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Oakland preaches peace as BART shooting verdict nears

With storefront businesses putting up plywood and metal grates in case of unrest, a host of activists and officials are calling for a nonviolent reaction to whatever the Los Angeles jury decides.

July 07, 2010|By Maria L. LaGanga and Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Oakland and San Francisco — The plate glass windows of Mimi's Fashions tell the story of hard-knock Oakland today, as the city awaits a verdict in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the white transit police officer charged with murder in the shooting death of an unarmed black man.

The window on the left bears a black-and-white poster with the likeness of the smiling young father who died on New Year's Day 2009 as he lay face down on a BART station platform. "Justice for Oscar Grant," it cries. The poster on the right-hand window shows a big red heart with yellow wings and a prayer: "LOVE not Blood for the streets of Oakland."

Those windows were smashed 18 months ago as the city erupted on the day Grant, 22, was buried. Mimi Le, who owns the tailor shop, worries about a reprise of violence when the verdict comes down, which could happen this week. She has new burglar bars in place to protect the windows.

And the posters, she hopes, will make protesters aware that "we know what happened, and we support them — not the violence, but sit down, peaceful, and talk. If you don't agree with the jury, let people know. But not damage. People in Oakland are already scared."

With the case now in the hands of a Los Angeles jury, storefronts up and down Le's shady block of 17th Street in downtown Oakland are a patchwork of posters, plywood and metal grates — protection against the same kind of vandalism that hit the neighborhood after Grant's death. There is more plywood on storefronts at the Fruitvale BART station, the scene of the shooting.

A law enforcement incident command post has risen beneath a tangle of overpasses hard by the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, complete with a fire engine at the ready and tractor-trailers labeled "emergency services" and sporting satellite dishes.

Some downtown agencies and businesses plan to urge workers to go home before the verdict is read, largely to avoid traffic jams. Community groups have announced plans to gather in front of City Hall regardless of the jury's decision.

For the last several weeks, community organizations, religious leaders and public officials have worked to create peaceful forums for young people to react in constructive ways. They want to avoid the unrest that led to closed streets, damaged buildings and torched cars last year.

A public service video prepared by Youth UpRising has gone viral, spreading the message that "violence is not justice." In it, a host of youth activists, rappers, a poet and even an Oakland police captain express the dismay they felt when they watched a grainy cellphone video of Mehserle, then a 26-year-old Bay Area Rapid Transit officer, shooting Grant in the back.

They say rioting is as unproductive as police brutality and urge peaceful expression.

Such videos were played repeatedly during the three-week trial, which was held in Los Angeles because of heavy publicity in the Bay Area about the shooting. Mehserle told jurors that he meant to shoot Grant, who he said was resisting arrest and reaching for his pocket, with his electric Taser gun but drew his handgun by mistake. He could be found guilty of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter —- or acquitted.

"Our primary concern has been the young people in Oakland, making sure we can help them figure out ways to channel their energy in positive ways and really understand the power that they have," said Jacky Johnson, outreach and events manager for Youth UpRising, an East Oakland organization that serves 13- to 24-year-olds.

Oakland city spokesman Karen Boyd said that at least 70% of those arrested in the unrest after the shooting were out-of-towners who have since been described by local community leaders as "instigators." "We are prepared and organized," she said," but we also expect this to be peaceful."

Said Scott Peterson, spokesman for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce: "This is a time when the whole world is watching Oakland. And Oaklanders have a choice — to demonstrate what we stand for, which is justice, and how we stand for it, and that should be peacefully."

But the tension here was apparent Tuesday afternoon at 14th Street and Broadway, the site of a planned demonstration when the verdict is announced.

Television crews filmed a small crowd of men and women wearing T-shirts that proclaimed, "I am Oscar Grant and my life matters."

Their point, explained Michael Walker, a member of the Oakland General Assembly for Justice for Oscar Grant, is that anything can happen on decision day. "I expect violence every time I go out of my house," Walker said. "I expect violence every day. I live in Oakland."

But Jamie Wagoner, a law clerk for Disability Rights California, wasn't so sure. Wagoner was eating his lunch across the grassy Civic Center plaza from the satellite trucks. His nearby office, he said, has plans to close after the verdict, "if a big crowd gathers."

He said, though, that he was not that worried. "A whole lot of African American community leaders are calling for peace, including the mother of the victim," he noted. "That's a powerful message."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

lee.romney@latimes.com

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