(7/19) — 21:35 PDT — WALNUT CREEK — Two dueling protests, one in support of former BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle and another on behalf of the unarmed passenger he fatally shot, started and ended peacefully despite verbal clashes in front of the Walnut Creek courthouse Monday afternoon.
A boisterous crowd of 300 people, who divided themselves into two groups according to their message, alternated between trading taunts that often escalated to shouting matches and chanting passionate slogans of support for either Mehserle and law enforcement personnel or shooting victim Oscar Grant.
Among those in the crowd of Mehserle supporters was Todd Mehserle, the father of the ex-officer who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter on July 8 and is currently held in Los Angeles County Jail pending a sentencing hearing scheduled for November 5.
In a hat and sunglasses, the elder Mehserle kept a low profile, holding a large sign that said, “Free J.M.” in front of his face as he stood behind the more vocal activists who defended his son. He declined to comment about the verdict to reporters.
“There will be a time and a place for us to give commentary as a family,” he told the Beat. “That’s not today. Today is no comment day. I’m just here to support law enforcement and my son.”
Supporters around him, gathered on a raised platform where the courthouse is situated, chanted “Justice for Mehserle” in the same tone and rhythm that the Grant activists on the sidewalk below chanted “Justice for Oscar Grant.”
Carrying dozens of posters advocating acquittal for the former officer, pro-Mehserle attendees said the shooting death of Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in January 2009 was a tragic accident that did not amount to a crime.
Mehserle’s defense attorney Michael Rains built his case on the notion that his client drew his gun mistakenly, thinking it was a Taser. Grant supporters reject this, believing the shooting was intentional.
“They should wipe his record clean,” said Jane Brunner from Pleasant Hill. “He should have been acquitted. It was done in the heat of the moment, it was chaotic. He has a guilty conscience […] that’s enough punishment.”
Others felt that to some extent, Grant brought the shooting on himself.
“The one thing that everyone fails to mention is that Oscar Grant was partly responsible for his own demise. Had he not been breaking the law, he wouldn’t have been arrested,” said Mehserle supporter Donald Salladay.
Many on the platform who said they knew Mehserle personally were unwilling to give their names or specify their relationships with the former officer — for fear of retribution most said.
One such woman commented, “Why are we putting a man in prison who has got the biggest heart — who wouldn’t kill anyone intentionally like that — who’s out here working these streets protecting us day in and day out?”
“If you accidentally kill someone and you feel bad about it why should you be sitting in prison?” she asked. “He’s forever going to punish himself for an accident.”
Supporters of Grant were less forgiving of Mehserle.
They walked to the protest site on Ygnacio Valley Road from the Walnut Creek BART station carrying signs denouncing the former officer as a racist and a murderer. Protesters were joined by dozens of police officers from Walnut Creek and Contra Costa County wearing riot gear.
“What verdict?” asked Ed Henderson, a Walnut Creek resident. “Oh, you mean that slap on the wrist?”
Race — a hot button issue in the case since the killing occurred — was a point of contention between the two groups all day. Grant was black and Mehserle is white.
Most pro-Mehserle activists said the shooting was racially neutral and that pro-Grant protesters were inappropriately playing “the race card.”
“Johannes Mehserle was hired on to serve the public and unfortunately committed an accident and now people are turning this into a race card […] one human being made a mistake and another human being made a mistake. We need to look at it like that and get away from the race issues,” said Salladay.
At various points Mehserle supporters leaned over the ledge where they stood and chanted, “race card” and “not about race” loudly at their opponents.
But for many Grant supporters like Pittsburg resident Jamar Lindsey Sr., the case has a lot to do with race. He said although he had no connection to the pro-Grant organizers from Oakland, he felt compelled to come to the event due to what he saw as a larger issue of police misconduct directed at minorities.
“If people don’t take a stand and address these kinds of situations, it’s just going to keep happening and it’s just going to make people hate the police even more. We all get profiled […] It’s an ongoing battle everyday. I’m a minority so I see the law and the prison system differently than all of them,” he said, motioning at the pro-Mehserle camp, the majority of whom were white.
He said regardless of whether the shooting was accidental, the use of a Taser would have been unnecessary.
“The man was already detained. There were already several officers standing over him. So what was the justification for using the Taser to begin with? That’s excessive force. That’s why this is being looked at as a racist issue — that type of force would not be used on a white kid in the same situation,” he said.
Grant supporters of all races carried many signs implying racism played a role in Grant’s death such as “KKKiller KKKops” and “Jail All Racist Killer Cops.” Many chanted “Where are your white sheets?” referencing the garbs worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
But despite the charged exchanges between the protesters, Walnut Creek Police Spokesman Lt. Steven Skinner said no arrests were made and there was no property damaged during the protest.
“Both parties were very cooperative, vocal at times, but that’s not really a problem,” he said. “It’s actually gone really well.”
Skinner said an estimated 180 officers, including officers from Concord, Pleasant Hill, Danville, San Ramon, and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department, provided assistance with traffic control and keeping the two sides separated during the rally.
He said officers remained impartial to both sides during the protest — which drew a number of off-duty law enforcement personnel from outside agencies.
“It’s really important for law enforcement to remain very neutral, very unbiased in this,” Skinner said. “Our reaction was more from a planning standpoint, because we’re not a large agency. We don’t have a lot of resources.”
Members of Grant’s family were not spotted in attendance, but his longtime friend Jackie Bryson, who witnessed the shooting and testified in the trial, came out with his father to protest Mehserle’s sentence. So did the mother of Sophina Mesa, Grant’s fiance and the mother of his four-year-old daughter Tatiana.
The event was made public through a Facebook page posted by an anonymous organizer who called for a gathering in support of the ex-officer and law enforcement employees — the first such public rally after 18 months of protests denouncing Mehserle.