Atmosphere at Mehserle protest subdued despite history of citizens violent outrage
By Alex Emslie
The early release of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, who was convicted last year of involuntary manslaughter for killing unarmed passenger Oscar Grant, drew a relatively subdued reaction on the streets of Oakland Jan. 12.
Mehserle was released from Los Angeles County Men’s jail Jan. 13 at 12:01 a.m., according to the Oakland Tribune, having served a total 11 months of his 2-year sentence.
Jack Bryson, the father of two of the five men detained with Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale BART station when he was killed, said Mehserle should have received life in prison, echoing the feelings of the 300-person protest.
“The system is set up to protect itself, and Mehserle is part of that system,” Grant’s uncle Daryl Johnson said. “It’s a disgrace to the judicial system to allow him to do what he’s done.”
Protesters gathered at the Fruitvale BART station at 3 p.m. and heard speeches from Grant’s family and friends.
“Oscar was my baby boy and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t smile and laugh about something that he has said or he has done,” Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson told the crowd.
Protesters then marched more than 3.5 miles through Oakland’s blazing afternoon sun to Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. The only altercation between police and protesters occurred along the march route near 2nd Avenue and International Boulevard.
Police arrested 36-year-old Eric Lowenstein for vandalism, according to the Oakland Police Department, after he spray painted “kill a cop” on several buildings. Police gave no reason for detaining Shane Read, an organizer with Berkeley Copwatch. Read was handcuffed and taken away in a police cruiser. He was subsequently released, OPD officer Holly Joshi said.
National Lawyers Guild attorney and legal observer Anne Weills characterized previous police responses as incendiary and “terrible.” She said she met with Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and the OPD chain of command prior to the June 12 action.
“They’ve promised us that they would help facilitate a peaceful, orderly march without being too aggressive,” Weills said. Police presence visible to protesters at Ogawa Plaza was minimal, although vans loaded with officers in riot gear were stationed blocks away as the event came to a close.
OPD’s light-handed tactics and the crowd’s completely peaceful tenor facilitated an event markedly less chaotic than previous protests spurred by Grant’s killing.
Protesters burned cars and smashed glass in Oakland six days after Grant’s death, resulting in 105 arrests.
Downtown Oakland was a charged and chaotic scene around Broadway and 14th Street after Mehserle was convicted on July 8, 2010. More than 80 people were arrested following several street fires, broken shop windows and some looting.
Protesters again took to the streets in response to Mehserle’s minimal sentence on Nov. 5, 2010. The National Lawyers Guild filed a lawsuit on June 13 against the City of Oakland and several Oakland police officials alleging the OPD and Alemeda County Sherriffs Office violated the civil rights of the 150 protesters arrested Nov. 5.
Police declared the assembly unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse, but all 150 were trapped by lines of officers in riot gear at the intersection of East 18th Street and Sixth Avenue. Police then pushed the news media away from the intersection and arrested all the protesters.
“We don’t think it’s legal,” National Lawyers Guild attorney Dan Seigel said. “If you declare an unlawful assembly, you need to allow people to disperse.”
Defendants in the named in the lawsuit, including the City of Oakland and the County of Alemeda, were unreachable for comment by press time.
The suit also alleges the OPD violated its own crowd control policy and that protesters were held in unnecessary discomfort for an extended period of time.
A civil lawsuit against BART, Mehserle, and other BART police officers filed on behalf of Grant’s family and the five other men detained at the Fruitvale BART station with Grant when he was killed is still underway. A settlement conference has been scheduled for June 28.
Speakers at the protest repeatedly mentioned the possibility of the U.S. Attorney’s Office criminally charging Mehserle with violating Grant’s civil rights. The U.S. Department of Justice has for more than two years asserted that an investigation into Grant’s death is active and ongoing.
Despite silence from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Siegel remains optimistic that federal charges may still be filed.
“I think this is a very strong case,” he said. “You have one BART police officer [Anthony Pirone] essentially referring to the young men as niggers and encouraging Mehserle to shoot Oscar in the back. That sounds to me like a civil rights violation, and hopefully U.S. Attorney’s office will see it the same way.”
Video of the arrests