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Oakland Braces for Violence

Malik Cooper, owner of People's Choice Silkscreen & Embroidery in Oakland, stands in front of his business, which he covered in posters of Oscar Grant on Wednesday, June 30, 2010.
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Malik Cooper, owner of People's Choice Silkscreen & Embroidery in Oakland, stands in front of his business, which he covered in posters of Oscar Grant on Wednesday, June 30, 2010.
 
Mehserle case goes to the jury; groups plan to take to the streets

Evan Shamar, a San Francisco wedding photographer, organized the protests last year after Johannes Mehserle, a BART police officer, fatally shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black man, on the platform of the Fruitvale station on New Year’s Day 2009. Thousands took to the streets, and Shamar said he went home that day, shattered, when the protests turned violent.

As Mehserle’s trial drew to a close this week, Shamar, 26, was again knocking on doors and distributing fliers, calling for people to gather at 14th Street and Broadway when the verdict is announced.

Shamar said he was terrified about the prospect of more violence, but was unwilling to back down. Oakland officials have repeatedly tried to contact him about his plans, he said, but he has not returned their calls.

“It’s not sincere,” he said. “They plan on pacifying us.”

Shamar, a member of the umbrella organization the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, is at the center of the city’s feverish preparations for the conclusion of one of the most explosive criminal cases in Oakland’s history.

With police and city officials bracing for the worst, activists, community leaders and civic organizations have mobilized — some in an effort to prevent violence, some apparently to stoke it and some simply to protest what they perceive as an unjust killing, regardless of the trial’s outcome.

Youth groups have recruited hundreds of young people to walk the streets encouraging a nonviolent response. Popular Bay Area rappers, like Mistah F.A.B. and Keak Da Sneak, have recorded public service announcements urging people to protest peacefully. Meanwhile, people who describe themselves as anarchists and communists have been meeting in basements and East Bay bookstores, vowing that the trial’s true verdict will take place in the streets.

Amri Daniels, a member of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, an activist group that says it is dedicated to the liberation of African people throughout the world, said at a meeting on Tuesday night that he had been talking with some of the city’s young people, and that “it’s not going well.”

“These kids have weapons, and they’re fired up,” Daniels said. “They’re not interested in all this talk.”

Jury deliberations are expected to begin Friday in the trial of Mehserle, who is accused of murdering Grant, shooting him in the back as he lay facedown on the platform shortly after midnight. Mehserle testified that he had accidentally reached for his Sig Sauer P226 pistol instead of his Taser. The trial was moved to Los Angeles.

After amateur videos of the shooting became public last year, protesters spilled into downtown Oakland. Their rage spiraled into violence, resulting in damaged businesses, burned and overturned police vehicles and more than 100 arrests.

In recent weeks, the Oakland police organized mock-riot exercises involving more than 450 officers from 20 law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and the Napa and Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Departments. Those agencies will be on standby after the verdict, Oakland officials say.

Businesses in downtown Oakland are also preparing. Hoping to ward off looters, some small-business owners have hung posters of Grant in their storefront windows.

“I figured this would be a way to let people know I’m a sympathizer — we need justice,” said Malik Cooper, owner of People’s Choice Printing on Webster Street, who provided many businesses with the posters and plastered his own windows with Grant’s likeness.

As the trial moved into its final phase, faster than many had anticipated, Oakland officials sent out e-mail marked “urgent” inviting community leaders to a meeting at City Hall on June 21 to help plan a response to the verdict. Some who attended the meeting said they believed that the city was unprepared, and that they needed to organize their own response.

"I’m not operating under the belief that this could become a violent situation," Mayor Ron Dellums said. "I believe that people love this city and ultimately people’s desire is to manifest themselves in a peaceful way."

Several groups have organized events at recreation centers where young residents can seek counseling.

Youth UpRising and Urban Peace Movement, organizations dedicated to promoting youth leadership development, each plan to send roughly 100 teenagers and adults into the community to talk to young people who feel upset about the case. Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth UpRising, said she hoped these “foot soldiers” would inspire informed and nonviolent community action around the issues raised by Grant’s death.

“When officers aren’t held to the same standard as citizens,” Simmons said, “people are legitimately concerned about that. And then people don’t feel safe. It’s about educating young people, and it’s about pointing out to them the power they have for positive change.”

Kevin Grant, no relation to Oscar Grant, who leads a city violence-prevention program called Measure Y, said education before the verdict was crucial because most young people were vulnerable to being swept up in the emotional response. It is important for people not only to vent their anger peacefully, Grant said, but also to avoid confrontation with the police.

“When the mob mentality is on and the police is on, it don’t matter if you a peaceful protester or not,” Grant said. “If you caught up in the machine, then you get rounded up in the machine.”

Grant and members of his team, many of whom are former gang members, regularly walk through Oakland hot spots and talk to residents during late hours. They have distributed fliers urging young people to stay home the day of the verdict.

Grant and others said they believe that the threat of violence is just as likely to come from “outside agitators” as from Oakland. In the Lake Merritt neighborhood this week, city workers scrubbed red spray-painted messages — including “Mehserle Must Die!” and “Cops Bleed Too!” — off the sidewalks.

Shamar, the organizer of last year’s protests and the co-founder of the now-defunct Coalition Against Police Executions, blamed anarchists for inciting the violence.

This time, he said, he hopes for a different outcome. For several weeks, Shamar has handed out fliers in neighborhoods across Oakland and traveled to colleges and local radio stations to promote a peaceful gathering after the verdict is announced. Protesters are expected to gather near City Hall at 6 p.m. on the day of the verdict.

“We are not planning on rioting or being unlawful,” Shamar said. “We don’t want violence. Oscar Grant was enough. We don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”

He said he was hoping for justice in the trial, but like many others, he said he expected Mehserle to be acquitted.

If that happens, Shamar said he would understand if the protest became violent. But he believes that the police, not the protesters, would be the instigators.

“We will fight back if necessary,” he said. “We’re not going to back down.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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