Undercurrents: Taking a Moment to Analyze the Situation in Oakland

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:24:00 PM

In a situation as fast-moving as the Oscar Grant BART shooting death and its aftermath, it’s important to continue to collate and evaluate information on the run, even as we move forward. Such evaluation is going to be imperfect, of course, both because many things are still unknown, and we don’t yet have the historian’s benefit of the time and space needed to trigger the clarity of hindsight. But if we don’t take a breath and look around and make some preliminary conclusions as we go, there are many important things that will be forever lost. 

I am not one who was surprised, not at all, by this week’s arrest of former BART officer Johannes Mehserle for the New Year’s Day shooting death of Mr. Grant. After a Wednesday meeting with Oakland community leaders in which he did the usual district attorney thing, merely say he was conducting an investigation and revealing nothing else, Alameda D.A. Tom Orloff reversed field at a Thursday Mayor Ron Dellums press conference and gave himself a two-week deadline to complete his review of the facts in the case and decide whether or not to bring charges against Mr. Mehserle. I thought that self-imposed deadline was the key, giving the community a date-certain, put-up-or-suffer-the-consequences target for an outraged community. Mr. Orloff left himself no wiggle room, and I left the City Hall press conference that day convinced that a Mehserle arrest was almost certain. 

There were other signs, of course, that Mr. Mehserle had lost the closing-of-ranks protection normally afforded a police officer in such cases. One was the extraordinary moment of silence called in memory of Mr. Grant by BART Board President Thomas Blalock at the beginning of last Thursday’s board meeting, as well as the expressions of sympathy for Mr. Grant’s family by Mr. Blalock and other board members. When have you ever heard such universal response from an agency for the victim of a shooting by one of its police officers? Another sign was a statement by the BART Police Officers Association in which the police union did not specifically denounce the shooting but appeared to be distancing itself from the event, with BART POA President Jesse Sekhon saying, in part, “It is our hope that this brings everyone one step closer to finding out all relevant details and ensuring this type of incident never repeats itself.” Not wanting an incident to repeat itself is a clear indication that something was wrong with the original incident, a far cry from the usual police union proclamations that anything done by a police officer is automatically justified and justifiable. 

So what brought us to this point? 

The first was the horrendous reality of the Mehserle shooting of Mr. Grant itself, captured on so many citizen cell phone cameras and spread on websites and television newscasts around the country and the world. 

The second was the actions of community leaders—the radical, activist young folks—who pressed and publicized the issue in its first few days, and organized the Wednesday afternoon protest march from the Fruitvale BART station where the shooting occurred to the former BART headquarters at the Lake Merritt station. As is always the case, it took much of the area’s community and leadership a longer time to realize the horrific nature of the Grant killing and react. Had it not been for those young activists (and, remember, 35 is young to a 60-year-old like myself), the Oscar Grant shooting death might not have come to the full public’s attention. The Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE) is one of the groups that has been specifically identified in that role; if there are others, they should be identified as well. We owe those young activists a debt and should acknowledge them for their leadership. 

The district attorney’s abrupt turnaround from Wednesday to Thursday—from a general refusal to give up any information on the investigation to the self-imposed two-week deadline—was certainly fueled in large part by the events following the Wednesday meeting, first the march between the Fruitvale and Lake Merritt BART stations, and then the night of vandalism in downtown Oakland. But Mr. Orloff’s Thursday press conference announcement also showed the deft political hand of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums in the background. We have seen this before, more than once, Mr. Dellums, somewhere in the mix of things, working out compromises no one else thought were possible, while never revealing what role he actually played. We saw it in the settlement of the Waste Management workers’ lockout, when both management and union officials gave Mr. Dellums the credit for bringing a successful conclusion, while many in the local media were castigating the mayor because, in their opinion, Mr. Dellums was not doing anything. But that’s been the mayor’s style for most of his political life. By now, we ought to understand it and be used to it. 

