On Thursday afternoon, protestors and media convened in downtown Oakland for what many feared would be a violent reaction to the verdict in the trial of former BART officer Johannes Mehserle. But just on the other side of Lake Merritt, a group of Oaklanders convened at a coffee house to peacefully vent their feelings and talk about how to prevent the tragic circumstances leading up to that moment from ever happening again. Following the verdict, several Oakland gathering spots offered an alternative to the mass downtown protest.
“If kids want to come bust the windows, I want them to come in here first and talk to me about what they’re upset about,” said Shawn Gullatt, who organized the event at the Grand Lake Coffee House. Just hours earlier, a Los Angeles jury had convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 New Year’s Day killing of Oscar Grant, who at the time was unarmed and pinned to the ground.
Gullatt, a spoken word artist who goes by the name NerCity (pronounced “Inner City”), said he organized the event to provide a “safehouse” where people could come and talk about the verdict without fear of getting caught up in potentially violent protests. “Maybe people don’t want to get in the middle of things,” he said.
While Grand Street and the path surrounding Lake Merritt were mostly empty, people trickled slowly into the coffee house, pulling up chairs in a circle. The mood was somber as participants discussed the outcome of the trial and ate sandwiches and sodas.
“Do you think the verdict was fair?” asked Gullatt.
“No,” said one woman.
“No, not at all,” said a young man.
But talk veered rapidly toward the future.
“The question is, what do we do to prevent this from happening in our communities?” asked 20-year old Tiana Wilkes.
Jasmene Miranda, 33, made a plug for more participation in local politics. “We show up for the hot topics and we don’t follow through,” Miranda said. “We need consistency.” Other nodded in agreement.
“All this b.s…with Oscar Grant, that should be our wakeup call,” said Gullatt, “because we know it’s going to happen again.” The young, racially diverse group talked of the need to create leadership and reach out to other victims of all kinds of violence.
“When I look back, most of the kids I went to middle school with are dead,” said Miranda, who grew up in East Oakland. “A whole generation of people who are dead,” she said, fighting back tears.
Across Highway 24 in West Oakland, a spread of fresh fruit, crackers and cheese awaited guests at the Attitudinal Healing Connection of West Oakland. The organization holds diversity trainings and racial healing circles, and teaches art in Oakland schools. It was one of five sites promoted by the City of Oakland as “healing centers” where people could “express themselves in positive ways” following the verdict.
The circle of chairs set up to accommodate visitors was empty when this reporter arrived around 6:30 p.m. “Everyone’s downtown,” said Aeeshah Clottey, co-founder of the organization. But soon a group of young people barged in the door excitedly, returning from the downtown protest where they were filming footage for Oakland Voices, a citizen reporting project of the Oakland Tribune. Others joined to talk about the protest.
“I have a question,” said 13-year old Sabah Harris. “Why are people rioting if [Mehserle] is already going to jail? It’s not worth ruining a whole city.”
“If Grant had killed a policeman, how long would he be in jail?” Tyrese Johnson, 18, asked in response.
Soon Amana Harris, associate director of the program, called the group to speak in order around the circle. She passed a multicolored, ceramic piece carved with the word “love” to Kimberly Turner, who also works at the organization, and asked her to open the discussion.
“I don’t think four years is enough,” said Turner, referring to the rumored length of Mehserle’s jail term. (Mehserle won’t be sentenced until August, but he faces a potential sentence of 5 to 14 years.) “But it is what it is,” said Turner. She pointed out that several young people had recently been murdered in Oakland “and no one was marching in the streets.” She passed the ceramic “love” piece on to Johnson.
Johnson said he was impressed with the speakers at the protest downtown and the level of public conversation. “I realized there are people in my city that, although they don’t always look like it, are really intelligent,” he said.
The media got a harsh rap from several people in the circle. “For weeks they’ve been preparing the whole world—if you want some action, come to Oakland,” said Kokomon Clottey, executive director of the organization and Aeeshah’s husband. “And the media is the one who is selling this.”
Clottey also lamented that it takes a tragedy for the community to come together and take positive action. He said he had gotten a letter from the president of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce suggesting that all members contribute to an Oscar Grant fund for youth (the Attitudinal Healing Connection is a member of the chamber).
“The chamber could have created this fund how many years ago?” he asked rhetorically. “But for us to wait for a day like this, and all of a sudden we’re at our best?”
When it was her turn, Harris called Oakland “an occupied city” and said the community needed to take more ownership of its systems, its schools and its police force. “I’d like to see more of our young people become police officers,” said Harris. “I think officers would have a lot more respect if they were from this community.”
Over at Mosswood Recreation Center, another “healing circle” was finishing up, also promoted by the city. A dozen people sat in plastic chairs around a kind of altar to Grant laid out on the floor. Candles, flowers and photocopies of the now-familiar portrait of Grant in a black skull cap and sweatshirt adorned a colorful cloth.
Like at the other groups, a diversity of race, age and gender was represented at the Mosswood gathering. The mood was warm—like a group of friends coming together after a catastrophe—although most participants were strangers just hours earlier.
“It always takes a tragedy to bring us together instead of something good,” lamented a woman in a green shirt emblazoned with the Oakland Parks and Recreation logo. She asked for her name not to be used since Parks and Recreation employees were instructed not to talk to the press.
“I feel very inspired right now. This death has brought new relationships, new seeds to be planted,” she said.
“I think we misunderstand each other too easily because we don’t know each other,” said Peggy Simmons, who teaches creative writing. “I’ve often thought we can change things by coming together with people we wouldn’t otherwise know.”
Carol Pitts, another participant, agreed. “All kinds of wonderful things can happen if we continue this kind of contact.”
As night fell, Sujatha Baliga, who facilitated the circle, asked everyone to stand, hold hands and name a person upon whose shoulders each person stands. Gandhi and the Dalai Lama got several mentions. As the event concluded, Baliga enthusiastically agreed to hold another, bigger circle next week. The participants left, elated. Meanwhile, in downtown Oakland, the rioting had begun.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.