Mehserle-Grant Verdict Aftermath: Oakland Lives Another Day

Oakland is quiet and battered today. It could have been much worse. It could have been a little better. Watching the riots develop last night, surfing through the local news channels, evoked memories of that surreal White Bronco chase in 1994. But this was a different kind of drama.

Regardless of the verdict, some element of violent protest was inevitable. Ironically, most of those arrested were white, suburban anarchist, rather than black activists. Some people look for an excuse to go off on anything.

Throughout the night, I found myself on the musical track, “Motor City ’s Burning” by John Lee Hooker. What a great, tragic song. John Lee laments the burning of his own city, and the injustice that led to it. That song was about the 1967 riots in Detroit – that summer saw widespread violence in many American cities.

I was thankful for the calming wisdom of Oscar Grant Sr. the grandfather of the victim. In a local TV interview, he repeated comments he made at the protest open mike. Mr. Grant’s comments were very thoughtful and pragmatic in a TV interview: “I believe he didn’t mean to shoot him, but still the verdict wasn’t fair. We wanted a 2nd degree murder charge.” Mr. Grant went on to appeal for peace to honor his late grandson in the TV interviews and at the protest scene. Good man.

When I was 18 I had a summer job that had me driving around with a veteran campus activist from the 1960s. I learned a lot from him. One of his nuggets of wisdom was this: “A sign of a true radical is if you’ve been in ONE riot. If you’ve been in more than one you’re not a radical, you’re stupid or self-destructive.” Yep, something to do only ONCE.

My close call came in Nashville in 1978 when Dick Gregory spoke at a massive anti-apartheid demonstration. Demonstrations occurred in coordination with a US-South Africa Davis Cup match at Vanderbilt. After meeting and talking with Dick, one of my idols at the time, my photog buddy and I saw and heard a loud disturbance. Then a cordon of cops in riot gear was moving quickly toward us, so we bolted for the car and drove back to Memphis. Something about their helmets, shields and batons give them a patina of invincibility. My motto: “Never throw rocks at riot policemen.”

Watching the so-called (suburban) “anarchist” face up to the lines of riot cops, spitting and cursing at them, brought back memories of the ONLY time I stood at the line of scrimmage of riot cops. A Nazi group was permitted to demonstrate in Ann Arbor one gray, March Saturday in the mid-1980’s. Demos were planned well in advance. That morning I got an early start for the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market. While passing by City Hall, I saw several undercover cops coming out of the basement, wearing a broad spectrum of civilian clothes. It was intimidating and comical at the same time. I quietly observed as they fanned out through the neighborhood, taking their positions.

When I returned to the confrontation scene a few hours later, I knew who most of the undercover cops were and stayed out of their way. And my motto of “Never Throw Rocks at Riot Policeman” had been operable for a few years by then. But these were Nazis and I’m a Jew. So, while the cops formed a protective semi-circle around the embattled Nazis, I couldn’t resist the compulsion to walk right up to the line. But I didn’t taunt the cops. I taunted the Nazis. And because they were Nazis and I’m a Jew, I was ready for anything, EXCEPT for a confrontation with the riot cops. The cops were sympathetic to the anti-Nazi protesters and the crowd sensed that. Only a few morons actually taunted the cops, and they just sat there and took it. As the Ann Arbor riot unit jogged back to City Hall in formation, one of them smiled at me like, “Yeah man, we’re all glad this is over.”

It is not surprising that many members of the East Bay black community suspect and fear the worst from the justice system. They’re entitled to feel that way. Yet, I’ll proffer a value judgment and say this was a thoughtful and fair verdict. Consider:

  • A police officer, Johannes Meserle was convicted for a fatal shooting that happened on duty, “with enhancement of a firearm.” This is unprecedented. The latter qualification means that Meserle WILL face substantial jail time, likely between 5 and 14 years. Convicted “murderers” sometimes get less. Irresponsible leaders have been saying he’ll get off with six months probation – an example of a reckless and brazen lie that will only inflame people.
  • A federal investigation has already been announced by the U.S. Department of Justice. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) was interviewed by local news stations last night and made  references to her “close relationship with the Justice Department” and that she was trying to prompt a federal investigation. Then after the federal investigation was announced,  Lee was giving another TV interview, parroting the same comments an hour later. Apparently, no one told her proposed investigation had been confirmed by the DOJ in between interviews.

