Black-and-white posters of Oscar Grant’s smiling face are plastered on many downtown shop windows, especially on 17th Street, which suffered the most damage after riots broke out to protest the deadly police shooting that killed the 22-year-old butcher’s apprentice on New Year’s Day last year.
As the trial of former police officer Johannes Mehserle, accused of killing Oscar Grant, draws to an end, with a verdict anticipated as early as this week, city authorities advised small businesses to stock up on plywood, board their windows, and follow Twitter updates from the Oakland police in anticipation of more civil unrest.
Kathy Cho, owner of a small business called Showcase Wigs, said she pasted the sign reading “Justice needed for Oscar Grant!” on her storefront hoping that it would keep protestors from smashing her windows if another riot occurred.
“The Oakland downtown area … is full of restaurants run by new immigrants, stores run by minority entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop stores,” said Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Joseph Haraburda. “These were the worst affected in the previous riots. They usually find it much harder to recover from such damages.”
Oakland authorities are urging business owners to place deadbolt locks on outside doors, ensure their closed-circuit TV cameras are in working condition, and park vehicles away from the business district on the day a verdict might be reached.
Grant, an unarmed black male, was shot in the back by Mehserle, a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer, on a subway platform Jan 1, 2009. More than 120 people were arrested in the riots that occurred six days after the shooting.
“We are thinking of boarding up our windows because, irrespective of whether the outcome is positive or negative, I feel that something is going to happen,” said Cho. “The last time when it happened, 17th Atreet was the worst hit because there was no protection here.”
Showcase Wigs had its windows shattered during the last riots.
City and police authorities asked business owners earlier this month to alert the police in case of any unrest or vandalism in the downtown area.
But Jung Min Hong, owner of Ichi Japon Restaurant in downtown Oakland, said she “still felt uneasy,” despite the preparations.
“The City Council paid for damages to replace the shattered windows last time,” she said. However, she added, business never picked up after downtown Oakland became a “no-go zone” for a few months after the riots.
That, coupled with the continuing recession, has hit businesses hard.
During the riots that followed Grant’s shooting, Pho 84, a Vietnamese restaurant a block away from Ichi Japon, was saved by employees who formed a human chain in front of it and protected it throughout the night.
Sang Pho, who has been running the business for more than a decade, remembers standing out that night, watching the protestors and the mobs pass by.
“I am grateful that nothing happened last time,” she said. “At that time we had a minimal insurance coverage and we were totally unprepared for something like that.”
According to Shiva Dhandappanavar, owner of an Allstate franchise in La Puente, Calif., terrorism, riot and civil commotion insurance is a separate option, not included in basic property insurance coverage.
“Many small proprietors who lease their business premises would take a basic insurance to cover for fire, theft and other damages to their goods,” he said. But landlords should also consider “riot and civil commotion insurance.”
He said not all business owners are even aware that such coverage exists.
Gertha Hays, proprietor of Diva’s Closet, a clothing and accessories store, said she had never thought of riot insurance.
A sign outside Underground Treasures, which also sells clothing, reads as follows: “Business never recovered from the Oscar Grant riots. Please provide contributions to keep it alive.”
Poornima Weerasekara is a graduate of Stanford University’s journalism program. Poornima currently works as a freelance journalist.