A Night in Oakland
Yesterday afternoon, the jury announced their verdict in the trial of Bay Area Rail Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle had been accused of second degree murder in the shooting death of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed African-American man who Mehserle was attempting to arrest following an altercation on a BART train on New Year’s Eve 2009. The jury convicted Mehserle of a lesser offense, involuntary manslaughter.
I work in downtown Oakland, where many businesses were concerned that the announcement of the verdict would bring a repeat of the civil violence that accompanied the original shooting. Shortly before the verdict was to be announced, we were asked to evacuate our office building. I will confess I felt a great deal of ambivalence about this, but as a manager I felt responsible for the safety of our employees. So I encouraged people to leave.
As I walked to the BART train entrance, the sidewalks were filled with office workers essentially fleeing the city. I began to feel a sense of shame about this. It was “white flight” on a concentrated and graphic scale. I got in line to pass through the BART gates and even had my card out when I just stopped and got out of line. “I can’t do this,” I thought.
I am probably the least spontaneous person you will ever meet. The white board in my office has a “do list” ranging across three columns. I don’t take a vacation without a carefully planned daily itinerary. And yet there I was, making a last minute decision to remain in downtown Oakland at a time when many (white) commentators were convinced the place was about to explode in civil unrest.
I wish I could tell you it was an act of heroic virtue. The truth is that I was seized by something outside myself, an irresistible prompting of the Holy Spirit. I just couldn’t muster the energy to fight against it and keep my legs moving toward that gate. So I climbed the staircase out of the rail station and walked back down the street against the human tide. I called my wife to tell her of my decision. She, of course, understood perfectly.
My first destination was the Cathedral, which stands next to my office building. My hope was that others would be naturally drawn there as a place to keep prayerful vigil while awaiting the verdict. I’m sorry to say I was disappointed. It was deserted except for the security guards. I prayed for a just verdict, not even sure in my own heart what a just verdict would be in this case. I prayed for a peaceful response, whatever the outcome. In the Cathedral, an enormous image of Christ in judgment is depicted on the window behind the altar. I contemplated the image, and prayed that whatever the imperfections of human justice, the city would be able to trust in the ultimate judgment of Christ.
Shortly after 4pm I flipped on my Blackberry and got the news: the verdict was involuntary manslaughter. It was the least serious offense available to the jury, although it still represents—to my knowledge—the only case to date where a police officer has been found criminally liable in a case of this nature.
I wondered whether I should go downtown and join the demonstrators, who I knew would be deeply angry about the verdict. The truth was that my own heart was conflicted about the justice of the verdict. But I felt strongly that the place of a Christian that night was to be present in the midst of the city, not absent from it. In the Psalms of the Office we pray “the Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?” Did I believe these words or not?
It was a fairly chaotic scene when I got to 14th and Broadway. The organizers had not yet set up their PA system. The group half-marched, half-drifted into the intersection, blocking a bus. The organizers tried valiantly to get the group to let the bus through, but to no avail. A more militant faction broke off from the main group and started down Broadway to confront a line of riot police that had formed at 13th Street. It looked as if things could get out of control very quickly.
The organizers, to their credit, worked hard to turn it around. They got the PA going and started letting folks get up and say what was in their hearts. As in any situation where you let anyone who wants to speak, it was a diverse lot. This being the Bay Area, there were the usual aging radicals, professional agitators, and even one guy trying to sell copies of his book. The best speakers, though, were the young people. They spoke of their anger at being singled out by police, their frustration with the lack of jobs and opportunity in their communities, their personal experience with violence and the loss of friends. They asked hard questions about why we could generate so much community outrage about the death of Oscar Grant, but not around the death of other young men of color who die on the streets of Oakland on a regular basis.
One of the most eloquent speakers was Oscar Grant, the grandfather of Oscar Grant III. A career soldier and combat veteran, Grant pleaded with the crowd not to dishonor his grandson’s memory by committing acts of violence in the city of Oakland. His comments were echoed by speaker after speaker.
It is true that there were acts of violence and vandalism later in the evening, after most of the demonstrators (myself included) had left. There was a hard core of black-clad “anarchists,” many of whom apparently came from outside Oakland, who were committed to confrontation. Media reports that many local residents shouted “go home” at these folks, to no avail.
I wonder, in retrospect, what would have happened if enough of us had stayed, if we had continued that ministry of non-violent presence, if we had been willing to keep vigil in the heart of the city throughout the night. There were hundreds of police, but that didn’t keep the peace. I wonder if something else could have. It’s worth thinking about.