. There had been rumors about federal interest in the Oscar Grant protests as early as January 2009.
KERNAN: Right after Oscar Grant was shot.
WINSTON: That’s right. But I spoke with David Strange – he’s the supervisory agent in charge of the domestic terrorism section of that Joint Terrorism Task Force – and he denied that they were involved with any surveillance.
DAVID STRANGE: That was not done through the approval or the management of the JTTF. Not one JTTF person was present at the crime scene, at the crime scenes or protests or anything. We did not have anyone there – and that was my explicit order, as a matter of fact.
KERNAN: So David Strange said that the FBI was not involved in a domestic terrorism investigation. So, Ali, what did you find as you were reporting it?
WINSTON: Well, the FBI was not involved in a major way on July 8th, on Verdict Day. But, they were paying very close attention to the Grant protests as early as January 2009. I found a police report from January 14, which is one of the days where there was a civil disturbance, and it showed an FBI transmission over OPD’s radio band detailing the movements of a “black bloc” of anarchists who were apparently intent on destroying property.
KERNAN: So what does the FBI involvement in these Oakland demonstrations mean?
WINSTON: Well, it’s really creating some tension between the need for domestic security on one hand, and people’s rights under the First Amendment. I mean, there clearly were concerns that we could see Rodney King-style riots in Oakland. What we saw for the most part were very peaceful protests.
But these preventive measures taken by state and federal agents, including the use of undercover officers and informants, draw to mind parallels to COINTELPRO – that’s the counterintelligence program used in the 1960s and ‘70s to disrupt the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers and other militant groups in Oakland and around the country. So, similar tactics could be at play right now to undermine any kind of organized anti-government activism or activity.