No one would blame Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant Jr’s mother, for her post-trial comments that “My son was murdered . . . and the system slapped us in the face and denied us true justice.” Under the circumstances she’s entitled to feel as she does and say what she wishes. But other community leaders and even news organs should be more responsible. Mother Jones News ran the crassly sensational headline, “Oscar Grant Killer Found Semi-Guilty.” That story that accompanied it was a grossly irresponsible piece of journalism that ended with, “But he’s a white cop and the jury apparently concluded that Grant was just black riffraff. The whole thing is just appalling.”

Race baiting s no form of healing. Mother Jones held itself to higher standards at one time. Oh, and the writer  is a middle-aged white guy who lives in Irvine.  Just the wrong form of inspiration for the white suburban anarchists who trashed our city last night.

There was a huge, unexpected, and beautiful ray of hope last night, which underscored the successful effort of educators and leaders in the Oakland black* community. A group of black teenagers confronted and surrounded a group of white suburban “anarchists” and screamed at them to leave Oakland , to leave Oakland alone, and to NOT destroy our town. I slept a little better than expected, knowing that this is the pool for the next generation of Oakland leaders.

*I REFUSE to use the word “African-American”. Many black Americans have no traceable relationship to Africa and find the term to be patronizing. The phrase seems to have gained more traction among Republicans who are struggling to be politically correct, and mask their racism. They were afraid to say “black” in the 60’s; and they still are. Then we have the issue of “economy of phrasing,” the bedrock of my editorial philosophy. “African-American” – 7 syllables. “Black” – 1 syllable. Save your breath – wax poetic!

H. Scott Prosterman

Scott Prostermanis a music, film and dance historian in Berkeley. He worked as a disc jockey in Pittsburgh and Memphis, where he grew up and where it all began. He was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, thrived in the 70s, barely survived the 80s, and re-grouped in the 90s.


  1. says

    I commented about this trial in response to the article about marijuana and the NAACP but to push the question I call out this crime as murder. A man face down either handcuffed or in process of being handcuffed could not be reaching for a weapon, which he didn’t even have. The defendant claimed that he meant to reach for his taser, got his hand gun by mistake and then shot the victim in the back. Tasers and hand guns are constructed differently though with some similarity, have different weights and according to the testimony the officer’s handgun/holster was on on side of his body and his taser was holstered on the other side. The defendant was a trained officer and there is no excuse for this not being at a minimum 2nd degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, not involuntary manslaughter. He pulled the trigger, he meant to shoot Grant in the back.

    If the defendant had been a young Black man and he had shot a white cop in the back who was lying face down with his hands behind his back and then that defendant claimed that he felt his life was threatened by the officer and that he was reaching for a Taser but shot the cop by mistake with his gun this would have been first degree murder, probably with special circumstances calling for capital punishment.

    What is disgusting is that some people who commented felt it was progress that the cop had been found guilty of the lesser offense. Justice is the equal and fair application of the law to all. In the old days, 1960s, I volunteered for the old National Council of Christians and Jews to do “sensitivity training” of police officers on race and poverty in two States with officers from many jurisdictions. The trainings were in AZ and Wisconsin. It was a waste of time: Officers lusted after their guns, their feelings of power and they demanded control which translated to — minorities and poor folks have to cringe and crawl when confronted by police officers — the officers called it getting respect. Oh, and officers of all colors expected this although each officer felt it with different intensity. The officers expressed no responsibility to give respect to the minority and low income communities. One officer commented that they know who pays their wages — and it ain’t the ghetto.

