As the city of Oakland, and the country at large, sits on pins and needles waiting for a verdict in the murder trial of former police officer Johannes Mehserle, shop owners are holding their breath. Cops are ready to fight. Community organizations in the city are fighting to get the message to the media, and their communities, that violence isn’t the answer.
At least that’s what’s being reported in the tense days leading up to a verdict by local and mainstream news outlets. What hasn’t been discussed is where that presumption of violence comes from in the first place, and if it’s warranted.
The roots of the case can most easily be traced back to the uprisings that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. In that case, four white police officers were acquitted in the brutal videotaped beating of an unarmed King. And while the Mehserle trial may offer a string of striking parallels, community organizer Christina Gomez sees one major difference: the level of community involvement to get the case to trial.
"We can’t forget why we began this fight in the first place," Gomez says, referring to the immense community outcry after Grant’s death that led the Alameda District Attorney to charge Mehserle with murder, the first time a police officer has ever been charged with homicide for an on-duty shooting.
Oscar Grant could’ve been just another name lost in the annals of unarmed Black men killed by unruly white cops. But, according to local activists, the speediness of YouTube brought the case to the forefront, and community members were able to wage a successful campaign to spin the story in their favor, tap into deep-seeded outrage and eventually push the DA’s hand to level charges against Mehserle.
Certainly, the highly anticipated trial has already proven to be a deadly lightning rod in the city. Shortly after Grant’s murder atop a train platform New Year’s morning in 2009, hundreds took to the streets in an angry rebellion against police authority. Some clashed directly with cops, dozens were arrested and hauled off to jail, and parts of downtown Oakland were left burned, broken and shattered.
Some activists of color have alleged that, unlike media reports, most of the violence didn’t come at the hands of angry Black and Brown youth. Instead, it’s alleged to have resulted from overly aggressive police tactics and well-intentioned, but ill-informed, supporters from outside the community. To this end, the Bay Area’s extensive activist community has repeatedly advocated for education, both on the part of cops working in communities of color and the folks most impacted by increasingly brutal police tactics.
"Whether you believe in violent uprising or not, it’s a wedge issue, and we’re biting," said Gomez, an activist with the Community Justice Network for Youth based in San Francisco. "What the community is saying is that we have the right to be mad, but we’re also finding constructive ways to speak our minds."
So far those methods are popping up on the Internet and on the streets. This week, as the media has warned of the threat of violence, youth groups have taken to YouTube to spread their messages of non-violence. Organizers have already planned a vigil in downtown Oakland for this evening.
Wilson Riles, a longtime Oakland city councilman and activist, is skeptical.
"No one in this community has the universal respect and obedience to say ‘don’t do something’ and be assured people aren’t going to do it," he said, adding that the case will be a historic measure of holding officers accountable for their treatment of youth of color.
Riles says he’s spoken to several people who believe that Mehserle wouldn’t have been charged had it not been for the violent uprisings that broke out in January of 2009.
"There’s a feeling that non-violent avenues don’t work, and the only way you can get attention is to burn something down."
He believes that the same city officials urging for calm in the wake of a verdict have serious credibility issues and need to consistently work with efforts to hold police accountable, instead of just appearing to put out fires.
In Gomez’s view, a conviction wouldn’t mean justice. Mehserle’s trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles after the presiding judge ruled that a fair, local trial wasn’t possible. The jury currently deliberating Mehserle’s fate doesn’t have a singly Black juror, and reports from the courtroom are that some local Black press and outspoken Black journalists have been banned from the court room. All this sets up a false hope in justice through a court system predicated on exclusion, say some advocates. And the assault and murder of unarmed Black men wouldn’t end, Gomez says.
"At the end of the day, we need to make sure that we’re talking about a woman who lost her son," Gomez said of Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, who’s only request has been a candlelight vigil to remember Grant. "No matter what the verdict is, she’ll have to talk to her granddaughter about her dead father. Ultimately they’re the people most affected, and how are we supporting them?"