Oakland business owners and city leaders are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst in the event there is civil unrest after a verdict in the trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle.
Mehserle, 28, is charged with murder for the fatal shooting of unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Hayward man, at the Fruitvale station in Oakland shortly after 2 a.m. Jan. 1, 2009.
Testimony in Mehserle’s trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court concluded today, and the lawyers in the case will present their closing arguments on Thursday. Jury deliberations are expected to begin Friday.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson moved Mehserle’s trial away from the county last October and noted that because Mehserle is white and Grant was black, the shooting “is viewed by many as a case about race relations between the police and minority communities.”
Violent protests erupted in downtown Oakland after Grant was killed, and the Chamber of Commerce said in a letter to business owners that city leaders anticipate demonstrations could occur downtown and throughout the city regardless of the verdict reached in Mehserle’s case.
Indications that tensions are high are spray-painted in graffiti on the sidewalk around Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, where messages such as “Mehserle must die too” and “Oscar’s Revenge: Mehserle’s Kid” are visible.
Some businesses in downtown Oakland are prominently displaying posters that say, “Justice For Oscar Grant,” and a few businesses have boarded up their windows.
The Rev. ElTyna McCree, the owner of Underground Treasurers on 17th Street between Franklin and Harrison streets, said many businesses on 17th Street were badly damaged during the January 2009 protests.
She is among those merchants with “Justice For Oscar Grant” signs in their windows.
“We will definitely close early on the day of the verdict just to be on the safe side,” she said.
McCree, who is active in the SOBO Merchants Association, which is short for South of Broadway, said she’s been a merchant in Oakland for 31 years and has been on 17th Street for 17 years.
“We’re struggling to make it,” she said. “And if we get hit by violence, then I’m gone.”
Four businesses on 17th Street closed in the months after the 2009 protests because of the damage they sustained and the losses they took, McCree said.
The owner of a large business a few blocks from BART police headquarters at 800 Madison St. said he has boarded up his business to protect his property. He asked that his name and the name of his business not be disclosed.
There were large protests near BART police headquarters last year.
“We’re obviously concerned about what could happen,” Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid said. “We’ve been in contact with downtown business owners to tell them that it may in their best interest to send their employees home early” on the day of the verdict.
Reid said Police Chief Anthony Batts will brief council members at 6 p.m. today on the preparations police are making to prepare for any unrest.
Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said he thinks the city is well prepared and noted that the Police Department has conducted several training drills to practice dealing with any unrest.
Mehserle’s lawyer, Michael Rains, has admitted that Mehserle shot and killed Grant after he and other officers responded to a report that there was a fight on a train.
But Rains claims the shooting was an accident and Mehserle meant to use his Taser stun gun on Grant.