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BART case: As Oakland awaits Mehserle verdict, a push for peace

Oakland community groups are educating young people about the justice system and the ill effects of rioting in the lead-up to a verdict in the trial of a white former transit police officer accused of murdering a black passenger.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / July 2, 2010

Flowers and a picture of Oscar Grant are set up at a gathering Thursday to stop the violence in Oakland. The trial of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle is expected to conclude next week.

Paul Sakuma/AP


Los Angeles

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.

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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 ablaze.

“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.

The 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?”