Community activists and National Lawyers Guild members alleged today that the Oakland Police Department and other agencies used excessive force in responding to a large protest after the verdict in the trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle.
They said they are contemplating legal action against the Police Department and called for local elected officials to hold hearings to investigate how officers acted during the protest, which began peacefully but eventually turned violent and resulted in property damage to many businesses.
Mehserle was charged with murder for the shooting death of unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III at the Fruitvale station in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009, but last Thursday, a jury convicted him of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Rachel Jackson of the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant said the protest in downtown Oakland last Thursday night “was a beautiful event” but asserted that it was marred by police officers who knocked down peaceful protesters.
Carlos Villarreal, the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s San Francisco office, alleged that police were violent and unprofessional.
He said many guild members were at the rally to act as observers because the guild provides legal support to activists.
Walter Riley, an Oakland attorney and National Lawyers Guild member, said he believes that “police provoked a greater degree of disruption” by allowing a small number of people to vandalize businesses when they could have been stopped.
Oakland police spokeswoman Holly Joshi said the Police Department has only received one complaint so far.
“Any allegations of police misconduct will be investigated forcefully,” she said.
She said police “tried to sit back and let the protest happen peacefully” but that officers moved in and ordered people to disperse after the protest became violent.
“We had an obligation to protect businesses and citizens,” she said.
Joshi said she believes officers showed restraint despite being taunted, spat upon and having bottles thrown at them.
But Riley, the attorney, said he thinks the union that represents Oakland police officers wanted the protest to become violent so that it could win the public’s support in its talks with city leaders to try to avoid the layoffs of 80 officers by arguing that a large number of officers is needed to ensure public safety.
However, the negotiations ended without an agreement and the layoffs took effect on Tuesday.
“We believe there was police misconduct,” Riley said. “We intend to investigate and we want to see our elected officials follow through and hold hearings.”
Riley said he was arrested as he was trying to enter his law office at 1440 Broadway after police ordered protesters to disperse when the demonstration turned violent.
“I was going into my office when I was grabbed, pushed against a wall and handled in a way that I don’t appreciate,” Riley said.
He said he had to spend the night in jail and faces a hearing on Aug. 19 on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and failing to leave the scene of a riot.
Susan Harman, a 69-year-old former Oakland principal and teacher, said police officers hit her on the head with a baton while trying to get protesters to disperse, and she still suffers from a lump on her head and headaches.
Harman said she was arrested and had to spend the night in a crowded jail cell with 20 people.
“The whole thing was very frightening,” she said.