Fall 2010 Newsletter: Mehserle Verdict Fallout

Mass Defense and Countering Dishonest Narratives

By NLGSF Executive Director Carlos Villarreal

This summer the NLG's Demonstrations Committee was paying close attention to the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant. The chapter ended up playing a role in the verdict aftermath that few other organizations could play. Our political positions on law enforcement and our mass defense work, put us in a unique position as a legal organization; while our legal expertise put us in a unique position as an activist organization.

Way back in January 2009, days after the killing of Oscar Grant and before Mehserle had been charged with a crime, hundreds took to the streets of Oakland. That uprising resulted in dozens of arrests and, some would argue, the necessary pressure on the District Attorney's office to finally file charges against Mehserle. For our Demonstrations Committee it was one of the more chaotic situations we've encountered since the mass arrests from anti-war protests back in 2003. A year and a half after that first Oscar Grant uprising, a verdict in the Mehserle trial was finally in sight. The Demonstrations Committee prepared for the worst.

Activists made public their plans to protest the day of the verdict at 14th and Broadway, regardless of the outcome. We alerted our legal observers and encouraged them to monitor the news and follow the Demonstrations Committee on our Twitter feed. Attorneys and legal workers volunteered to monitor a hotline number and do jail visits. Meanwhile, city officials in Oakland and at the Oakland Police Department were warning of "outside agitators," calling in their own outside agitators (law enforcement from other jurisdictions), and training for civil unrest. The corporate media was also ratcheting up fear of a riot and were preparing their wannabe war correspondents.

The verdict came down on July 8. The jury decided on involuntary manslaughter - the least serious conviction possible, short of acquittal. Over the prior weekend, with the help of members of the Demonstrations Committee, I worked on a media release with variations that would respond to possible verdicts. Our message following involuntary manslaughter was first that the verdict was a "gross injustice":

The verdict is a painful example of what we already know, the criminal justice system treats white, police officers with deference and poor people of color with hostility ... It is shameful that irrelevant aspects of Grant's past were put before the jury and troubling that the jury included no African Americans.

There was not uniform consensus on our message within the chapter, which is not entirely surprising. The whole affair raises a number of questions for a progressive organization like ours, but most challenging for me is how an organization that is critical of the criminal justice system generally, could ever support the prosecution, conviction or imprisonment of anyone. Even if occasionally justified in isolation, wouldn't support for such actions do more harm than good - propping up the very systems that overwhelmingly punish the poor and disproportionately punish people of color? Wouldn't support for a conviction reinforce the perceived effectiveness or necessity of a system that is overwhelmingly punitive? Tough questions with no easy answers, but I believe we struck the right balance with our statements.

A secondary message in that press release was to call on law enforcement to "respect civil liberties as [the] community reacts [to the verdict]." There was much more consensus on this matter within the chapter.

The reports started coming in that evening from legal observers, arrestees, and others: people were assaulted for no reason; police used batons to beat people; completely peaceful protesters were trampled and dragged through the streets.

The contrast with the corporate media accounts and OPD press conferences was stark. They reported police restraint in the face of outside anarchists destroying Oakland. Our chapter shot back:

Despite claims by Oakland Police (OPD) and city officials that law enforcement used restraint during last Thursday's protests following the Johannes Mehserle verdict, details emerging paint a very different picture. Police used excessive force against a largely peaceful protest, violently attacking a number of people. Police arrested many demonstrators who had done nothing wrong, and then held them in jail through the night and in some cases through the weekend and beyond.

Members and friends of the Guild were hurt and arrested. Long-time member Walter Riley was among those who spent the evening in jail. Anti-Torture Committee stalwart Susan Harman was beaten, detained by police and sent to the hospital. A legal observer was arrested despite the bright green hat and clearly defined role. The NLGSF hosted a press conference and became a leading, critical voice following the police response.

A column in the San Francisco Chronicle by NLG members Bobbie Stein and Rachel Lederman elaborated our position, responding further to the official OPD narrative:

The police department policy is clear that verbal criticism or abuse of officers is not grounds for arrest or use of force. Officers are not allowed to use batons to push and jab people in order to get a crowd to move. Nor is it ever permissible to strike people in the head, except in a situation where deadly force would be warranted. And while police may use force to defend themselves against an individual, it is both illegal and a violation of department policy to use force indiscriminately against a crowd. It was not only "glitches" that hurt the police protest response. The Oakland Police Department failed to follow its own protocol.

The physical and emotional pain caused to victims of the OPD is the worst aspect of this protest response, but there were other troubling elements. There is the chilling effect into the future of course, and then there is the public relations propaganda effort by the OPD. It is rare that communities most negatively affected by law enforcement actions will attract the attention of the media the way the police chief was able to; and it is rare that the media will treat that community with the kind of kid gloves with which they often treat the police. Getting a more accurate narrative to the media will continue to be an important role for the NLG.

Download a pdf copy of the newsletter to see more of this issue, including:

  • Thomas Steel Internship News
  • A Report Back from the National Convention
  • A Report from Progressive Lawyering Day

and more!