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Calm urged after Oakland protests

The family of a man shot dead by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Jan. 1 decries Wednesday's violent demonstration.

January 09, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga and Ruben Vives

SAN FRANCISCO — The family of a 22-year-old man shot to death by a transit police officer on New Year's Day urged Oakland residents Thursday to remain calm and deplored the violence that erupted during a protest over the shooting a day earlier.

The city bristled with anger and sorrow as store owners cleaned up the debris from the vandalism during Wednesday night's protest and officials announced that the Oakland Police Department would join in the investigation of Oscar J. Grant III's death.

Demonstrators disrupted a Bay Area Rapid Transit district board meeting to demand justice. After several hours of anguished testimony, board members apologized Thursday to the family for the shooting death and agreed to consider creating a board subcommittee to oversee BART police procedures.

But it was Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, who spoke in the strongest terms about the aftermath of her son's death and that protest that resulted in more than 100 arrests, scores of damaged buildings and a number of torched cars.

"I am begging the citizens to not use violent tactics, not to be angry," Johnson said during a news conference a day after burying her son. "Oscar would not want to see all the violence going on."

"You're hurting people who have nothing to do with the situation. You're vandalizing their cars, their properties, you're breaking their windows," said the Hayward woman, who was flanked by family members and their attorney. "Please stop it. . . . Just, please."

Grant was returning home to the East Bay on a BART train in the early hours of Jan. 1, after celebrating New Year's Eve in San Francisco. A fight broke out between two groups of riders on the train about 2 a.m.

BART police met the train at Oakland's Fruitvale station and ordered passengers onto the platform. Grainy cellphone videos broadcast on television and viewed thousands of times on the Internet show Grant lying facedown on the platform.

BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle stands over the young man. He reaches for his weapon and shoots Grant point-blank in the back. Grant was unarmed.

The family has filed a $25-million wrongful-death claim against BART and Mehserle that could result in a lawsuit.

Grant, who has a 4-year-old daughter, was buried Wednesday morning.

A peaceful protest began about 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Fruitvale station, near where Grant died. It turned violent after demonstrators left the station and began marching toward downtown Oakland. Police in riot gear tried to control the crowd, which grew to 200 to 300 people.

Dumpsters were overturned, windows were smashed and cars were set on fire. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums tried to calm the crowd, which reached the steps of City Hall.

Protesters were angry about Grant's death and the transit agency's handling of the investigation, saying that police officials had taken too long to interview the officers involved.

Mehserle resigned Wednesday without giving a statement, although BART spokesman Linton Johnson said all of the other officers involved have been interviewed.

Reiko Redmonde, a spokeswoman for Berkeley-based Revolution Books, attended Wednesday's protest. She said protesters carried signs with the words "Justice for Oscar Grant" and "This is not the first time this has happened."

Some lay facedown on the ground, with signs on their backs pleading, "Please don't shoot me." Asked about the property damage, Redmonde said the "resistance was justified. I support what happened in Oakland."

Such views were little comfort for Leemu Tokpa, 36, who was cleaning up broken glass at Creative African Braids on Thursday. She had spent the night at her 14th Street store with her husband, baby and three brothers, worried that the mob would return.

Tokpa said she had heard about the Grant case on the news, but she was baffled about why she ended up being a victim, why demonstrators broke her store windows and threw a bottle at her while she held her 8-month-old son.

"I'm disappointed in them," she said of the protesters. "They're saying a black man was killed, and they're mad. We're all mad. But to come to a sister's shop and cause damage? How can they treat me like this?"

Initially, the investigation into Grant's death was carried out by BART officials, with the Alameda County district attorney's office conducting a parallel independent effort.

John L. Burris, attorney for Grant's family, demanded that a murder investigation be conducted. And on Wednesday, Dellums called for the Oakland Police Department to launch its own investigation.

At a City Hall news conference Thursday, Dellums appeared with Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker and Dist. Atty. Tom Orloff, where they announced the new effort.

"The Oakland Police Department has met with us, and we are going to move together jointly" to investigate the shooting, Orloff said, estimating that it would take two weeks before the agencies could decide whether criminal charges would be filed.

"I think it's important that when we move forward, that we move forward with a case that is court-ready," Orloff said. "That's what my goal is."

--

maria.laganga@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jia-Rui Chong contributed to this report.

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