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.

Paul Sakuma/AP
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.

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 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?”

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. Simmons.

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.”

Part 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,” says Simmons.

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.”


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