Oakland and SF brace for reaction to Mehserle verdict

Johannes Mehserle (left) shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Year's Day last year and was charged with murder.

Oakland and San Francisco police and city officials are nervously awaiting the verdict in the murder trial of Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on a train platform last year, although the latest word is that verdict won't come today (July 6), and probably not tomorrow, because of the absences of two jurors.

After demonstrations against Mehserle in Oakland last year turned into destructive riots, officials fear another outbreak of violence, particularly given the racial undertones to the crime, but they are urging calm and saying they will facilitate peaceful demonstrations in reaction to however the Los Angeles jury rules.

“We anticipate that regardless of the verdict reached by the jury, demonstrations will occur in downtown Oakland, and possibly throughout the city. The City of Oakland is committed to facilitating peaceful expression and demonstrations. The City of Oakland is also prepared to deal with the situation if it turns violent. Our goal is to protect public safety and property by minimizing the vandalism and violence,” reads a memo the Mayor's Office distributed to Oakland city employees.

Of particular concern to Oakland officials is the area around Oakland City Hall, which they want evacuated before the demonstrations begin. As the memo said, “We learned from the January 2009 BART demonstrations that 14th & Broadway and the City Hall Complex are target areas and there is some indication that history may repeat itself. City management is concerned about the safety of our employees and it may be necessary to release some city staff earlier than normal. Similar planning efforts are being considered by the State and Federal buildings as well as private employers in the surrounding area.”

In fact, witnesses say that many Oakland business owners in the area have already started to board up their storefronts in anticipation of civil unrest. Police in both Oakland and San Francisco have been placed on alert and SFPD Officer Samson Chan said all officers, even plainclothed investigators, will be in uniform from now until the verdict.

SFPD Chief George Gascon held a press conference with African-American church leaders this afternoon urging calm and announcing that community centers throughout the city will be opened to give people peaceful opportunities to express their frustrations. “They all urged people to react to the verdict in a peaceful way,” Chan said.

In a public statement accompanying the internal memo, Mayor Ron Dellums expressed sympathy with the frustrations that people may feel if Mehserle is seen as getting a lenient verdict – “We understand that the community is grieving, and we are in this together. We will get through this together.” – but he ended the message by saying, “We are asking for the community to come together, look out for one another, and stay safe. We will not tolerate destruction or violence. We live here, and we love Oakland.”