A former Oakland transportation officer was arrested for murder charges on Tuesday after shooting and killing an unarmed man on New Year’s Day, officers said.
Johannes Mehserle, who worked for Oakland’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, was arrested in Nevada for the shooting death of Oscar Grant III, which was recorded by several commuters aboard a train with camera phones. The recordings have surfaced across the Internet as the incident further damages Oakland authorities’ already fragile relationship with local residents and sparked a massive wave of citywide protests and riots. “We are Oscar Grant,” the crowds chanted reminiscent of the New York protest over the police’s 50-shot killing of Sean Bell in November 2006.”I am Sean Bell” T-shirts can still be seen on city streets today. Officers at Douglas County Sheriff’s Department in Nevada said the Oakland Police Department informed them of Mehserle’s location and that an arrest warrant against Mehserle for homicide was released from a California court.
Douglas County officers said Mehserle, 27, turned himself in after being informed about the warrant and is being held in a Nevada jail without bail. Officers said Mehserle is in a segregated area of the facility on a health and welfare watch while he awaits his extradition hearing.
The Oakland Tribune reported Mehserle had been moving to different locations and traveled to Nevada after receiving numerous death threats following the shooting. Mehserle shot and killed Grant, 22, while addressing a fight on a commuter train Grant was believed to be involved in. Mehserle said the shooting was accidental and he believed the gun to be his Taser.
Grant, unarmed, was face down on the ground at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland when Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot him once in the back. One of the most critical protests occurred last Wednesday when young participants had organized a rally at the station where Grant was shot and later marched to the city where they faced police officers with riot gear.
The protest escalated and police used tear gas and night-sticks to combat the rioters. In response, the protesters set fire to police cars. “The police are the ones who escalated it to that level,” said Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.
Ratcliff said what began as a peaceful protest for answers and a rationale for Grant’s death escalated after police tried to intervene and prevent participants from marching downtown.
“People were really uptight for them not being able to say anything,” he said. “Ministers, politicians, office holders and, of course, young people got organized. Of course, when they go out and tear up a few things, they get some information.” But attorney John Burris, representing Grant’s family in a million dollar suit against BART, said the riots are not serving justice for the victim or his family.
“This is a wonderful man,” he said. “We don’t want to tarnish his reputation or even distract from his death with the riots.”
Grant’s family also spoke out in several press conferences, condemning the violence after a night of fury and arrests.
“This is not what the family wants,” Burris said. “They are not violent people.” But the city is gearing up for more future protests and possibly riots, said Officer Jeff Thomason, spokesman for the Oakland County Police Department.
Thomason said the Department has extra officers on the street and on standby after recent events.
“If anything goes off or anything starts, we’ll be prepared,” he said. “We have more officers here now than we did Wednesday night.” Thomason was referring to the large riot that occurred last Wednesday.
He said the department has not heard of any more upcoming protests for the week or weekend, but officers are prepared.
Ratcliff sees the recent events in the city only as the beginning for a sweeping change to galvanize communities to care more for what occurs in their neighborhoods. This is a movement, he said. “People really have their spirits up and they’re not afraid anymore,” he said. “We’re not going to take any more cop killings in the bay area. They came after us and now we’re going after them.”