Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




March 5, 2009

About a half-hour before the scheduled Oscar Grant march and rally in Grant’s hometown of Hayward last week, Hayward police in full riot gear set up a blockade line in front of the City Hall building. Across the street at the Hayward BART station, where protesters were gathering, a group of early teen Latino boys were bouncing around at the edge of the sidewalk, periodically shouting “Fuck the police!” at the officers lined up across the way. Well, not actually shouting it. In fact, they seemed at great pains to make sure that while their friends and some of the protesters heard what they were saying, the police did not.

Shortly afterwards, when the march started, it was turned back by police after marchers tried to take a short cut from the BART Station to City Hall, a couple of African-American boys far back from the crowd started jumping up and down, eyes wide, hands over their mouths, saying “Ooooh, it fixing to be a riot!” in the same gleeful tones you might expect if they were saying, “that girl fixing to take her bra off!”

There was no riot in Hayward last week, only the sort of juvenile bantering of youngsters looking for a little excitement.

Rioting is fuel-fed by anger and if there is a center of anger over the New Years Day shooting death of Oscar Grant, one would think that it would be in his home town, where people knew him as a person, not as a martyred symbol and a movement icon. But the random street-violence mood that characterized the aftermath of the January 7th Oscar Grant march and rally in Oakland was not present in Hayward last week, in part because Mr. Grant’s family—which was out in numbers—has demanded it so, in part because the early explosive community anger that characterized the first couple of weeks after Mr. Grant’s shooting death by a BART police officer has been replaced by the quiet, patient determination of family members and community organizers who have launched what can now be called the Oscar Grant Movement.

The continuing running face-off between African-American and Latino youth that stretches across most East Bay cities continues to be a tinderbox that can be set off at any moment, who knows when? And in the unlikely event that the charges of the murder of Oscar Grant against former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle were to be dropped, or in the more likely possibility—stressing the word possibility—that he were to be either outright acquitted or convicted on a significantly lesser charge—there is likelihood that the anger would boil up and overflow again, and street violence would be the result.

For now, though, what had characterized a split in the Oscar Grant Movement—those who advocated violence and those who decried it—has subsided with the subsiding of the violence itself. However, there is still some confusion and disagreement over tactics, and what is possibly a more serious threat to the movement’s unity has developed over demands.

The City of Oakland had—mostly by accident and default—become the focus of the Oscar Grant protests, first after the most serious rioting broke out in downtown Oakland after the Committee Against Police Execution’s (CAPE’s) first march from the Fruitvale BART station to the former BART headquarters at the Lake Merritt Station, then, a week later, when CAPE marched between Oakland City Hall and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office at the courthouse. Since then, particularly after the February 12 BART meeting taken over for a half hour by CAPE, the focus of the movement has shifted to BART itself.

It would appear that with the continuing widespread community disgust over Oscar Grant’s death, and the vulnerability of BART in precarious economic times, that a disciplined, unified, well-targeted campaign of direct action by organizations involved in the Oscar Grant Movement would be able to win significant concessions from the transit agency.

BART would appear to be particularly vulnerable to some form of boycott and, in fact, the term “boycott” has increasingly crept into speeches and pronouncements by the various organizations involved in the movement. However, there is anything but unity in how and when such a boycott would take place.

One boycott has already been held, or at least called for, sponsored by the Prisoners of Conscience Committee (POCC) and West Oakland’s Black Dot Coalition. In a February 28 article in BayView newspaper, POCC’s JR (Cleveland Valrey Jr.) wrote that POCC and Black Dot had called a “boycott/jump the gate” day for February 27, Grant’s birthday, calling it a “jump-off for the campaign to make BART more accountable in this case and in general. Some have had questions about the effectiveness of this campaign, so I must explain that although boycotting and jumping the BART gate are acts that are targeted at hurting the income of BART, we realize that two weeks is not enough time to organize people by the thousands to stop supporting BART with their BART fare. That is why it is a jump-off for the campaign. Future dates that we plan to boycott or jump the gate are the days on which Mehserle and hopefully other involved police go to court, as well as days when [individuals arrested in the Oscar Grant protests] go to court.” ("Two Months In: The Maturing Of The Oscar Grant III Justice Movement")

Meanwhile, at the Hayward Oscar Grant birthday march and rally, a friend of the Grant family said that the family itself had initiated a three-day boycott of BART, to last over the weekend of February 27-March 1.

