On January 7, the streets of Oakland erupted into an orgy of property damage when a protest honoring murdered Hayward resident Oscar Grant turned violent. Helicopters buzzed over the downtown skyline, and you could feel tension in the air. Eyewitness accounts tell of protesters breaking store windows, setting cars on fire, and throwing bottles from rooftops. Videos show angry mobs trying to tip over police cars as officers in riot gear hung from the sides of an armored truck. By the time the rioting was quelled, more than one hundred people had been arrested. Journalist JR Valrey was among them.
One week before, in the early hours of New Year's Day, Grant had been shot in the back by BART cop Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale BART station. Cell-phone footage of the shooting was soon all over the Internet, and the protest was organized to demand justice for the slain 22-year-old and his family. Valrey attended not so much as an observer but as a participant.
Valrey is what you might call an advocacy journalist. With his KPFA radio segement The Block Report, his job as associate editor for San Francisco Bay View newspaper, and his position as the so-called "Minister of Information" for the Prisoners of Conscience Committee (POCC), he has become known for covering police shootings. When he reached the protest, he did something no mainstream journalist would do: He took the mike and spoke to the crowd, demanding justice not just for Grant, but also for other victims of police violence.
"Why didn't people come out when Bay Area police officers murdered unarmed Terrence Mearis, unarmed Casper Bajo, unarmed Anita Gaye, unarmed Gary King, unarmed Gus Rugley, unarmed Cammerin Boyd, unarmed Idriss Stelley, or when the police terrorized fifteen-year-old unarmed Laronte Studesville, unarmed Randy Murphy, or unarmed Nadra Foster?" Valrey asked the crowd. "Is it because these cases were not caught on camera?"
By sunset the protest was dying down, and Valrey says he left to meet some friends. But about one hour later, he says he got a call that there was rioting downtown. When he returned, he saw dozens of police in a huge circle on 14th Street and Broadway, occupying the intersection in front of City Hall. According to his Bay View article "Oakland rebellion: Eyewitness report by POCC Minister of Information JR," protesters shouted slogans at the police as angry bands of people smashed car windshields and storefronts with skateboards, their feet, and other objects. Valrey said he began taking photographs.
Mayor Ron Dellums soon made an appearance, walking through the angry crowd, as Valrey put it, "like black Jesus." The mayor made his way across Broadway to the Civic Center area and then delivered a short speech in which he called for civility to prevail. Valrey says Dellums was swiftly booed off stage and retreated back to the safety of City Hall. The rioting soon resumed. Windows were smashed, cars and trash cans were set ablaze, and protesters taunted officers or lay down in front of police lines with their faces down and their hands behind their backs, mimicking the posture of Oscar Grant when he was shot. According to Valrey's article, the police began breaking into groups of six or seven and rushing rioters, tackling and arresting anyone in the vicinity.
Valrey says two officers chased and tackled him while he was taking photographs by the Federal Building. He spent the night in Santa Rita Jail and was charged with felony arson, which carries a possible sentence of three years in a state penitentiary. In all, 160 people were arrested on the night of January 7, mostly on misdemeanor charges. All but ten subsequently had the charges against them dropped. Just four people, including Valrey, are still facing felony charges.
Oakland police would not release information describing the events the leading up to his arrest. Valrey also declined to go into greater detail, claiming that he doesn't want to compromise his defense. But he insists that he is innocent. "I have no history of arson, when I was arrested there was no lighter, no matches, not even paper to light anything."
Valrey claims his arrest was payback for his years of covering police brutality. "I was covering it as a journalist," he said. "But one thing that's different about me from the rest of the rebels is that the Oakland police know me. ... I'm not a stranger to the power structure of Oakland, so I believe like many others that I was targeted politically. ... We were basically set up on trumped-up charges."
His lawyer, Marlon Monroe, says the case against Valrey is weak and will fail: "There's no physical evidence that they can pin on JR, despite the fact that there were several officers who witnessed the arrest, as well as news cameras."
In the meantime, the arrest has given Valrey plenty of fodder for The Block Report and the Bay View. In the weeks since the riots, he has written eyewitness accounts, interviewed people present at the rioting, and run radio shows interviewing family members of Oscar Grant. He hasn't hesitated to use the KPFA airwaves and pages of the Bay View to call for community support in fighting his felony charges.
But Valrey hasn't just covered the riots and their aftermath. He has participated in "town bizness meetings" focused on what Valrey calls "police terrorism." He has helped organize POCC political actions, including a boycott of BART on what would have been Grant's 23rd birthday. And he has defended the Oakland riots as a necessary means of getting the city's attention.
Valrey has become the mouthpiece of an anti-police movement that has grown since Grant's shooting. He even defends the actions of cop killer Lovelle Mixon as a "heroic day of resistance against the police." As unpopular as these sentiments make him in many quarters, he has become a beacon for the anger that smoulders among some members of Oakland's black community.