On Sunday, the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant met at Humanist Hall in Oakland to share ideas for advancing their overarching goal of preventing police abuse in their communities. The group included about twenty people, some from different civil rights advocacy organizations such as Berkeley Cop Watch, the ANSWER Coalition, an antiwar group, and ONYX, a group that supports sustainable African American communities.
Two weeks earlier, Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who shot and killed passenger Oscar Grant on a train platform on New Years Day 2009, was released from jail after completing his sentence. The verdict and sentencing phases of his trial had ignited protests in Oakland and Los Angeles amongst community members who believed Mehserle should have received a harsher, longer sentence.
Dan Siegel, an Oakland civil rights attorney who’s worked closely with the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, spoke on Sunday about some of the group’s accomplishments. “We’ve kept the issue alive and helped to indict Mehserle,” he told the group sitting on folding chairs in a circle. “And we’ve created a hardcore group of activists of different ages and backgrounds. For the long-term, that’s what we need.”
Chris Banks from the ANSWER Coalition nodded his head in agreement. He said that the protests over Grant’s death had brought more young people to the political scene. “Moving forward,” he said “we have good footing. But people have to feel like victory is possible.”
Others in the group shared their frustration over what they said should have been higher numbers of people protesting during critical times in the past year, like after the Mehserle trial verdict in November. Union activist Stan Woods said with 7 million people and numerous progressive organizations in the Bay Area, plus the fact that cell phone videos of Mehserle shooting Grant had been seen internationally, “We should have had at least 20,000 people on the streets. Why didn’t we?”
The November protest was actually much smaller, beginning with a peaceful rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza. Afterwards, an estimated 300 to 500 people stormed onto Broadway and began disrupting traffic, resulting in 152 arrests. The most recent protest in early June marking Mehserle’s release from prison stayed peaceful, and drew about 200 people. It resulted in one arrest.
Jack Bryson, the father of the two young men who were with Oscar Grant the night he was killed, responded with one possible reason why the protests were not as large as the group expected. “We destroyed ourselves,” he said, referring to the different opposing factions of political and social groups within and outside the coalition that frequently disagree over protest tactics and messages. “How can we fight in a movement if we hate ourselves?” he asked.
Siegel responded with two things that he said will help energize people: The coalition members must agree about what they are fighting for, and getting larger numbers of people to turn out for protests will make a difference. “I think that’s where we were not successful,” he said.
The meeting ended with the group discussing concrete ideas for moving forward, which included increasing community outreach in Hayward (where Grant resided), organizing a live art project with spoken word artists, providing financial support to people from lower income neighborhoods who cannot afford to travel to planning meetings and organizing some kind of protest regarding BART in the future.
The coalition will meet again in two weeks to continue discussing these ideas. A time and place has yet to be confirmed.