Tensions are high as former BART Police Office Johannes Mehserle’s murder trial comes to an end in Los Angeles. Mehserle faces a possible second-degree murder charge for killing unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 while he lay facedown at the Fruitvale BART station platform after a fight on board a train.
Grant’s death was captured on cell-phone videos and then widely seen throughout the Internet, leading to public outrage. Riots erupted in downtown Oakland on January 7, 2009, when a protest march — in which the protesters called the shooting a “police execution” — became violent. Demonstrators burned cars and trashcans and broke shop windows. Over 100 people were arrested. Several smaller riots erupted throughout the month of January, while Grant’s family pleaded for the violence to end. In November, 2009, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson granted a change of venue for Mehserle’s trial to move to Los Angeles, ruling that the violent protests and media attention in Oakland would not allow Mehserle a fair trial here.
The jury in Mehserle’s trial will hear closing arguments today and then decide whether the 28-year-old Mehserle is guilty of a crime, and if so, which one. Mehserle plead not guilty, saying that he mistakenly drew his gun on Grant when he meant to use a taser. On Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry ruled that Mehserle cannot be convicted of first-degree murder, saying that evidence in the trial proved that Mehserle did not plan to kill Grant by shooting him once in the back.
However, the jury may consider second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. If convicted of second-degree murder, Mehserle faces 40 years to life in prison. If convicted of voluntary manslaughter he would get three to 11 years. The jury may also acquit Mehserle if it finds he is not guilty of a crime. A verdict could be reached as soon as Friday.
Oakland non-profits, government agencies, volunteer organizations and the Oakland Police Department are now preparing for more possible violence if people are upset with the jury’s decision. There are already some indicators of unrest in Oakland. Incendiary graffiti that called for Mehserle’s death and threatened riots was scrawled in different spots around the city last weekend, and the Revolution Club of the Bay Area, a group that believes in using resistance to fight the system, set up camp near City Hall on Wednesday, where members shouted “People have the right to rebel against police murder.”
Last weekend Mayor Ron Dellums and Police Chief Anthony Batts sent out community and merchant information bulletins to help people prepare. “If a ‘not guilty’ verdict comes down in the Mehserle/Oscar Grant murder trial, we know many young people will feel a sense of outrage, anger and injustice,” they wrote. “We ask that you be both committed to social justice and a peaceful and thriving Oakland.”
The bulletins advise people to stay informed, park their cars in secure locations and remove or secure large trashcans. They also advise businesses to empty out cash drawers, get deadbolts for exterior locks and make sure all doorjambs are covered with a steel plate to prevent doors from being pried open. The city has also set up healing centers, “places to cool off and express yourself in positive ways,” where people can join a speak-out, make music or just talk. These locations include the East Bay Asian Youth Center, Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center, Mosswood Recreation Center, Youth UpRising and the Urban Services YMCA.
In a press conference announcing her mayoral candidacy on Wednesday, city councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said, “I believe that the people in Oakland believe in justice,” and that “smashing Oakland business to protest racism” is not productive and that any illegal activities will be taken seriously by the city.
Just down the street from Kaplan’s press conference was held is where members of the Revolution Club of the Bay Area unfurled a large white banner stating: “Jail the killer cops who murdered Oscar Grant. The people of the world have a right to rebel.” They passed out fliers saying any verdict other than murder is unacceptable. The information in the fliers urged people to gather in downtown Oakland on the day of the verdict to express their outrage.
On Saturday near Lake Merritt, threatening graffiti appeared on various walls at the north end of the lake. Some messages called for the death of Mehserle, others simply said “No justice, no peace.” One tag said: “Oscar’s revenge: Mehserle’s kid.” Most of this graffiti has been cleaned off, but there is still some in other parts of Oakland, including a cryptic message on West Grand Avenue that reads, “What would it take to surprise yerself? Verdict day.”
Several non-profits around Oakland are working to keep the peace, including many of those that have offered to serve as healing centers. Youth UpRising, a non-profit that works on leadership development with low-income youth, made a public service announcement YouTube video featuring Rapper Daniel Mora, Oakland Police Captain Ersie Joyner, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris and others. While highly critical of the shooting, the PSA denounced all forms of violence in reaction to it. “My hope is that people will express their concern with police brutality,” Tel Cary-Sadler, a civil rights attorney, said in the video, “but they will do so in constructive ways that do not include violence.”
On Thursday night at 7:00 pm, there will be a peace vigil in the pocket park at MacArthur and Lincoln Streets in the Dimond District of Oakland. Oscar Grant was a butcher at Farmer Joe’s Market, a popular grocery store in this neighborhood. Dimond merchants, community leaders and city councilmember Jean Quan’s office will be there to promote peace.
Read an Op-Ed on Oakland North by Gregory McConnell, president and CEO of Oakland’s Jobs and Housing Coalition, about how he believes it’s important to stand together peacefully in the wake of the Mehserle trial and ruling.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.