The trial of Johannes Mehserle, the cop who killed Oscar Grant, has reawakened a rebellious campaign against police brutality in Oakland, California. Oscar Grant, of course, was the unarmed young father who was pulled off a BART car for allegedly fighting early in the morning of January 1, 2009. After being detained by police, along with a group of his friends, he was shot in the back by Mehserle while lying on his belly on the BART platform. All this, of course, in front of a train full of witnesses, many of whom recorded the killing on cameras and cell phones. Although there is no doubt in the minds of many community members who have seen those videos as to what happened on that BART platform, the jury at Mehserle’s trial in Los Angeles may see something differently.
Throughout the past week, graffiti has appeared all over Oakland. Around Lake Merritt, powerful messages have shown up around the walkway; from “BART Targets Black People” to “Justice for Oscar Grant III or Else,” it was one of the first major public awareness campaigns to remind Oakland, as well as the law enforcement community, that the city will not rest while Johannes Mehserle’s trial comes to a close.
The graffiti that’s been appearing is only a small part of the community’s early response to, and anticipation of, the verdict. While painting these words seems to be an anonymous warning to the city, other visual cues are suggesting Oakland will be ablaze.
Ghost town images of boarded up buildings are another way the community has begun preparing for the verdict. Many businesses have covered their windows in anticipation of street rebellions which could echo those from last year. During those actions, only a few days after Grant was killed, thousands of community members took to the streets, expressing their anger over Grant’s death by marching, chanting, and in some cases, damaging cars and the property of local businesses. Those demonstrations resulted in over 100 arrests.
On the city government’s side, it seems like there is a strong potential for Oakland to rapidly turn into a police state. Reports have been out for weeks, saying that the Oakland Police Department is preparing with nothing less than intensive riot control training. Police have taken over a part of the Port of Oakland to use as both a training ground and a home base for what they are calling “Operation Verdict.” There are also rumors that the National Guard is already on its way with hundreds if not tens of thousands of troops.
Law enforcement training and presence could inflame community response to the verdict. Is their preparation helping or hurting our situation? Does seeing police train for intensive action make people angrier, and therefore justify use of riot-control techniques and possibly violence by Oakland law enforcement?
As Oakland visually shifts with anti-brutality graffiti and boarded up windows, the city government could be pushing potential protesters into the streets and intensifying the militancy of already protest-bound community members.
On the other hand, from town hall meetings to boarded up windows, all sides of the community are much more organized than they were last year. No matter how people participate, an explosive potential could hit Oakland as Mehserle’s verdict comes out.
No matter the outcome of the trial, or for that matter what happens in the streets, police have turned these events into another win for themselves. That is, at least in the sense that they are capitalizing off a potentially volatile situation. Just as we hear that eighty police officers have been laid off in Oakland, hundreds more are getting days, possibly weeks, of free training with new crowd control and dispersal technology (toys). Moreover, overtime pay adds to the ways police are benefitting from Oscar Grant’s death. Not only are the police then capitalizing off of the trial by getting new training and toys, but they are benefitting financially from what could turn into just another day in Oakland; that is, if the community is satisfied with the verdict.
Is there potential for a satisfying verdict?
Nothing will bring Oscar Grant back to life. Nothing will allow him to raise his young daughter. At the very most, his killer could be convicted of second degree murder, which would put him away for forty or more years.
If not, it is sounding more and more likely that the Oakland community will not let our legal system make a ruling on justice. Given that legal means will have fallen short, for a community which is positive of the perpetrator of this crime, justice may be taken into the community’s hands. If the legal system is not holding the perpetrator accountable, maybe the legal system is broken.
Continuing around Lake Merritt, another piece of graffiti appeared, demanding justice as a price for peace: “No justice? No peace!” It is a community call to action that, for me, echoes those surrounding the Rodney King verdict.
If justice rains down, we could be preparing for a massive celebration. If not, a massive confrontation could see community members arrested or wounded. Either way, the police have already capitalized off the situation; but so has the Oakland community, which seems organized, focused and determined for justice. As graffiti artists, shopkeepers and Oakland police transform the city in anticipation of a verdict, the transformation itself could be the explosive element that lights Oakland ablaze with rebellion.
Born and raised in Oakland, Jesse Strauss is a producer for Flashpoints (www.flashpoints.net) on Pacifica Radio. His articles have been published on Truthout, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Consortium News and other sources. Reach him at jstrauss (at) riseup.net.