Verdict in Mehserle trial: Involuntary manslaughter

on July 8, 2010

After a tense wait in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a Los Angeles jury has found the former BART police officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the January, 2009, shooting death of Oscar Grant. Mehserle was accused of having shot the 22-year-old Grant in the back as he lay face-down on the platform of Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station after an altercation broke out on a train. Mehserle pleaded not guilty, claiming that he mistook his gun for his Taser stun gun.

According to reports from the courthouse in Los Angeles, the involuntary manslaughter verdict, along with Meshlere’s additional conviction for the use of a gun in Grant’s death, could carry a sentence of 5 to 14 years. The other options before the jury included acquittal, voluntary manslaughter, which would have carried a penalty of 3 to 11 years, and second-degree murder, which would have carried a penalty of 40 years to life.

Last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry ruled that Mehserle could not be convicted of first-degree murder, saying that evidence in the trial proved that Mehserle did not plan to kill Grant by shooting him once in the back.

As of 4:30 pm, a small crowd of 50 to 100 people had gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. As word of the verdict spread via cell phone, Oakland resident Amber Royal, who said she lives in Grant’s neighborhood, burst into tears. “A man is killed in our city and he gets off with six years or whatever, that’s bull**** to me,” she said.

Nearby, another protester yelled “How involuntary is the pull of a trigger?”

By 6:30 pm, the crowd had grown larger, and riot police were present throughout the downtown, but the crowd at Frank Ogawa Plaza remained peaceful. Protesters filled Broadway from 15th to 12th, the majority of them simply chatting and taking pictures, although several people standing on crates delivered speeches to the crowd.

Several members of the crowd carried signs with slogans like “Oakland says guilty,” “Jail killer cops,” and “Justice for Oscar Grant.”

By 9:00 pm things had taken a turn for the less peaceful. There were reports of several dozen people breaking into and looting a Foot Locker at 14th and Broadway.

A few protesters set off smoke bombs, threw bottles and set trashcans on fire.

The Oakland Police Department ordered a crowd of approximately 300 people at the corner of 14th and Broadway to disperse around 9:15 pm.

By 10 pm police offers had begun to make arrests and to marshall the protesters towards 17th Street.

The 19th Street BART station was temporarily shut down due to civil unrest, and there were additional reports of protesters lighting fires and smashing windows.

At a 10:40 pm press conference Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts announced that the OPD had made approximately 50 arrests and that he expected that number to double by the end of the night. He estimated that 75-100 protesters remained on the streets, and that approximately 800 people had gathered in downtown Oakland throughout the day.

Batts said that Oakland police officers had been instructed to allow peaceful protest and expressed disappointment with the few people who caused violence. “This city is not the wild wild west. We will not tolerate this activity,” he said.

Batts said that officers had used smoke — not teargas — to disperse a crowd earlier in the evening at 20th Street and Broadway after protesters threw bottles at officers’ heads.

Reports of damages stretched as far north on Broadway as the Whole Foods at 27th Street and the 7-11 at Harrison and Vernon.

A window was broken and a display case of sake bottles had been dragged out into the street at the Japanese restaurant Ozumo at Broadway and Grand Avenue. “It’s a damn shame. I was at the earlier peaceful protest and I was proud of Oakland for maintaining peace,” said Essie Tesfahun, who lives nearby. “This doesn’t feel like Oakland.”

Protesters set off M-80s, leading to loud concussive sounds that echoed throughout the downtown, and set trash bins and the contents of dumpsters on fire, creating a chaotic scene and filling the air with the smell of burning plastic.

At one point, as the police surrounded the protesters on Broadway near 16th Street, attempting to squeeze protesters together in order to arrest them, all the lights went out for several minutes. The power returned and went off again several times that night.

In the downtown area, protesters painted messages in black spraypaint on several buildings. “Say no to work, yes to looting” was painted on wall of the Bank of the West on Broadway where its glass doors had been shattered and glass window broken in. On a boarded-up building across the street, someone had painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight!”

