Police vow crackdown after Zimmerman protests flare in L.A., Oakland

As two major California cities spent Tuesday morning assessing damage and tallying arrests from violent protests the night before, officials asked for peaceful behavior -- but promised a crackdown should the demonstrations escalate again.

Protestors have rallied across the nation after a Florida jury acquitted former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Saturday's verdict sparked nightly protests in many major cities.

But the demonstrations in Oakland and Los Angeles morphed into more aggressive outbursts, with marauders running through city streets -- smashing windows, lighting garbage fires, assaulting news crews and, in one case, attacking a waiter trying to protect a restaurant damaged two nights prior.

At least nine people, including a juvenile, were arrested in Oakland on Monday night for alleged offenses including assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest and vandalism, police said. Los Angeles police reported 14 arrests from Monday, including six juveniles. Most of the L.A. arrests were for what police said was failure to disperse, though one was for allegedly inciting a riot.

At a weekly Police Commission meeting Tuesday, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck had stern words for those hoping for a repeat of the night before. He promised a large deployment of officers in Leimert Park -- near Monday's violence -- and said the department "will be very aggressive."

"When crowds obey the lawful orders of police ... we allow them a lot of leeway," Beck said. "Unfortunately we won't be able to do that tonight."

What began as a peaceful protest in South L.A.’s Leimert Park escalated Monday after officials said a group of about 150 people splintered off and headed down Crenshaw Boulevard and neighboring streets, smashing windows, lighting fireworks and surrounding cars.

Cuauhtemoc Negrete, 22, who was at the rally in Leimert Park, said he later was robbed and threatened by one of the rogue groups. He said he also saw people assaulted as they waited for a bus at Vernon Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard.

He broke down in tears Monday as he expressed frustration over the protests. “Why does it always have to go down this road?” he said.

Other witnesses recalled chaos after vandals made their way inside a Wal-Mart in Crenshaw Plaza, storming the store before security guards were able to close the gates. A short time later, Los Angeles Police Department officers wearing helmets and carrying batons arrived.

Lali Castillo, 21, of Glendale said she saw people come inside the store and begin throwing merchandise -- mostly clothing -- onto the ground. Some tried to break open the glass jewelry displays on the first floor, she said.

She and her family quickly got in their car and left. 

Tanya Williams, 55, of Inglewood, and her daughter Erica Williams, 28, were shopping on the second floor when they heard people run into the store, screaming. They also saw protesters try to break the glass jewelry cabinets.

“I was scared,” Tanya Williams said.

The women said they saw clothes on the floor and a little girl crying.

“She must have been in the middle of it,” Erica Williams said.

The two left the store and watched as the crowd continued to gather on Crenshaw Boulevard. When they decided to go shopping, they thought they were a safe distance from any potential problems. 

“We saw the helicopters and we knew about the vigil, but it wasn’t going to make it this way,” Erica Williams said.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said Tuesday morning that there were no injuries or significant damage at the store, which re-opened after 9 a.m.

At least two people – a reporter and cameraman who work for Channels 2 and 9 – were injured Monday.  Reporter Dave Bryan was interviewing Joseph Degurre, 43, about 10 p.m. Monday when video shows Bryan getting hit in the back of the head by the cameraman’s camera. The attackers then ran off, witnesses said.