More than 100 people were arrested in downtown Oakland on Wednesday night when a protest turned violent, fueled at least in part by videos that quickly spread online of a subway policeman fatally shooting an unarmed man while he was lying on the ground restrained by another officer.
The case--and the overall intense community response to it--highlights the impact technology can have on news events. The devices people carry in their pockets give them the ability to turn what would normally be a case played out in the courtroom into one in which anyone with an Internet connection can serve as virtual judge and jury.
BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle, 27, allegedly shot Oscar Grant, 22, early on New Year's Day after Grant was pulled off a BART train following a scuffle among riders. Outrage over the incident spread quickly after videos--taken by onlookers with their cell phone cameras--started appearing on TV and the Internet.
Links to videos of the incident quickly circulated via e-mail. One of the first videos posted on YouTube was a KTVU Channel 2 news broadcast, which includes live video clips and an interview with a woman who took some of the video. (Note: We included YouTube links because of compatibility issues.)
Much of the video is grainy and views of the scene are sometimes obscured by people moving in front of the camera. However, there is no mistaking that the victim was on the ground, subdued by officers and not appearing threatening to anyone.
"When you watch that video your stomach just drops out from underneath you when you hear that gunshot because you know what the end result is," BART Chief Spokesman Linton Johnson told Channel 7.
What started Wednesday as a peaceful protest against the shooting and the way it was handled by authorities, turned into a near riot with protesters setting fire to trash cans and cars, including a police cruiser, and breaking store windows. There appeared to be no injuries, but about 105 people were arrested.
Exacerbating the anger among citizens was the fact that the shooting officer had resigned earlier on Wednesday, before authorities questioned him for an internal investigation. With no word from the officer explaining what happened, people have been left to speculate about the cause of the shooting (one theory is that the officer mistook his gun for a taser gun) and the mystery has undoubtedly driven even more people to view the videos.
The raw video on the Web site of KTVU Channel 2, based in Oakland, has been downloaded more than 500,000 times since it was posted on Monday, said Ed Chapuis, news director at the station.
The videos have played a critical role in the public interest in the incident, he said. "You have the incident in question actually on tape. You've got multiple views of it," he said. "That's what's different and unusual about the case."
Before broadcasting the video, KTVU officials debated whether or not it was appropriate to do so and decided that because there were so many questions raised about the sequence of events during the shooting, there was a strong journalistic reason to share the video with the public, according to Chapuis.
"This is a tragedy and there was nothing good about what happened," he said. "That is what we as journalists should be focusing on."
In the aftermath of the protest, people are again turning to technology as East Bay residents turn to microblogging site Twitter to get updated information about the investigation and subsequent protest activities.
It should also be noted that the victim's family on Wednesday publicly decried the Wednesday night violence, calling it an affront to his memory.