That’s why I believe critics were incorrect when they criticized Mr. Dellums for not coming out with a more forceful statement about the Grant killing. Some of the most powerful moments we’ve seen in the early stages of this event came in the appearance of Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks before the BART Board last Thursday. Both made emotional statements characterizing the killing of Mr. Grant as an “execution.” However, those who were disappointed that Mr. Dellums did not make a similar statement miss an important point. Mr. Dellums has officially brought the City of Oakland into this situation by directing the Oakland Police Department to conduct an investigation into the Grant killing. If the mayor, at any point before that OPD investigation is completed, were to make any statement indicating he has already made up his mind concerning Mr. Mehserle’s actions on the Fruitvale BART station platform that night, the former BART police officer’s attorney would almost certainly bring such a mayoral statement before the jury at trial, arguing that not only the OPD investigation but also every investigation of the Grant shooting was prejudiced, with a predetermined outcome to arrest and indict Mr. Mehserle. Neither Mr. Carson nor Ms. Brooks was irresponsible in their statements, but Mr. Dellums, with a different role in this matter, had a different standard of care to exercise. We ought to use more caution and understanding in evaluating the roles and actions of the various leaders and public officials in these events. 

But Mr. Dellums is taking a lot of unfair hits in this situation, in part because of misreporting. 

In an eyewitness account of the Wednesday night downtown Oakland events published in San Francisco’s BayView newspaper, reporter JR Valrey (who was arrested that night and charged in some of the vandalism, a charge he has denied) wrote, in part, “during the rebellion [on Wednesday night], Mayor Dellums had a secret meeting with many of these suit-types, then proceeded to walk through the rebellion like Black Jesus, with about 50 primarily black people in suits following him across Broadway to City Hall, where he held a press conference.” I witnessed most of Mr. Dellums’ walk through the chaotic scenes along upper 14th Street between Oak and Broadway on the Wednesday night of violence and did not see the same things Mr. Valrey witnessed. There was no en-tourage of 50 people following him in suits, black or otherwise, only a handful of staffers, including interim City Administrator Dan Lindheim, the mayor’s bodyguard (who would have been able to provide no protection if the crowd had turned against the mayor), and Councilmembers Larry Reid and Jean Quan. Mr. Dellums walked the streets virtually by himself, in an attempt to talk with the demonstrators and mediate their immediate concerns, including getting the riot police to stand down at that particular spot. His press conference at City Hall was held long after he had finished talking directly with people in the street, and then on the City Hall steps (I have written about my observations of that walk, and other events on Wednesday night, in another article). Mr. Dellums’ walk was an act of enormous courage and responsibility, which it is impossible to imagine any other Oakland leader or political figure duplicating or even attempting. I will go to my grave convinced that in so doing, the mayor prevented what had the potential to be the most violent clash on upper 14th Street between angry protesters and riot squad police armed with automatic assault rifles. We all see different things from different angles in these chaotic situations. But it’s my opinion that Mr. Valrey, in his BayView report, flat-out got it wrong. 

Finally, I’m not one of those who was over concerned about Mr. Orloff’s announcement that he would take two weeks to complete the investigation into the Grant killing and decide what, if any, charges would be brought. I think it was entirely proper for people to demand that the district attorney move swiftly, and to keep up the pressure. However, I didn’t characterize the two-week self-imposed deadline by Mr. Orloff as a “delay,” but an exercise by the district attorney in caution and care. Mr. Orloff, professionally and personally, cannot afford another mistrial and/or outright acquittal in this case, as happened five years ago with the prosecution of three of the members of the “Oakland Riders” police group. And Oakland could not afford an outright acquittal of Mr. Mehserle as occurred in Southern California in the case of the videotaped police beating of Rodney King. Given the circumstances surrounding this situation that I outlined earlier in this column, it’s my belief that Mr. Mehserle has already been cast out of the fold of protection normally afforded police officers in these situations, and Mr. Orloff wanted to take as much time as he could before bringing charges, in order to ensure that a conviction is obtained on whatever is charged. That is my belief, but in this instance I’m a committed Reaganite. While I trust my judgment in these things, I also watch carefully, to make sure it’s verified.  

I’ve got some thoughts and words about the trashing of Oakland on Wednesday’s chaotic night, but that will have to wait for another time.