(7/16) — 23:16 PDT — WALNUT CREEK — Supporters of former BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle are planning a rally at 2 p.m. Monday in front of the Walnut Creek courthouse — the first such public rally after 18 months of protests denouncing Mehserle.
Mehserle was taken into custody July 8 after a Los Angeles County jury acquitted him of second-degree murder but convicted him of involuntary manslaughter for killing unarmed train passenger Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009. He could face five to 14 years in state prison depending on what the judge in the case decides.
Grant’s family and many activists across the country have expressed anger and disappointment at the verdict, saying Mehserle committed murder when he fatally shot Grant.
But they are not the only ones who believe the jury erred in its verdict.
One of the pro-Mehserle Facebook groups that have been mushrooming on the social networking site instructs its viewers to “like” the page “if you believe [Mehserle] is an innocent man.”
“I’m very glad that Mehserle and his attorney have over three months before the sentencing. At least that leaves a window of opportunity to free this man,” reads one of many similar posts by members.
The page, called “Free Mehserle,” is one of at least four Facebook groups that advocate acquitting the former officer of all charges brought against him. The most popular of the pages boasts 357 members and includes out of state residents.
Invitations to the public rally are being sent via Facebook to “anyone who supports Johannes and our Law Enforcement Officers.” So far, there are 133 confirmed attendees, with 125 “maybe attending.”
According to Jesse Sekhon, president of the BART Police Officers Association, invitations are being distributed via email through the ranks of the BART Police as well.
“I received an email a couple of days ago and I was kind of surprised to see it,” he said. “I’m not sure if any [of the BART officers] will be attending. However I wouldn’t be surprised if some do.”
“Johannes still has a lot of support here,” Sekhon said.
Sekhon had the opportunity to train Mehserle on a few occasions and said he was saddened by the verdict.
“I don’t know if it’s fair. I’ll speak for myself — when I heard the verdict I was a little upset. I was sad,” he said. “When the verdict was read there were a lot of officers that just weren’t really talking, everybody was really quiet. It’s hard to describe.”
Although he said he never expected a gathering of its sort, Sekhon said he supports the rally.
“We’re just happy in general that there’s support for law enforcement,” he said, adding, “I just hope it’s not someone trying to stir up controversy.”
Meanwhile, Walnut Creek Police Chief Joel Bryden said the department is taking extra precautions to prepare for potential conflict.
“We’re adding extra personnel to make sure it’s a safe venue,” he said. “We’re using personnel from the sheriff’s office and other agencies in the vicinity.”
The Facebook invite states specifically, “This rally is NOT about inciting violence, destruction, intolerance, hatred, racism, riots or to upset the Grant family. If your intent is to do these things then please stay home.”
But some of the comments on the Mehserle supporter pages are more ambivalent. In its page description, the “Free Mehserle” Facebook group says “Oscar Grant’s family doesn’t want ‘justice’ they want vengeance, which is messed up.”
On a different page called “Free Johannes Mehserle,” seven people “liked” a post that said “Sue me for thinking Oscar Grant was a criminal rather then a victim.”
Regardless of the intent of the organizers, some members of the “Justice for Oscar Grant” camp have taken the event as an affront.
Jabari Shaw, an activist who was present outside the Los Angeles courthouse during the trial said he found the event mind-boggling.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “Officers are supposed to uphold the law and Mehserle went against the law. And now they’re out there supporting him?”
Shaw and his associates were quick to respond. Already there is a “Counter Protest” page being sent around on Facebook with 26 confirmed attendees who will also be present at Monday’s rally.
Sekhon and Bryden did not know who the organizers of the pro-Mehserle event were and neither could verify if off-duty police from their departments would be attending.
But to Shaw, the event seemed like law enforcement mobilizing against the community.
“They’re showing us they’re a gang. It’s like they’re saying, ‘we’re the biggest gang in the world and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” he said.
The comments on some of the pro-Mehserle pages only reinforced this idea for Shaw.
“If you read their comments they say things like ‘stay true to the boys in blue’ and they keep taking about ‘the brotherhood’…what are they trying to say? They’re trying to scare us. They’re trying to intimidate us,” Shaw said.
Mehserle’s sentencing, originally scheduled for August, has been postponed until November 5 to allow the defense more time to prepare.