As Oakland awaits this Friday’s sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, civic leaders and residents alike are working together to keep the city’s reaction peaceful. The former BART police officer was convicted in July of involuntary manslaughter in the January, 2009, shooting death of Oscar Grant. In the wake of Grant’s death, as well as of Mehserle’s conviction this summer, protests in downtown Oakland turned violent.
This time, organizers of a series of eight, city-wide civic leadership events are training peacekeepers to avert potentially violent situations after the Mehserle sentencing by talking to protesters and allowing them to express their concerns. These peacekeepers include local residents, faith leaders, activists, students, parents, and members of Grant’s family dedicated to deescalating violence.
“As the world looks in on November 5, they will see that we are standing together as a multicultural crowd,” the Reverend Muntima Imani said last Friday to a room full of peacekeeper trainees circled beneath fluorescent lights of the East Bay Community Church. Imani, the social justice minister for Easy Bay Family, Arts, Culture, Education, and Spirituality (FACES), put together the training series, which began in September and ended October 29.
“We are here to shift the paradigm of fear to a paradigm of community and love,” Imani said, adding that she hoped participants would leave with an increased ability to respond with empathy in stressful situations and a deeper understanding of the Mehserle trial.
Peacekeepers will be organized in teams of five or more on the day of the Mehserle sentencing. Each team will have a captain with a walkie-talkie and who will stay in communication with a central team leader, who in turn is to stay in touch with an Oakland Police Department (OPD) liaison.
OPD public information officer Holly Joshi said that on Friday the department will have extra officers from both its own department and outside agencies on hand in case they are needed. “We are not anticipating anything negative happening and are prepared to facilitate a peaceful protest,” Joshi said. “We understand that the community feels strongly about this tragic event and absolutely want to respect their right to free speech and assembly. We will not, however, tolerate any violence or destruction of businesses or personal property.”
After the Mehserle verdict was announced in July, 1, about 1,000 people gathered in downtown Oakland for a city-sanctioned protest. Nonviolent expressions of presence, grief and solidarity included yelling, praying, singing and even chess playing. The violence didn’t start until after nightfall, when a small group of people vandalized and looted downtown businesses.
“After the verdict, we saw the intensity and saw the need to inform and educate citizens on how they can protect and love their community next Friday,” Imani said.
At last week’s training at the Oakland church, Oscar Grant’s uncle, Bobby Johnson, addressed the group. “I hope that we will witness the system working the way it was designed for,” Johnson said. “It’s our hope that November 5 is a day the nation never forgets and goes down as a day in history that the system is speaking for the people.”
Everyone in the huddled circle took turns saying what qualities they bring to the peacemaking process—wholeness, joy, desire to learn, wisdom, change, and curiosity, were among some of the responses.
In a role-playing scenario, participants practiced de-escalating situations by preparing for some profanity and rage. “Approach people in the spirit of love and caring,” Imani instructed the group. “Tell them, ‘I understand why you are angry,’ ‘What happened was not right’ or ‘I don’t want you to go to jail.’”
Imani told the participants that the peacekeepers’ number one concern, whatever happens on Friday, must be their own safety first, and then the safety of the crowd. “We’re not the police and we’re not the security,” Imani said. “We’re there to help calm people down. If you’re angry, we’ll be the empathetic sounding board. But we’re not trying to stop any criminal activity.”
Imani invited Oakland police officers to come to the peacekeeper training session and participate with the community. OPD Captain Darren Allison was there to show his support. Jack Bryson, the father of the two men who were next to Grant on the BART platform when he was killed, approached Allison to shake his hand. “We’re cool,” he said, followed by a round of applause from the other attendees. “I know not all officers are the same.”
Bryson said he and his sons will be attending the Mehserle sentencing in Los Angeles this Friday, then take the first flight home to participate in the peacekeeping effort. “Oakland is my community,” Bryson said. “I may not agree with a lot of things that happen here, but we’ve got to support each other. There’s a community that’s hurting.”
Bryson said that two years ago, he never thought he would become an organizer, but the death of Oscar Grant made him active in efforts to prevent police brutality. “My mind is like a projector at night,” he said. “I can’t sleep. My mind keeps playing the scene with Grant and my sons over and over again.”
Dereca Blackmon, founder of Coalition Against Police Execution, was one of the first organizers to respond to the killing of Oscar Grant, organizing the first two peaceful rallies. She said her work catalyzed the criminal charges against Mehserle and led to the firings of the other BART police officers involved in the case. “This something I resonated with,” Blackmon said at Friday’s training session. “Police brutality is part of my generation and a defining issue in hip-hop culture.”
“What does it look like for a successful police presence?” Blackmon asked the peacekeeper training participants. “Our charge is to not just respond and react, but to plan and create dialogue so that these institutions understand how we define justice.”
Mehserle is eligible for a sentence ranging from probation to 14 years in prison. Most legal experts agree that Mehserle will not be given the most severe punishment of 14 years when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry issues his decision on November 5.
On Friday, Perry is also expected to rule on Mehserle’s attorney’s motion for a new trial. In his motion, attorney Michael Rains argues that Mehserle should receive a new trial because of recently uncovered evidence that the defense team believes would have changed the jury’s decision in July.
Imani invites Oakland residents to participate in Friday’s peacekeeping effort. “We recognize not everyone is skilled at going up to others and defusing energy,” she said, “but that people can just be there representing peace.”
Imani said that people who would like to help keep the peace on Friday are encouraged to wear white and sign in at City Hall starting at 2 p.m. For more information, Imani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.