The trial in Los Angeles for Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop charged with murder for killing Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, is weeks away from being over. But last Friday, Bay Area police convened for a day of training to prepare for a potential violent response to the verdict.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the training was part of a year-long program to train officers in riot response and involved officers from the Oakland Police Department, the Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol and BART police. They practiced arrest and crowd control techniques and simulated violence by having plain clothes officers throw objects at police.Photo: Creative Commons/Thomas Hawk
The city hopes to prevent some of the same property damage that happened days after Grant was killed in 2009. On January 7 of that year, a splinter group broke away from the largely peaceful protest turned over several cars, smashed storefront windows and resisted arrest. And yet, for people who were actually at those protests that night. Dori Maynard questioned whether that night’s response could even be called a riot, in light of long records of periods of actual civil unrest—think Detroit, and Los Angeles—that’d resulted in thousands of arrests, days of violent anger and even death.
While the agency likely intended to project an air of confidence and preparedness by announcing their riot simulations, the message is less that Bay Area cops are prepared so much as it is an acknowledgment that people are hungry for justice that they may not get. That and the lamentable fact that where any protest goes, anarchist splinter groups will follow.
Johannes Mehserle’s defense has underscored that he made a grave error that night in pulling out his .40 caliber gun when he meant to reach for his Taser. Mehserle’s attorney Michael Rains repeatedly emphasized through his cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses the purely accidental nature of the shooting that night. According to Rains, Mehserle just didn’t have the right training he needed to make a quicker, smarter decision that night.
It seems precious law enforcement training time would be better spent elsewhere, like on teaching police officers when not to shoot.
And what will people in Oakland do when the verdict is announced? What if Johannes Mehserle is not convicted? Where will people be able to give voice to their grief and desperation? If not in the courts, what venue will the public have to hold cops accountable for their misdeeds?
After the 1992 Los Angeles riot, a columnist asked what do you do when you’ve marched and you’ve sung and you’ve staged sit-ins and non-violent protests and still you’re told you don’t count? I don’t think he or anybody who uses the words rebellion, uprising or civil unrest was attempting to justify the massive destruction that devastated portions of the city. I think he was trying to lay bare the sense of hopelessness and frustration that can trigger a level of anger that has sent otherwise sane people into the streets.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Thomas Hawk