The morning news reports from last night’s rally in Oakland led with the 18 arrests made after a couple stragglers smashed several storefront windows, but the big news from last night is that over a thousand people came together to demand justice for Oscar Grant and all young men of color who are brutalized at the hands of police officers every day. The crowd was outraged but peaceful, solemn and unified while they called for systemic change: an overhaul of the criminal justice system, the dismantling of the prison industrial complex, the disarming of police officers.
On New Year’s Day, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while he was held face down on a BART platform. The shooting, caught on cell phone video, burned across the Internet and galvanized a community that’s all too familiar with police brutality and the privilege of impunity.
Last night the crowd was abuzz with the news that Mehserle, who for two weeks refused to participate in both internal BART and criminal investigations, had been arrested and charged by the district attorney’s office with murder. Folks were cautiously celebrating the news.
“I think it’s a first step,” said activist Eddie Zheng. “But it’s kind of late. [Mehserle] had an obligation to acknowledge that he killed someone as soon as it happened.”
“I was ecstatic,” said Savannah Shange, a teacher at the June Jordan School for Equity. “It was almost like when Obama got elected. For one brief moment, there’s the possibility of justice prevailing.”
Several companies in the downtown area urged their employees to head home early in anticipation of the protest. And along the streets of the protest route, most storeowners boarded up their shop windows in fear of vandalism from protesters.
Graffiti artists set to work quickly, turning the floor-to-ceiling raw wood panels into murals emblazoned with demands for justice. “I’m out here because change needs to come from the community,” said Desi, who stood in front of his spray painted portrait of Grant. Passersby congratulated him, snapped photos of his work. “But the only reason this is a big deal right now is because they caught it on tape,” he reminded. “This has been happening for years.”
Other protesters were similarly hesitant to call Mehserle’s arrest a victory that would have a meaningful impact on police conduct. “The only thing that will affect how they treat us is how we stand up and demand justice,” said Aku Bundu, a professor at San Jose State University. “As the father of a 22-year-old, I want the police to stop shooting our young brothers.”
Protesters vowed to keep the pressure on public officials so that Mehserle would be brought to justice. Beyond Oscar Grant’s death, though, protesters who described the kinds of reform they want to see laid out clear demands that included a community-based, zoned police force of members who live in the neighborhoods they patrol and do not carry guns.
“Until we have a salient community-based policing system, incidents like [Grant’s shooting] are going to happen over and over again,” said Shange. “They’re not a mistake. They’re not an anomaly. They’re built into the system.”