Store owners boarded up windows and residents gathered in front of City Hall as news of a sentence in the Johannes Mehserle trial began to spread across Oakland Friday afternoon. The two-year sentence handed-down by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry is the lightest possible prison term for Mehserle’s conviction of involuntary manslaughter. Many Oakland residents were hoping for the maximum 14-year term while others wonder how Oakland will react as the day develops.
“That’s not cool, he killed somebody; he should have more time than that,” said Kasiv Abdul, a 29-year-old Laney College student standing in Frank Ogawa Plaza. “It’s probably going to be another riot.”
Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant III on a BART platform in the early hours of New Years Day 2009. Mehserle testified that he mistakenly fired his gun into Grant’s back instead of his Taser. The incident was captured on video and sparked protests across Oakland in the weeks following Grant’s death. Mehserle is white and Grant was African-American.
A peaceful gathering of Grant supporters filled the amphitheater in front of City Hall Friday afternoon to listen to speakers and music. Banners reading “jail killer cops” lined the plaza.
Oakland officials said they are ready as reaction to today’s verdict continues to unfold.
In an afternoon press conference, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts called the scene around City Hall “quiet, and hopefully we stay that way.”
Batts said police officials will remain on alert throughout the night. “You never know the volatility of what may potentially happen,” Batts said. “We’re waiting to see what happens after darkness.”
Although Batts declined to say how many police officers are on duty today, he said they had been deployed to “many places where they are not visible, and we do not want them to be visible.” The officers are under orders, he said, to “surgically remove anyone who is dysfunctional within a crowd.”
In a statement directed toward Grant supporters outside of Oakland, Batts called for respect and calm. “For those who are outside the city of Oakland, again, this is where we work we live and we go to school,” he said. “We’re left with what is left at the end of this.”
After July’s involuntary manslaughter verdict, peaceful city-sanctioned protests in downtown Oakland turned violent with at least 12 businesses vandalized and 78 people arrested, including many non-Oakland residents. The city attorney’s office has since filed suit against four alleged looters.
Today’s press conference began with Mayor Ron Dellums urging citizens to express their right to freedom of assembly peacefully. “It is my legitimate hope that this is not destructive to ourselves and not destructive to our community,” he said.
Oakland residents and officials are bracing themselves for the possibility of another night of protests related to the death of Grant. In January 2009, protestors set fires to cars and trashcans and smashed shop windows in downtown Oakland. More than 100 people were arrested.
Eliseo Jaimes, owner of La Bonita Taqueria near Broadway and 22nd Street, closed his restaurant and boarded up the windows in case crowds got rowdy like they did in July, when rioters broke a window in his business.
“That’s why I just boarded up,” said Jaimes, while inside the restaurant standing guard.
Robert Reed, owner of Grand Lake Scooters at the corner of 20th Street and Broadway, decided not to close his shop in preparation for the sentence.
“Today feels like a holiday because no one is here,” said Reed. “All the businesses around me are closed, but not me. I wouldn’t dare close my doors just because of a potential riot. It’s just a bunch of people taking advantage of a situation to get free stuff. The only thing I’ll do differently is to not turn on the lights over my bikes in the windows. That’s like offering a piece of meat to a hungry dog.”
BART spokesperson Linton Johnson told reporters today that there will be increased train service, and he acknowledged the feelings of the Oakland community.
“Our response is the same it’s been for the last two years: we took responsibility early on for this,” Linton said. “We regret the loss of life; we told the family—and we told the public—that we regret this terrible tragedy.”
Despite rumors circulating that BART was experiencing closures at some of it stations, a BART spokesperson said no stations are closed and are not expected to close.
Street parking has been restricted today around the Oakland City Hall area. Oakland police spokesperson Cynthia Perkins says there is no parking from 12th to 17th Streets between Clay and Franklin Streets.
Some businesses and office buildings in the downtown area closed early and sent workers home. The Federal Building in downtown Oakland reportedly sent all employees home shortly after the Mehserle sentencing. Officials for The Oakland Board of Equalization planned an early closure at noon while the American Cancer Society on Webster Street was scheduled to close at 2pm.
Meanwhile, Oakland residents continued to express their frustration with the sentence. “They shit on us for giving the involuntary manslaughter conviction, they disrespecting us even more by giving us this,” said Toussaint Dubois, 26. “It’s not about the verdict, we have to stand together now.”
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.