Anger building over Oakland police murder

January 8, 2009

Todd Chretien reports from the protest in Oakland against the New Year's Day killing of Oscar Grant III.

"WE WON'T rest until we have honored Oscar Grant by winning justice for his family and ending police brutality in Oakland."

Those were the words of Dereca Blackmon, one of the principal organizers of a rally and march of nearly 1,000 people on January 7 to protest the murder of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III early on New Year's Day by police on an Oakland transit station platform.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle fired a bullet into Grant's back as the father of a 4-year-old girl lay on his stomach, his hands cuffed, according to a lawyer for the Grant family. The bullet went through Grant's body, ricocheted off the concrete station platform, and punctured his lungs.

Police tried to confiscate cell phone videos taken by horrified riders who witnessed the shooting, and initially claimed that the station's security cameras didn't record the incident.

But in the last two days, videos of the murder--including an especially graphic one taken by a passenger no more than a dozen yards away--have spread on the Internet, leaving no doubt that Grant was lying motionless when he was shot in the back. Police, meanwhile, had to admit that security cameras did capture the assault.

Nearly 1,000 people turned out to protest the murder of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer
Nearly 1,000 people turned out to protest the murder of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer (

A few hours before the protest, Mehserle resigned from the force rather than show up to an interview with police internal affairs investigators.

The January 7 rally at the Fruitvale BART station where Grant was killed was organized on little more than a day's notice, using the social networking Web site Facebook and text messages, with organizers speaking out on the KPFA radio shows of Davey D and Aimee Allison. The protesters were predominantly African American, but significant numbers of Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Filipinos and whites also participated.

BART police were nowhere to be seen during the demonstration. BART management closed the Fruitvale station for a while, no doubt frustrating even more people who tried to exit trains to participate in the rally.

Sean Dugar, California NAACP Youth and College Division president, told the crowd, "It's not enough that the officer has resigned. We demand that he be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Today, the NAACP contacted the attorney general's office to demand that they take over the investigation."

What you can do

The Coalition Against Police Executions has called for a demonstration on January 14 to demand justice for Oscar Grant. The protest will start at 4 p.m. at Oakland City Hall, with a planned march to BART headquarters to follow.

For more information about future protests, e-mail [email protected]. On Facebook, go to the Coalition Against Police Execution home page for regular updates on what you can do.

A video of the police shooting of Grant, taken by a BART rider, has been posted online by anti-police brutality activists.

Minister Keith Muhammad of the Nation of Islam asked the crowd to raise their fists in the air and repeat, "I am Oscar Grant!"

Later, some of the protesters tried to march toward City Hall. On the way, they were met by a cordon of riot police, who used tear gas and batons to try to disperse them. A group of the marchers broke away, breaking storefront and car windows and setting fire to at least one vehicle. Confrontations with police continued for several hours.

THE HORRIFYING videos showing Grant's murder have transformed the incident from one in a series of police killings in Oakland into a national scandal; there is even a march on Washington being organized.

At the rally at the Fruitvale station, Malia Lazu, director of The Gathering Project in New York City, said, "I come representing thousands of formerly incarcerated youth who will be doing events in solidarity with you next week across the country, because police brutality must end."

Earlier in the day, at least 1,000 people attended the funeral for Grant at the Palma Ceia Baptist Church in nearby Hayward. "They were remembering an extraordinary young man," said Mer Stevens, a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "The sense of anger in the room was thick."

Signaling a new feeling of defiance, the crowd at the rally was in no mood for promises from politicians.

A representative of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums announced that the mayor wouldn't be attending, but that he was concerned about the shooting. That was met by loud boos from the crowd.

"The officer has resigned, but that isn't enough," Evan Shamar, who initiated the protest, said in an interview. "We don't want him on administrative leave or fired. We will not rest until this officer is in an American court, on trial for second-degree murder."

Tony Coleman, a longtime civil rights leader in the Bay Area and friend of the Grant family, spoke for many when he talked about how deeply affected he was by this murder:

Oscar Grant was a teenage friend of my son. For all the Black fathers who've been coaching and going to all the practices and sitting in the stands and watching their kids, I want to say that this really hurts, because I watched him grow up. I watched him in the lay-up line, working on his skills on the court.

To all the Black fathers, you've got to stay close to your kids when they're out of high school, because they have a track for them: straight to prison, and if they don't go there, this is what happens to them. They kill them, like they don't mean nothing.

Other speakers at the rally included representatives of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, ANSWER and the Millions More March, plus youth and community members.

The newly formed Coalition Against Police Execution is planning a major rally for Wednesday, January 14, at 4 p.m. at Oakland City Hall, with a planned march to BART headquarters to follow.

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