City of Oakland officials moved quickly on Thursday to respond to the growing controversy over the investigation of the New Year’s Day shooting death of 22-year-old San Leandro man by a BART police officer, while members of the BART board of directors—which had been accused of dragging its feet on a response—officially heard the public anger over the shooting for the first time.
In an event that was captured by citizen cellphone cameras and spread on websites around the country, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, 27, shot Oscar Grant in the back on the Fruitvale BART platform while Grant was lying face down and subdued by several police officers.
Grant, a father of one who worked as a butcher at Farmer Joe’s supermarket, was one of several African-American men detained at the station following a fight between young men on the BART train. It has not yet been determined whether Grant was part of the fight, or was merely caught up in the BART police sweep of the train that followed.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson called the Grant killing an “execution-style murder.”
Mehserle has retained legal counsel and resigned from the BART police force earlier this week to prevent being forced to answer questions about the killing by BART internal police investigators. He has not yet given a statement to police or District Attorney officials in the killing.
Thursday’s events followed a somewhat chaotic Wednesday in Oakland that included the funeral of Grant, a confrontation between protesters and Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, an angry but peaceful march from the Fruitvale BART station to downtown Oakland, and a later night of mini-rioting in which multi-racial bands of youths roamed the downtown section for several hours, setting trash fires and breaking automobile and store windows.
Oakland officials have said that more than 300 businesses were vandalized on Wednesday night, mostly in the downtown section but as far south as 7th Street and as far east as 20th Avenue, with a total economic damage that has yet to be determined. Oakland police say that as many as 120 arrests were made Wednesday night, 70 percent of them for acts of civil disobedience for which they will receive citations, the rest for more serious criminal violations.
“The department supports people coming out peacefully and protesting,” OPD Chief Wayne Tucker said at a packed Thursday afternoon City Hall press conference called by Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. “But we will not tolerate the things that went on last night.”
Dereca Blackmon, co-founder of the Coalition Against Police Corruption and one of the organizers of Wednesday’s Fruitvale to downtown march, said that organizers have planned another protest action for next Wednesday. Police officials and most observers have said that while some of Wednesday night’s rioters may have been involved in the earlier protest and march, the march itself was peaceful and organizers and the bulk of the marchers were not involved in the violence.
Also at the Thursday afternoon press conference, Dellums announced that the City of Oakland was entering the controversy over the Grant killing, saying that he had directed Oakland police officials to investigate the young man’s shooting death “as you would any other homicide in Oakland.” OPD’s investigation will be coordinated with that of the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. There is a parallel investigation being conducted by the BART Police Department.
The Dellums press conference included several city and county officials, including District Attorney Orloff, who announced that he was giving his office a two week deadline to complete the investigation of the Grant killing and to decide whether Mehserle will be charged and arrested in the killing and, if so, what legal charges would be brought.
A group of Oakland citizens, including prominent African-American leader Rev. J. Alfred Smith of Allen Temple Baptist Church and Rev. Keith Muhammad of the Oakland mosque of the Nation of Islam, had appeared frustrated following a Wednesday meeting with Orloff in which the district attorney had declined to give such a deadline for the end of the investigation. Thursday’s announcement by Orloff appeared to be a concession that with the growing controversy over the shooting, the district attorney’s normal course of complete silence over an investigation until its completion could not be followed in this case.
“I know that there’s a lot of anger in the community, a lot of emotion,” Orloff said. “But it’s important that we move forward with a case that is court-ready. I request that you be patient, and we’ll be able to demonstrate that we have brought a thorough and thoughtful conclusion to this investigation that will bring justice to all.”
Several other Oakland officials spoke at the press conference, including Councilmember Jean Quan, who had accompanied Dellums Wednesday night when the mayor walked the streets attempting to quiet and calm the protesters and rioters.
“Oscar Grant was someone we knew,” Quan said. “He was the nice counter guy at the meat section at Farmer Joe’s [supermarket]. His death left a hole in my heart.”
And newly sworn-in Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who said she wanted to speak directly to the “small number of violent protesters” who trashed the downtown streets the night before. “Breaking the windows of minority-owned businesses in Oakland to get at BART is no better than George Bush bombing Iraq to get at Al Queda,” Kaplan said.
His voice sometimes breaking with emotion, Dellums also addressed Wednesday night’s violence, saying that “the community is saying, don’t hustle our pain [over the death of Grant]. We cannot exploit other people’s pain. Whether you’re Black, Latino, white, Asian, or whatever the hell you are, at this moment, we need to embrace each other.”
Several hours earlier, members of the BART Board of Directors, meeting in regular session for the first time since the New Years Day killing, heard several hours of speeches by citizens angered at Grant’s death and by the long delay by BART officials in releasing information or meeting with the public.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said that from the video “this appeared to be an execution” and told BART board members that “you had the responsibility to contact this community immediately and let people know what you know. It’s not just the young people demonstrating in the streets who are concerned about this incident. The entire community is watching, and will be following it to its outcome.”
Referring to the alleged leader of the “Oakland rider” renegade police officers group who fled—allegedly to Mexico—to avoid prosecution before being charged and arrested for falsifying evidence and assaulting suspects, Minister Keith Muhammad of the Oakland mosque of Oakland urged BART officials to arrest Mehserle “before he leaves the country.” Muhammad added that “we want justice in this matter, and we won’t rest until we get it.” Muhammad also criticized BART officials for waiting a week to present condolences to Grant’s family.
BART Board President Thomas Blalock opened Thursday’s meeting with a moment of silence for Grant as well as expressing condolences to his family. BART Board member Carole Ward Allen, who represents the Fruitvale BART station where Grant was killed, also offered “sympathies, love, and prayers to Oscar Grant’s family.”
But that was not enough for protest organizer Blackmon who also castigated the BART board members, saying that “the board needs to be accountable for its delayed reaction. Had information been released earlier, it might have delayed some of the rage that was displayed last night.” Saying that “the police cannot police themselves,” Blackmon urged that BART turn the investigation of Grant’s death over to an outside agency.
Councilmember Desley Brooks said that “there is a community that is outraged and angry by what we saw in the [Grant shooting] video,” adding that “the response by BART officials was not of acknowledgement of the execution of a young man, but of covering up, of closing ranks. This was a failure to communicate, the failure to acknowledge the taking of a life that was harmful to the community.”
Both Brooks and Blackmon told board members that the investigation of the Grant shooting should not be limited to Mehserle, but should also include the actions of all of the officers who were present at the time of Grant’s death. “BART should publicly identify each and every officer,” Brooks said. “Each one was culpable. Each one should be placed on leave and an investigation held into their actions or inactions.”
Brooks also called on BART to set up an independent citizen police review board, as well as to revamp its police procedures and policies, including recruitment and hiring, training, use of force policies, and disciplinary action.
BART Board President Blalock said that the board was setting up a special committee, to be chaired by Board member Allen, to convene meetings in the community concerning the Grant killing.