Thursday, July 15, 2010

'We Are Oscar Grant': Protests Hit Racist Verdict

‘We are Oscar Grant’: Protests hit racist verdict

By Judy Greenspan
Oakland, Calif.
Published Jul 14, 2010 8:16 PM

When the jury returned its verdict in the late afternoon on July 8,
protesters in several cities across this state and in other parts of
the U.S. expressed their anger and dismay over the involuntary
manslaughter conviction of Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid
Transit cop who shot and killed Oscar Grant.

Family members and friends at impromptu press conferences in Los
Angeles and Oakland said that a conviction on any charge less than
murder was a racist insult to the memory of Grant, a 22-year-old
unarmed Black man who was shot dead by Mehserle on Oakland’s Fruitvale BART platform on New Year’s Day 2009.

Involuntary manslaughter carries a sentence of two to four years in
prison. The jury also added a “gun enhancement” charge that carries a
maximum of 10 additional years. The sentencing, set originally for
Aug. 6, has been postponed at the request of Mehserle’s attorney.

John Burris, a longtime Bay Area progressive attorney, stated
unequivocally that Mehserle should have received a murder conviction.
At a press conference in Los Angeles following the verdict, Grant’s
mother and uncle both expressed their outrage over the involuntary
manslaughter conviction.

Demonstrations were held in several cities throughout the state. A
vigil was held in Fresno and a protest in Santa Cruz. Over 100 people
gathered for a speak-out against police brutality and racism in
Leimert Park in Los Angeles. Speakers included members of the L.A.
Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant and the UniĆ³n del Barrio.

Solidarity actions were also held in New York City and Baltimore on July 9.

Demonstrators who gathered in downtown Oakland on the day of the
verdict had to overcome a three-week-long barrage of scare tactics by
the local media, the state and federal governments, and law
enforcement agencies.

At the beginning of June, in anticipation of the verdict, tremendous
pressure was put on community organizations, student groups and local organizers to do what they could to prevent a rebellion like the one that took place after Grant’s killing by Mehserle. After the New
Year’s Day killing in 2009, hundreds of people in Oakland took to the
streets in anger and protested the racist slaying.

For weeks before the Mehserle verdict, state and local agencies
threatened to lock down government offices and send workers home when the jury returned. Local shop owners were advised to board up their businesses and go home in anticipation of the verdict.

Downtown Oakland was a boarded-up ghost town the afternoon of July 8. The stores were closed. There were no cars on the streets. The usually hectic corner of 14th and Broadway was eerily quiet. An armed phalanx of Oakland police stood menacingly on the side streets and in the BART station. But even this microcosm of a police state could not stop the outpouring of anger over the Mehserle verdict.

The protest in downtown Oakland started with a street rally around 5
p.m. and quickly grew to about 1,000 people. This open-mike event was planned and organized by local community organizations and city
leaders. Rally organizers opened with the chant, “We are Oscar Grant,” which was quickly picked up by the crowd.

Many of the speakers were young Black and Latino/a activists who
demanded justice for the memory of Grant and for the people of
Oakland. A student from Oakland’s Laney College said, “I’m so proud of Oakland. When Oscar Grant was shot, people took to the streets. We have to continue this resistance,” the young woman stated.

Violence of the cops, system

At the main rally it was said that people should be calm and
“nonviolent” in the face of this unjust verdict. Oscar Grant Sr., the
grandfather of the young man killed by the BART police, said he was
too upset to go Los Angeles for the trial. He urged the crowd not to
tear up Oakland.

One young man who spoke near the end of the rally said that he was
asked by the rally organizers to warn about the “outside agitators”
who might try to cause trouble. He pointed to the lines of armed
police and stated, “Those are the only outside agitators that I see
here today and yes, they will cause trouble!”

When the official rally ended at 8 p.m., several hundred protesters —
a large multinational crowd of predominantly young people — stayed in
the streets in downtown Oakland. A group of about 100 youth started to march down Broadway only to be stopped by a line of police at 11th

As darkness set in, a small group of protesters smashed the windows of a Foot Locker store and liberated much of the merchandise inside. Some rocks and bottles were tossed at the police from the other end of

Within a short period of time, the police declared the protest an
unlawful assembly and swept down Broadway, indiscriminately knocking down demonstrators with batons and arresting people. Later into the night, concussion grenades (flash/bang) were heard and tear gas was fired at the remaining crowds.

By the end of the night, some 78 people had been arrested.

Most demonstrators were cited and released. However, a group of
protesters are being held on felony charges. Several businesses,
including Sears and local banks, were trashed.

The very next day, July 9, the local big-business-owned media carried
banner headlines claiming that 75 percent of the demonstrators were
anarchists and “outside agitators.” Progressive organizations and
individuals including the National Lawyers Guild spoke out against
that charge.

Oakland attorney and Haiti Action Committee activist Walter Riley
issued a public statement that read in part: “The murder of Oscar
Grant is a universal issue of justice and civil rights. I do not like
this divisive campaign to divide our community by calling people
outsiders. Calling people outsiders in this instance is a political
attack on the movement.”

In a July 9 article in California Beat by Tashina Manyak, Jevon
Cochran, a 19-year-old student and member of the Black Student Union at Laney College, said he thought that what took place were
“appropriate responses to the verdict.” Cochran was there and
participated in the march that was stopped by the Oakland police.

He noted that the businesses that were trashed were all part of major
corporations and included several banks. He said that everyone at the
protest in their own way was fighting for justice for Oscar Grant. He
added that he hoped that Mehserle’s judge got the message, too. “When we say ‘no justice, no peace’ we meant it,” Cochran said.
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