    It was symptomatic that there were no Black jurors on the trial jury. I have served on several juries with Black defendants and white and mixed jurors with and without Black jurors. The jurors were frightened of the neighborhoods that the defendants were from and were swayed by other jurors saying that we must protect ourselves from people like these. On one trial of a gang member even Black jurors prejudged the defendant because they wouldn’t want the defendant living in their community. When I pointed out inconsistencies, we could call them outright lies, in the testimony of the officers I was successful in defeating one charge because my fellow Black jurors couldn’t stomach the lie, but the jury still found the young Black man guilty and put him in prison for the rest of his life on a 3rd conviction. The conviction was for possession of marijuana for sale but in fairness I must say an earlier conviction, when the young man was 17, was for hitting his mother-in-law. His second conviction was also for drugs, possession of marijuana if I remember correctly. A non-violent crime as was this third conviction.

    A last point, I am glad that overwhelmingly people were peaceful after the Oscar Grant jury returned their verdict. Why? First because I believe in non-violence and second because more Black folk would have been arrested or shot down by the Oakland Police and Alameda Sheriffs if they felt they could claim they were in danger and reacting to threats to their lives. Think of the number of unsolved homicides following the Rodney King decision.

      • says

        Sharon and Dick,
        Thank you. I have considered dropping out of LA Progressive because I felt that I was being too radical and I have fear of offending some folks. As you may have noticed I have done a lot of things in my life that bear on the issues. Perhaps I will write up some informational articles. One thing I have never used yet is that I was on the drug policy commission for a four county area in the 70s, trained by the Federal Government. Even in the government training it was noted that marijuana was not addicting and that there were no known “overdose deaths” from the evil weed. When working with some officers who called me to do some counseling when they had picked up youths for smoking dope the cops would tell me, “Tell these kids that if they are going to smoke dope don’t do it where they’ll be seen. We don’t like to bust kids for this. There are more important things we need to be doing but it is the law.” So I would tell the youths, “The worst thing about toke is that it is illegal and if you get caught, you are in trouble, so don’t …. ?” And they would say,”Get caught.” Duh. Now, I never encouraged them to smoke nor do I tell anyone to use drugs but it is ridiculous to fill our prisons with drug busts. It costs, the last I knew, about $40,000 per year to lock someone in prison [it’s probably more than that] and only maybe $3500/per student for public school education, g-12, and pretty much the same for community college per year. Hell, we could pay for free University for most all of our young folks for what we spend on imprisoning them. Most people forget that once a young person over 18 is imprisoned then they join the social class of “ex-con” and their life opportunities drop like a lead balloon — and we wonder why so many of our young are recidivists.

        • says

          this is good information — please know that your comments are welcomed and appreciated. There are few who would disagree that our country’s “war on drugs” is a failure – if the goal was really to put an end to illegal drug use

  2. Uncle Don B. Fireland Fanning says

    I know progressives who have not *heard* of the trial or of Oscar Grant’s murder. Some of this may be because of While and upper economic bracket indifference. But a lot of it is because of the continued application of “Shock and Awe” tactics on the US population. So many people are “tuned out” to everything or only focused on a small number of important issues (or only one). I believe that this is by intent. (I won’t hazard a guess as to “whose intent” but I have many guesses.) A secure (in a deeper sense) and optimistic future is dependent on how we deal with a present where all is important and all is distraction and on how we begin treating causes rather than diseases. And, for those of us who are fortunate enough (?) to be aware of more that is going on, on how we refuse to discard our empathy and humanity and deal with our inevitable grief. I wish I was able to stand, in person, in solidarity with those in the community of Oakland who are legitimately furious with the miscarriage of justice in the Mehserle trial. My heart was there with them.;

  3. Suasoria says

    I don’t think race-baiting is germane to healing either, but I do know that some of my white “anarchist” friends were really effing pissed off at this verdict – in Seattle, in Portland, in L.A. and in the East Bay. I can’t comment on the specific incident you mention, but I dislike the implication that other activists aren’t entitled to get into the streets if they feel called to do so. Some people would call that “solidarity.”

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