By Larry Hales
Published Jul 2, 2010 8:20 AM
Media in the San Francisco Bay Area are full of warnings that the Oakland Police Department, police of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, the California Highway Patrol and the Alameda Sheriff’s Office have all been practicing “riot control” maneuvers in anticipation of a verdict in the trial of former BART cop Johannes Mehserle.
Mehserle has been on trial since June 12 on charges of murdering Oscar Grant III. He was videotaped kneeling on a prone Grant and shooting him in the back at the Fruitvale BART stop on Jan. 1, 2009. Mehserle is white; Grant was Black.
The authorities anticipate outrage if Mehserle’s trial ends with anything less than a murder conviction. The OPD has been conducting crowd-control tactics and exercises to squash any rebellion, as well as spying on social networking sites, and most likely on public meetings, to determine where people might gather when they hear the news.
BART police have also been doing “intelligence work,” according to chief communications officer Linton Johnson, and will focus their efforts on Oakland and San Francisco, where they expect mass outrage.
The strategy of the Bay Area police forces points to an ambush being set up against activists and community members, who are preparing to demonstrate against any unjust verdict.
There have already been setbacks in the case, starting with a venue change to Los Angeles. Defense attorneys successfully argued that their client, Mehserle, could not receive an impartial hearing in and around Oakland. The switch of the trial helped secure a jury with no Black jurors. Mehserle’s defense attorney used peremptory challenges to remove three of the five Black jurors in the jury pool. L.A. Superior Court Judge Robert Perry excluded the other two.
Oakland and L.A. have very different demographics. Black people make up 32 percent of Oakland but only 10 percent of L.A. Moving the trial was important, seeing as this case highlights the low-intensity war being waged against Black people by police departments across the country, made more evident by reports from Oregon to Missouri to New York citing that Black people are significantly more likely to be stopped by police.
Before the start of the trial, Judge Perry granted some rulings favorable to the defense. He allowed Mehserle’s lawyer to use Oscar Grant’s prison record and the fact that he was on parole to demonize him in the eyes of the jury, thereby “justifying” his execution. The defense will also be allowed to have a so-called expert testify about what he sees in the six videos to be used during the trial. Perry will also allow a San Leandro cop to testify about having used a Taser on Oscar Grant in 2006.
Defense attorney Michael Rains tried also to have excluded from the trial key witnesses for the prosecution, such as Sophina Mesa, Oscar Grant’s partner and mother of their 4-year-old daughter, but these motions were denied by the judge. Rains sought to have excluded from evidence a racial slur used by fired BART cop Tony Pirone, who was there when Grant was shot in the back and who punched Grant in the face, as well as a synchronized video. All these motions were denied by Judge Perry.
While vilifying Grant, Rains has presented Mehserle as an upstanding father and husband who simply made the mistake of pulling out his gun instead of his Taser. The former BART cop in his testimony even resorted to shedding tears, eliciting a spectator to shout, “Save your fucking tears, dude.” The 24-year-old friend of Grant was arrested.
Officers Tony Pirone and Marysol Domenici had testified earlier. Domenici, who has contradicted her testimony at various times, had to admit that Grant and his friends on the BART platform complied with her orders and did not resist. She had insisted there were 50 people on the platform and they heckled her, but was shown video from several angles that showed an empty platform. She then conceded that the platform was indeed empty, but said she considered the people on the train as being on the platform and felt threatened by their presence.
Pirone, who was fired in April for his actions on the day Grant was killed, said on the stand that Grant and friends sat down when he, using harsh language, told them to.
The trial, which is expected to end by the beginning of July, has been a long time coming. Many people are anticipating the outcome, including those from southern California to the Bay Area.
Were it not for the movement that sprang up after the ruthless killing of the 22-year-old Grant, which included a mini rebellion, Mehserle would doubtless have been allowed to go free with no charges at all. That has been the racist tradition regarding many other cops who have killed oppressed and working people.
If the verdict is anything less than the second-degree murder charge for which Mehserle is being tried, it will take a movement to win justice, which is best determined by the community in Oakland. That community desires that Mehserle be locked up and never again see the light of day.
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