OAKLAND Calif. — A chirping sound on his laptop alerted George Chamales, a self anointed freelance hacker, that the Foot Locker, a sports shoe shop in downtown Oakland had been vandalized, 15 minutes before the news appeared either on a police radio wave streamed online or on any mainstream media outlet.
Chameles and his girltfriend were mapping notable incidents of violence in Downtown Oakland on Thursday night, using Ushahidi – a disaster mapping platform first built in Kenya.
Their aim was to prevent any loss of innocent lives, in the chaos that ensued after the peaceful protests demanding justice for Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black youth shot by a BART cop, turned sour.
“I discovered Ushahidi in April, when I saw it successfully deployed in Haiti, to map the devastation from the earthquake . It is an open source platform that aims to provide reliable, real-time information about a crisis as it unfolds, to help people on the ground stay informed as be safe,” said Chameles, an independent Computer Security Consultant.
The Oakland Police had braced themselves for a riot as the accused ex-BART officer Johannes Mehserle received a verdict of involuntary manslaughter on Thursday, June 8.
“I realized that I could use this tool in my own backyard, to help the community and to relay truthful facts about what happens. I started working on it just 2 days before the verdict was due, and was able to have the oscargrantprotests.com site up about an hour before the verdict was announced at 4.00 p.m.,” said Chameles a resident of Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood.
Although this was the first time that a white cop was convicted of a significant felony in California for shooting an unarmed Black man, many felt the verdict was inadequate. Crowds poured to 14th Street and Broadway, demanding justice.
Chameles scanned Tweetdeck, a tool used to follow several twitter streams at once, for the latest updates from people on the ground, while listening to a police radio signal that was streamed online. He also browsed mainstream media websites to verify the updates he was getting through twitter about the ground situation.
“We called the Oakland police riot tip-off line and informed them about the site. We also informed the Oakland Red Cross that had a team of volunteers on the ground,” Chamalese said. As the evening progressed his site became a central reference point for people to check whether BART stations were closed, or find out where the looting was happening
Both BART(@SFBART) and the Oakland Police (@OaklandpoliceCA) had their own twitter streams to provide situation updates. But, as Oakland Police Public Information Officer Holly Joshi noted, this was the first time they were experimenting with this tool in a crisis situation, and there was a significant time-lapse between when the information came in and was relayed to the public.
“At one point we received information that the 19th Street BART Station in Oakland was closed. Just as we were about to tweet it, we saw that BART’s official twitter account had sent a newer update saying that it was reopened. When we called to double check we realized that the confusion was due to delays in getting the right information to the people handling the official social media tools at BART,” Joshi said.
It was in instances like this, where Chameles’s website oscargrantprotests.com had an edge over the official channels of communication and the mainstream media.
“We were experiencing all the action from a meta-pervasive level. We were tracking the voices of many people, who were tweeting real-time from the ground. So we had the advantage of having hundreds of eye-witness accounts, compared to that of the official channels that were limited,” Chameles said.
In several instances. Chameles knew about a violent incident on the ground 10 to 20 minutes before it was broadcast in the traditional media.
“We were looking at mainstream media to verify the facts we were getting mainly through twitter feeds. But after some time we realized that there was a way to validate the authenticity of the tweets we were getting, by looking at the past content. As we followed the information related by different individuals, we quickly spotted who had been consistently accurate about incidences. We picked them up as trustworthy sources,” Chameles explained.
Interestingly, tweets from professional journalists on the ground, emerged as some of the most trustworthy sources of information.
Chameles and his girlfriend tracked the incidents till around 1.00 a.m, when the action died down and the police retreated.
“I felt that the overall protest was relatively calm, despite the incidents of vandalism as I tracked the wave of real-time information. A lot fo the sentiments expressed in the twittersphere reinforced the call for non-violence,” Chameles said.
Many micro-bloggers who were tweeting from the ground were disappointed with the screaming headlines in the mainstream media the next day.
“The newspapers and websites were filled with pictures of broken glasses, the graffiti and the few dumpsters that were burnt. But there were more people who came out and tried to say that violence was not justice. How did the media miss that point?” questioned a citizen blogger who microblogs with the twitter-handle @OakFoSho.
The crowds also started retweeting the message “Peopl starting to break windows at the Rite Aid. Come on #Oakland, stay #NonViolent! #OscarGrant #protest at 16th & Broadway” as the vandalism began, as a way of denouncing the violence.
Another popular sentiment that was echoing in the twittersphere was that “Post-racism will be the shortest era in American history ever. Welcome to post-post-racism. Or in other words, back to racism,” tweeted by @dahlak.
Fan pages had also sprung up on facebook, both supporting and opposing the verdict and provided a discussion forum on whether justice was delivered in the case. They were also rallying points for organizing future protests, to keep the memory of Oscar Grant alive.
Robert Gerstle — an Oakland Resident who was part of the “Violence is not Justice” protest that was organized by the community groups, Youth Uprising and the Urban Peace Movement — witnessed how civilians were trying in some instances to stop the recklessness on their own as “…the OPD stood around and watched while they maintained scrimmage”.
“Those individuals didn’t get much media attention as to their efforts to convey the Grant family’s wishes for peace. Honestly, the next day I told my friends not to even bother looking at the newspapers. There shots and stories only reinforce their own macabre beliefs about the people of Oakland,” Gerstle said.