Police officers in the United States are rarely convicted of criminal wrongdoing. But a Los Angeles jury last week found ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of unarmed train-rider Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009. The jury also convicted Mehserle of using a gun in the commission of a homicide. The gun-enhancement coupled with the felony involuntary manslaughter conviction means Mehserle will face five to fourteen years in prison when he's sentenced later this year.
In the hours immediately following the verdict, demonstrators in downtown Oakland were mostly peaceful. The throng was clearly disappointed that Mehserle had avoided a second-degree murder conviction. After all, video of the shooting had shown Grant laying face down on the ground when Mehserle shot him in the back. However, except for a few protesters who seemed bent on violence, most of the demonstrators remained calm — as did Oakland police.
But then around 8 p.m., things began to unravel. Small bands of angry white anarchists, dressed in black, their faces painted black or wearing bandanas, did their best to excite the crowd. Looters then smashed the windows of a Foot Locker store on Broadway and began stealing sneakers. Apparently nothing quite says "Justice for Oscar Grant" like a new pair of Nikes.
About that time, Oakland police, wearing armored riot gear, began advancing toward the demonstrators. Until then, police had stationed themselves at Broadway and 12th Street, allowing the protests to go on peacefully. But the cops eventually decided to end the demonstration and declared it "an unlawful assembly." Police slowly marched up Broadway toward 14th Street, where some peaceful demonstrators were playing chess as looters behind them started smashing more windows.
At that point, Oakland Councilwomen Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan entered the fray, locking arms with other demonstrators and creating a slowly moving blockade between helmeted police officers, who had donned their gas masks, and what was left of the peaceful protesters. The councilwomen, both of whom are running for mayor, slowly walked in front of the police, giving demonstrators time to clear out of the area before being overrun by law enforcement.
Ultimately, the councilwomen moved out of the way as police began arresting the chess players and other demonstrators before apprehending the looters and anarchists. Caught up in the arrests was Oakland school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, who was then forced to spend the night in jail, even though her only apparent crime was playing chess. Eventually, police arrested 78 people — of whom more than three-quarters came from outside Oakland, said Police Chief Anthony Batts. In short, the vast majority of troublemakers arrested after the verdict had descended on Oakland to use it as their personal playground.
Afterward, some of the peaceful protesters said police had acted rashly and aggressively. And while it's true that most demonstrators had done an admirable job of keeping outside agitators from taking over the protests, the police were in a tough situation. The anarchists and looters had successfully integrated themselves into the crowd and were starting to wreak havoc, while using the peaceful demonstrators as a shield from police.
In the end, the general sentiment was that Oakland police had done a solid job of preventing the situation from getting too violent. And Batts made the right decision before the protests — after getting calls from Quan and council President Jane Brunner — to not use an ear-splitting sonic cannon recently procured by Alameda County.
As for Mehserle, his attorney, Michael Rains, told the Oakland Tribune that he plans to ask the judge in the case to throw out the gun-enhancement conviction. Rains and other legal experts contend that the gun-enhancement charge required the jury to conclude that Mehserle intentionally fired his pistol at Grant. But the involuntary manslaughter verdict indicated that jurors believed Mehserle meant to use his Taser on Grant — and not his gun. If Rains is successful, Mehserle's sentence would be reduced to two to four years in prison and he might even be eligible for probation.
But even if that happens, the ex-BART cop could still face federal criminal charges. The US Department of Justice said after the verdict that it's examining whether to charge Mehserle with violating Grant's civil rights — the same federal charge levied against the four Los Angeles cops who brutally beat Rodney King but were acquitted in state court. Two of those four were eventually convicted of criminal civil rights violations and sentenced to thirty months in prison.
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