Oakland remembers victims of police brutality

January 5, 2011

OAKLAND, Calif.--On New Year's Day, nearly 100 people gathered at the Fruitvale BART station to remember Oscar Grant III and other victims of police brutality.

Grant died in the early morning of January 1, 2009, after he was shot in the back by BART cop Johannes Mehserle. The incident was caught on several cell phone videos that showed that Grant was face down on the ground, with his hands behind his back, and was unarmed when he was shot.

"Two years ago Oscar Grant was murdered up there," said Jack Bryson, father of Grant's friends who witnessed the shooting. My spirits are low since the courts passed the unjust sentence."

Since Grant's death, a deeply committed movement has pressed for justice--with mixed results. Following a public outcry, Mehserle was arrested and charged with murder. After the trial was moved to Los Angeles County, Mehserle became the first California officer convicted of a wrongful on-duty shooting. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced to two years with credit for time served.

He will most likely be released within the next few months.

"You always hope your children will bury you, you never imagine you'd bury your children," said Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother. "I hope there will be no more cover ups and the police take responsibility. My heart bleeds everyday."

As if to remind us that Oscar's murder was not an isolated event by a "bad apple" (the story advanced by the media and local politicians), five people have been shot to death by Bay Area police in the past two months.

In November, Oakland police shot and killed a local barber named Derrick Jones. Despite early claims by police, Derrick was unarmed and was shot from the front.

The killing sparked outrage by the community and led to several protests. Members of the Jones family attended the vigil to support the family of Oscar Grant.

"We're trying to make people more aware about what has happened with these murders," said Frank Jones, Derrick's father. "We have to stop the killings, that's the number one thing. We are waiting for city hall but nothing concrete has happened."

Relations between police and the community are severely strained. The public's expectation of police accountability is so low that Police Chief Anthony Batts actually asked the FBI to investigate the shooting of Jones. If federal investigators step in, they will join investigations already underway in the Oakland's internal affairs unit, homicide team and the district attorney's office.

In another case, an unarmed woman recently was shot dead by San Leandro police in Oakland following a car chase. Police said that they were pursuing a stolen car which led to a crash in a residential neighborhood. Allegedly, the woman was shot for fear she would use the car to assault officers and escape.

However, a witness interviewed by the San Jose Mercury News said, "They [the police] crashed the car and right away he said, 'Get out, get out,' two times, and then he started dumping the whole clip on her. He actually reloaded when he was done."

Despite Johannes Mesherle's wrist-slap punishment, the recent string of shootings by police and a heavy police presence at the New Year's Day vigil (including over a dozen patrol cars and an armored personnel carrier), everyone in the crowd stood firm in their commitment to achieve justice.

"We're gathered here to remember...and celebrate life," said Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant's uncle. "This is a time of celebration, reflection, and to embrace each other."

A common message that most speakers related at the vigil is their optimism that the struggle will continue.

"It's good we still got people out here," said Bryson. "We won't let things fade away."

Cephus Johnson added, "[The] community still standing gives us the strength to keep fighting."

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