Friday, November 5, 2010

Protesters massing in Oakland as businesses close

Office buildings are emptying and protesters are gathering in downtown Oakland in anticipation of demonstrations today over the two-year prison term handed down to former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle for killing Oscar Grant.

Grant's family and supporters expressed outrage at the sentence, saying it should have been closer to the potential maximum of 14 years.

"The whole system is guilty!" a group of about 20 people chanted near the corner of 14th Street and Broadway, as hundreds of other demonstrators streamed into the area and to nearby City Hall. Many wore "Justice for Oscar Grant" T-shirts.

A shrine to Grant has been erected near City Hall, musicians are playing and protesters are giving impassioned speeches - but no violence has broken out.

Offices including the headquarters of the University of California closed early so employees could avoid the gathering crowds. Many stores boarded over their windows, and several shops displayed pictures of Grant in an effort to stave off destruction.

Looting erupted in the same area of downtown July 8 when a jury in Los Angeles found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter rather than murder.

Mehserle, 28, fatally shot Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed BART rider from Hayward, at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland while the officer and his colleagues were quelling a disturbance Jan. 1, 2009. Riots and looting also broke out in downtown Oakland a week after the shooting.

Police in July tried a strategy of keeping a distance while protesters vented their anger in plazas and streets around downtown, and then had to swarm and battle with the crowds at nighttime as the demonstrations turned to looting.

This time, police have clearly decided to take a firmer hand. Hundreds of officers are massed on the major corners downtown and at City Hall, making their presence known and staying close to protesters.

"We don't want to be physical, but we have plenty of resources," Police Chief Anthony Batts said at an afternoon news conference at which he and other city officials called for calm.

He said officers will have "as many cameras as possible out there" to film any looting or other lawbreaking, to help with prosecution or lawsuits for restitution.

Batts also said his forces will be looking for out-of-town anarchists, who he said incited much of the looting in July.

Outgoing Mayor Ron Dellums struck the same tone he did before the verdict, saying he commiserated with people's frustration but urging residents - and outsiders - not to trash the community's businesses and public spaces.

"I understand the pain, I understand the hurt, I understand the disappointment," Dellums said. "That said, it is still my hope that people will express their anger, will express their disappointment, their outrage, their pain in a manner that is nonviolent."

As of 2:45 p.m., Batts noted, no protests had gotten out of hand. "It is quiet and hopefully we will stay that way," he said.

Officers from nearby cities including Berkeley have been put on standby to offer aid as needed. Police are also on alert in Berkeley and San Francisco for any potential disturbances in their cities.

Community leaders for days have been urging a peaceful reaction to the verdict, but some family members and others associated with Grant adopted an angry tone this afternoon.

"No justice, no peace, I am sorry to tell you," Yolanda May, whose sister is the mother of Grant's 6-year-old daughter, told a KTVU-TV reporter in Oakland. "Whatever happens, I want the whole world to know this is wrong."

John Burris, attorney for the Grant family, said at a news conference outside the Los Angeles courtroom after the sentencing that he viewed the two-year term as confirmation of a racially unfair justice system.

Burris said he hoped there were no violent reactions, "but I can understand the pain and frustration that many will feel here. ... There is no place to go."

Grant's grandfather, Oscar Grant Sr. of Hayward, was in front of City Hall shortly after the sentencing, and said he hoped unrest did not break out.

"Responding to this situation - do it peacefully," he said. "Violence is not going to solve anything. Violence is what killed my grandson.

"Knowing how the judicial system in this country works, I was not surprised," he added of the sentence. "Two years is just a slap in the face."


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