OAKLAND, Calif. – This Northern California city is bracing for an upcoming verdict in the racially-charged murder trial of a former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer some 400 miles away.
While Johannes Mehserle, who is white, awaits his fate in a Los Angeles courtroom, officials in Oakland are frantically preparing for any repeat of the violence that occurred after Mehserle fatally shot an unarmed black man 19 months ago. Downtown businesses were damaged, cars were set ablaze and clashes between protesters and police near City Hall ensued.
Now, officers are working 12-hour shifts after undergoing crowd control training. Police also have erected a staging area by the Port of Oakland, primed to call for backup, if necessary.
“I don’t want officers to overreact. We’re just preparing, just in case,” Police Chief Anthony Batts told KTVU-TV. “I’m not getting any indication that we’re going to have a riot or any explosive issues taking place. Just because we’re planning doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
In Los Angeles, the jury could begin deliberating on Friday after closing arguments conclude. After defense attorney Michael Rains completes his final statements, the prosecution will have a chance to deliver a rebuttal. Tight security in and around the courthouse will be beefed up on verdict day.
“We have taken all precautions,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore. “You will see a large number of deputy sheriffs, significantly more than before, and there will be stuff you won’t see.”
Mehserle, 28, is charged with murdering Oscar Grant, 22, at the BART Fruitvale train station platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. The incident, videotaped by several bystanders and shown on the Internet, sparked violent uprisings in Oakland. Mehserle tearfully testified in L.A. last week that he mistakenly used his handgun instead of a Taser when he shot Grant.
On Thursday, windows at the Fruitvale station were boarded up as a precaution.
A few miles away downtown, police loomed as demonstrators announced plans for a “Speak Out” on the night of the verdict outside City Hall.
“What the (Grant) family wants, they want a second-degree murder conviction,” Tony Coleman, an organizer, said Thursday. “A conviction is a conviction, but we know if it’s involuntary manslaughter, he can get probation and nobody feels that is justice.”
Coleman later spoke with officers and gave assurances the gathering will be nonviolent.
Yvette Felarca, a local coordinator for the activist group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), said the event will either be a celebration or an outcry demanding justice.
“The badge cannot be and is not a license for murder. We need to fight for that regardless of what the decision will be,” Felarca said. “Can you be caught on videotape for the whole world to see and still walk free? That’s not acceptable.”
An Alameda County judge moved the trial from Oakland to Los Angeles because of intense media coverage and ongoing tensions set to boil over.
Last week, Batts and Mayor Ron Dellums publicly urged for calm, telling residents to “come together, look out for one another, and stay safe.” They told residents to secure their cars, remove large trash bins and report any destruction once the verdict is announced.
Other city officials were more blunt.
“If the verdict is for acquittal (which some believe is a probable outcome) there will undoubtedly be an outpouring of anger and frustration from many members in the community,” Susan Shelton, a city housing services manager, wrote on city letterhead to concerned parties last week.
Several downtown businesses, both big and small, have boarded up their storefronts. Some shops also have placed posters of Grant’s likeness on their windows as an apparent show of support — and to possibly prevent any damage.
“We’re very nervous, that’s the pulse of downtown,” said Derrick Bell, store manager of a custom hat shop situated near last year’s rioting. “A lot of shops didn’t open back up last year. I don’t want to see that happen again.”
Earlier this week, cleaning crews removed at least a dozen anti-Mehserle spray-painted messages around scenic Lake Merritt, including “L.A. better get it right…or else.”
A proliferation of stickers also have cropped up in trendy Oakland hotspots. One bears Grant’s image and the message, “We don’t forget.” Another shows Mehserle and reads, “We don’t forgive.”
Also, local African-American elected officials and clergy who have watched the events unfold from the onset vow to contact the Justice Department “to seek any and all recourse if an unjust verdict is rendered in this case.”
As the tension esclates, Dellums begged officials at BART — a likely target of protesters — to cancel a Wednesday news conference to avoid stoking any flames.
“Whatever the verdict, those of us who live and work in Oakland and who love this city must direct our energies and our emotion into constructive actions for change and progress,” BART board president James Fang said. “Neither, BART, the City of Oakland, its residents or its businesses have control over the outcome of the People versus Mehserle trial.”