BART case: As Oakland awaits Mehserle verdict, a push for peace
Oakland police are undergoing refreshers on crowd-control.
Businesses are boarding up storefronts and removing dumpsters. City
officials are calling for cool heads. Bloggers and columnists are
pleading for public calm.
Anxious anticipation reigns as the city of Oakland awaits the verdict
in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a former Bay Area Rapid
Transit (BART) police officer charged with murdering passenger Oscar Grant on a train platform
in January 2009. Closing arguments Thursday and Friday have officials
worried over a possible repeat of the clashes that occurred after Mr.
Grant's death, when businesses were vandalized, cars and dumpsters set
“The city and police have been very proactive in reaching
out to businesses and residents to make sure they have up to date
information and are aware of police support from other jurisdictions,”
says Scott Peterson, Public Policy Director for the Oakland Metropolitan
Chamber of Commerce. “We had riots following the incident itself and no one is
taking any chances,” he says
But several community groups are also
going on the offensive – for peace.
A YouTube video produced by
the Oakland group “Youth Uprising” has a long list of local activists,
poets, rappers, police, district attorneys and regular Joes admonishing
watchers to “denounce all forms of violence.” The not-for-profit
organization, supported by Alameda County and the City of Oakland, helps
give underprivileged youth options.
The group is holding broad
meetings to train young people to understand the US legal system, the
economic costs of rioting, and to identify outside agitators.
city Chamber of Commerce announced Thursday an Oscar Grant Memorial Fund
for after-school centers for youth. And the Ella Baker Center for Human
Rights is announcing forums for youth leaders to be educated about the
history of successful social movements.
The tone of this movement
is one of healing, understanding, and progress.
“In all the media
hype surrounding the trial and the cops vs. protester coverage,
something is lost. That something is healing, transformative justice,”
writes Ella Baker Center Executive Director Jakada Imani in a statement
to media, schools, churches and clerics. “How do we build a powerful
social movement and not just participate in one-off flash mobs?"
In a phone conversation, Mr. Imani is openly upset with the media
portrayal of events since the Mehserle shooting. Yes, midnight crowds
overturned and burned cars, broke windows and caused violence, he says.
But months later, thousands of people in the streets held vigils and
speeches for hours without incident. Hours after the peaceful crowds
dispersed, a few small groups broke some windows, and “suddenly all the
media attention was directed at 'another violent protest,' ” says Imani.
“This town is perfectly capable of dealing with this peacefully and
moving forward even wiser.”
His story is confirmed by Youth Uprising's executive director, Olis
Simmons. “If you look at the videos of that coverage, you find that this
violence was clearly led by outside agitators because they were wearing
Muslim scarves and beanies that our kids simply don’t wear,” says Ms.
She says a group of outside agitators showed up at a
youth, education and training workshop Thursday and were told to leave
by the Oakland teenagers who were there.
“This is why we are
trying to train our teens what outside infiltrators look like and why
it’s not advisable to follow them,” says Simmons. She says 75 percent of
those on the streets that second night were not from Oakland. “We are
teaching teens that they have choices at times like these.”
of their exercise Thursday was to review the Watts riots of 1965 and
those that followed the acquittal of Rodney King in 1992 – which were
the most deadly and costly in American history. “Kids need to understand
that these incidents only harmed the communities themselves, while
putting out a very negative image nationally that is hard to overcome,”
Imani says he can’t believe that justice will not be
served in the first verdict, but that several organizations, including
his and Youth Uprising, are emphasizing legal recourses that can follow
instead of violence.
“Another trial of Mehserle would violate the
US Constitutional protection of ‘double jeopardy’,” says Simmons. “But
these teens don’t really understand that the US Department of Justice
can institute another trial for violations of civil rights, which is
what happened after O.J. Simpson was originally acquitted.”