Meanwhile, police in Richmond said they were confident that violent protests wouldn’t break out in their city. However a county-wide team of officers that included members of the Richmond Police Department was deployed to perform crowd control duty in Oakland on Thursday evening. The department put an additional 12 officers on duty in Richmond Thursday, and has extra officers and riot police on call.

“We have officers prepared to assemble if we see a high level of civil unrest, but there’s no indication that would happen [in Richmond],” said Richmond Police Lieutenant Mark Gagan. “Since this whole thing happened, a year and a half ago, we’ve seen people be reasonable with the way they’ve handled each of the case’s elements unfold in Richmond.

“Right now, we have extra officers working the streets, on top of the regular patrol group,” Gagan said. “Their job is just to be available to answer questions, observe, and determine if spontaneous groups are starting to get violent and cause property damage.”

Gagan said some of those extra officers have been deployed to the Richmond BART station on MacDonald Avenue.

Law enforcement and city officials in Oakland have taken several precautions to prevent a repeat of the riots that erupted there in the wake of the killing in January, 2009, when a protest march through downtown Oakland became violent. Demonstrators burned cars and trashcans and broke shop windows. Over 100 people were arrested. Several smaller riots erupted throughout the month of January, while Grant’s family pleaded for the violence to end. In November, 2009, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson granted a change of venue for Mehserle’s trial to move to Los Angeles, ruling that the violent protests and media attention in Oakland would not allow Mehserle a fair trial here.

Oakland city officials coordinated a peaceful citywide gathering at Frank Ogawa Plaza at 6 p.m. Thursday that featured youth speakers, music, poetry and other ways for community members to express their feelings. More information is available at OaklandNet.com.

Last week Mayor Ron Dellums and Police Chief Anthony Batts sent out community and merchant information bulletins to help people prepare, recommending that merchants secure their buildings and that people park their cars in secure locations.

In a joint statement issued Thursday, Batts, Dellums and the members of the city council urged peace: “We are united as a city and a community, and we are dedicated to ensuring the safe expressions of emotions during this difficult time. We understand that the community is grieving, and we are in this together. We will get through this together. There are many people ready to help begin the healing process and they have opened their doors to allow us to express our grief in a healthy manner that will not endanger our safety, livelihood or reputation as a city. We are asking for the community to come together, look out for one another and stay safe. We will not tolerate destruction or violence. We live here, and we love Oakland.”

Richmond City Councilman Nat Bates said that as of 6:30 p.m., he hadn’t heard of any violent protests breaking out in Richmond, and pointed out that in 1992, after the Rodney King verdict was delivered, Richmond remained fairly calm despite major protests in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

“That’s our democratic system,” Bates said of Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter verdict, which he said he expected and generally agreed with.  “Whether people agree with it or not, that’s the law of the land. I hope our citizens respect the law of the land, and don’t create a situation where they perhaps may be forced to have a jury judge their own behavior.”

Others in Richmond, however, appeared more skeptical of the trial’s outcome. About 50 kids and teenagers gathered at Richmond’s RYSE teen center Thursday to hear the verdict, where RYSE co-Executive Director Kimberly Aceves said the mood was somber, and that frustration was the prevalent emotion in the room. Aceves said councilors encouraged the group to talk about police brutality and race relations openly and in the context of their own lives. Many people in Richmond have family in Oakland, Aceves said, giving the case extra meaning.

“For lot of the young people here, the verdict wasn’t surprising,” Aceves said. “A lot of them didn’t understand all the nuances of [the verdict], but many of them felt disheartened. They’re clearly not feeling valued as young people of color.”

Aceves said the teens at the RYSE center have made an altar for Grant.

“So many of the people here have in Richmond experienced loss because of gun violence,” she said. “We are definitely a community living in trauma.”

Other locations in Oakland where youth are encouraged to gather to peacefully express their thoughts about the verdict include:

* East Bay Asian Youth Center 2025 East 12th St 533-1092

* Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center 7701 Krause Avenue 615-5755

* Mosswood Recreation Center 3612 Webster Street 597-5038

* Attitudinal Healing Connection 3278 West St. @ 33rd Street, 652-5530

Additional reporting by Dara Kerr and Ian A. Stewart.

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