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.
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.
âThe 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,â says Scott Peterson, Public Policy Director for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. âWe had riots following the incident itself and no one is taking any chances,â he says
But several community groups are also going on the offensive â for peace.
A YouTube video produced by the Oakland group âYouth Uprisingâ has a long list of local activists, poets, rappers, police, district attorneys and regular Joes admonishing watchers to âdenounce all forms of violence.â 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.
âIn all the media hype surrounding the trial and the cops vs. protester coverage, something is lost. That something is healing, transformative justice,â writes Ella Baker Center Executive Director Jakada Imani in a statement to media, schools, churches and clerics. âHow do we build a powerful social movement and not just participate in one-off flash mobs?â
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 âsuddenly all the media attention was directed at 'another violent protest,' â says Imani. âThis town is perfectly capable of dealing with this peacefully and moving forward even wiser.â
His story is confirmed by Youth Uprising's executive director, Olis Simmons. âIf 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 donât wear,â 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.
âThis is why we are trying to train our teens what outside infiltrators look like and why itâs not advisable to follow them,â says Simmons. She says 75 percent of those on the streets that second night were not from Oakland. âWe are teaching teens that they have choices at times like these.â
Part of their exercise Thursday was to review the Watts riots of 1965 and those that followed the acquittal of Rodney King in 1992 â which were the most deadly and costly in American history. âKids need to understand that these incidents only harmed the communities themselves, while putting out a very negative image nationally that is hard to overcome,â says Simmons.
Imani says he canât 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.
âAnother trial of Mehserle would violate the US Constitutional protection of âdouble jeopardyâ,â says Simmons. âBut these teens donât 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.â