Neither of these boycotts were widely publicized and, therefore, it can be presumed that their effectiveness was minimal, at best.

But an even more important question is, boycotting for what? To be effective, a boycott must be linked to precise demands that BART is in a position to implement. Probably the most successful American boycott of recent memory was the year-long African-American boycott of the buses of Montgomery, Alabama by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the boycott that propelled both Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to national attention. The demand of the MIA was clear and simple: desegregate Montgomery’s buses. When the Montgomery City Council passed an ordinance allowing passengers to sit anywhere they wanted on the bus, the boycott was ended.

But even if you strip away those demands which are not directly applicable to BART, the various organizations involved in the Oscar Grant Movement have not yet reached unanimity on what they want the transit agency to do or give up in the immediate future.

The biggest differences are over the future of the BART Police Department.

CAPE, the organization that has sponsored the two largest Oscar Grant protests, is the most open-ended in its demands in this area, calling for a “public review of BART history, police policy, strategy, and philosophy to assess whether (A). BART police are really needed and (B). If needed, whether or not they need guns.”

The other organizations involved in the Oscar Grant Movement are far less equivocal. No Justice No BART (NJNB) demands that “the BART Board must abolish the BART Police, fully divesting BART of any police power over the communities it serves! [emphasis in original]” BAMN wants to “disarm the BART Police” and “BART police out of Oakland” entirely (BAMN members explaining at meetings that the police force is free to continue in other cities served by BART). And the POCC “demand[s] that BART police be disarmed.”

Neither NJNB or BAMN suggest how BART stations and trains might be policed in the absence of the BART police, although one possibility might be for BART to turn its police powers over to the respective county sheriff’s departments, as is the case with AC Transit.

The minister-led Town Hall Movement that meets at Olivet Missionary Baptist Church every Saturday and has been one of the leaders in the Oscar Grant Movement has not yet published its demands, although many of them appear to parallel those of CAPE, which is closely allied with the Town Hall Movement.

The issue of changing, reforming, or outright abolishment of the BART Police Department is clearly the most important and far-reaching of the demands being sought by the Oscar Grant Movement, and so the current differences between the organizations on this point have the most significance.

In the area of specific BART personnel either directly involved in the Fruitvale BART actions of New Years Day, or in the administrative actions that followed, there is less disagreement among the various organizations.

CAPE initially called simply for the “release of the names and suspension of all the officers accompanying Officer Mehserle on January 1, 2009 at the Fruitvale BART shooting until a thorough and comprehensive investigation has taken place.” Many of those names have since been released by Mr. Mehserle’s defense attorneys in moving papers filed in connection with the officer’s bail hearing. And with the release of the “second” video showing BART Officer Tony Pirone hitting Mr. Grant in the head with his fist shortly before Mr. Mehserle shot and killed Mr. Grant, CAPE has added the firing of Mr. Pirone to its BART demands. CAPE also seeks the firing of BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger and BART Police Chief Gary Gee.

No Justice No BART (NJNB) takes a position similar to CAPE’s, calling for the “suspension of all officers present during Oscar Grant's murder, for the duration of any investigations into their conduct” as well as the firing of Mr. Pirone, Ms. Dugger, and Mr. Gee. NJNB also demands that “upon completion of [an independent] investigation [of the facts surround Mr. Grant’s death], all officers suspected of procedural violations must be fired immediately.” Neither BAMN nor the POCC address the issue of personnel firings in their lists of demands.

Two of the organizations have presented demands to BART that go beyond the BART Police Department and personnel decisions. One of CAPE’s demands is for BART “in the spirit of restorative justice, to make community restitution, in part, by funding community based healing centers throughout the city for grief counseling, conflict resolution, and healing.” And NJNB says that “the BART Board must implement and fund economic development and youth programs to repair relationships with communities of color! [emphasis in original”

The great danger for the Oscar Grant Movement is that it might be able to force personnel changes on BART—where the organizational unity is more present but the far-reaching impact on the community will be less—while falling short on the more substantive goals surrounding the BART Police Department and police policies, where the various organizations have not come to agreement. That result could mean an ultimate tactical personnel changing victory for the Oscar Grant Movement, but little or no actual structural change in the police department.

We’ll watch and see how this all falls out.

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