Some 3,000 people rallied on the steps of Oakland City Hall and then marched to the district attorney’s office January 14 to demand an end to police brutality and justice for the family of Oscar Grant III.
The multiracial, predominantly young crowd carried a symbolic casket for Grant at its head and included large numbers of Asian, Latino, Arab and white marchers. Chants of “No Justice No Peace, No Racist Police” and “I am Oscar Grant” rang out throughout the demonstration.
Grant was shot in the back as he lay facedown on a train station platform early on New Year’s Day, surrounded by Bay Area Rapid Transit officers who had pulled him and several friends off a train around 2 a.m. The killing was witnessed by dozens of horrified riders, and recorded on cell phones and video cameras.
Finally, two weeks later–just hours before the protest organized by the Coalition Against Police Execution (CAPE) began–Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff announced that BART police officer Johannes Mehserle had been arrested and would be charged with murder.
The news was greeted with satisfaction by demonstrators, but they remained angry over the fact that authorities took two weeks to make an arrest–despite the video evidence of the crime–and determined to continue the struggle against police violence.
Hundreds of armor-clad police lurked on the side streets, but generally stayed out of sight as the march arrived at the historic Alameda County Courthouse, where Black Panthers rallied in the late 1960s to demand Huey P. Newton’s release from prison. Although not as large numerically, the mood was comparable to the mass immigrant worker marches on May Day 2006.
“We will not stop until all the officers involved in Oscar Grant’s murder are prosecuted,” said Tony Coleman, a long time East Bay civil rights organizer.
Minister Keith Muhammad of the Nation of Islam pointed to the wider issues at stake. “California built massive prisons, and then it spread to the rest of the country,” he said. “Now we are standing up to say ‘no more.’ And that will spread to the rest of America, too!”
Hundreds of high school students from around the Bay Area walked out of classes or left after school to attend the protest. Oscar Grant’s high school basketball coach spoke particularly to the young protesters, saying, “It’s beautiful to see you out here, the racial divisions are falling. White, Black, Mexican, Chinese–all of you are fantastic.”
The Alameda Central Labor Council endorsed the march and sent out an e-mail blast to encourage unionists to attend, and to act as marshals. As Clarence Thomas, former secretary-treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 said in an interview:
We stand in solidarity with the young people out here. We are protesting the state killing of Oscar Grant. This was state terrorism because it was violence used against a civilian population for political purposes. We’re demanding that it stop, from Oakland to New Orleans to Mississippi to Texas to New York to Baghdad to Afghanistan. People have to rise up against this state-sponsored terrorism and demand that the government serve human needs.
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FOR NOW, Mehserle will face murder charges. “From the evidence we have, there’s nothing that would mitigate that, something lower than murder,” Tom Orloff said at a press conference, with BART Police Chief Gary Gee standing by his side.
But in the days after Grant’s murder, Orloff, BART police and management, and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums remained silent about the crime, even allowing Mehserle to leave the state.
However, a rally of 1,000 people on January 7 and subsequent street confrontations with police brought international attention to the case. State Attorney General Jerry Brown and even the Bush administration’s Justice Department assigned “monitors” to oversee the investigation.
Clearly, city and law enforcement officials are hoping that prosecuting Mehserle will calm anger in the Bay Area Black community, and among civil rights activists and youth. Ron Dellums spoke at the opening rally on January 14, telling people “change is coming and you have that power.” Some in the crowd applauded, but many booed him.
Among the activists who came together to form CAPE, even their immediate demands go much further than Mehserle’s arrest. They include prosecution of all the officers involved for use of excessive force, and a transparent public process to clean house at BART. At the rally, many people chanted, “Recall, recall”–a demand that Orloff resign.
Beyond this, there is a serious discussion beginning about the need to disarm the BART police entirely, given their history of shooting and killing unarmed African American men–three in the past 17 years.
Aside from the BART police, the Oakland police force is coming under fire for its arrest of more than 100 people during confrontations after the January 7 protest.
Although there was some minor property damage as a result of those clashes, the police reacted indiscriminately. Thus, well-known Bay Area journalist J.R. Valrey was arrested as he covered the protests for the Black Report Radio on KPFA radio and the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.
The fact that the police kept a low profile on the march itself demonstrates that they are on the defensive for the first time in a long time.
Despite the tragedy of Grant’s death, the movement it sparked has brought hope and a sense of confidence among civil rights activists that shows a potential beyond the specifics of this case.
At the rally, Dana Blanchard of the Campaign to the End the Death Penalty read out a statement from San Quentin death row prisoner Darrell Lomax, which raised many of these issues:
I encourage people to get on board and find out more about the system and how it works, from the police to the courts to the prisons and death row. We must put an end to the murderous slaughter of innocent people at the hands of the state, whether by a cop bullet or the lethal injection needle.
I am Oscar Grant! Oscar Grant did not die in vain. His spirit lives on in those of us fighting for justice.
TODD CHRETIEN was the 2006 Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate from California. He writes for the Socialist Worker.
For more information about future protests, e-mail KreaGomez@gmail.com