OAKLAND — Kwame Nitoto never thought he would find himself defending Johannes Mehserle to a complete stranger.
Like many Oakland residents, Nitoto, a father of four and project director for Oakland Parents Together, was outraged when Mehserle, then a 28-year-old BART police officer, shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III on Jan. 1, 2009.
But sitting in a room of Oakland’s Church of Religious Science last week as part of a Community Dialogues and Peacekeeper Training workshop, Nitoto reached deep inside and tried to find some measure of compassion for Mehserle.
After the exercise, a slightly stunned Nitoto confessed how the shift in perspective had affected him. “I wish you hadn’t put me in that position,” he said to the assembled participants. “I needed it. I never would have done it otherwise.”
Nitoto is not alone in his anger. Mehserle was convicted July 8 of involuntary manslaughter, but many considered the verdict too lenient. Shortly after it was announced, a peaceful demonstration in downtown Oakland quickly turned violent, as looters and vandals trashed downtown stores.
As today’s sentencing approaches, many fear a repeat of that violence. At least one Oakland school will close its doors as a safety precaution.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry could send the former BART officer away for a maximum of 14 years, but he could also let him walk free with time served and probation. Dealing with the anger and frustration that a lighter sentence might provoke is high on Oakland’s priorities this week. The city’s police have assigned extra officers to patrol the streets and asked other law enforcement agencies for help. They also have an emergency operations center established and news briefings scheduled throughout the day to keep the public informed.
Police have reached out to a number of faith-based organizations to ask for their support in keeping calm and peace on sentencing day. Last week, several ministers met with Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts to coordinate their message.
“We understand that the community feels strongly about this tragic event and absolutely want to respect their right to free speech and assembly,” Holly Joshi, a police spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “We will not, however, tolerate any violence or destruction of businesses or personal property.”
That sentiment is shared by the Rev. Mutima Imani and her partner, David Kant-Wofford, who helped spearhead a citywide initiative after the verdict to prepare the city for the sentencing with a series of workshops, like the one last week, that emphasize dialogue, listening and empathy.
Imani and others saw the violence
firsthand after the verdict and, despite the presence of peacekeepers on the ground at the time, realized afterward that much more needed to be done.
Over the past two months, Imani has conducted 15 Community Dialogues and Peacekeeper Training sessions with hundreds of people at churches, community centers and schools across Oakland, focusing heavily on the East and West Oakland neighborhoods where tempers ran hot after Grant’s shooting, and where relations with the Oakland Police Department aren’t always smooth.
The program is funded in part by Measure Y, and benefits from additional support through Faces of East Oakland, a nonprofit group that has been sponsoring community-building workshops for several months.
Since the verdict, Imani’s group has strategically targeted merchants associations, youth groups, faith-based organizations, community activists and city staff members.
The reception has been largely positive. At first, some residents they met were itching for payback rather than peace.
But the three-hour training sessions helped many see the issue from another perspective.
Imani asks every participant to put aside feelings and argue each side of the case. For two minutes, everyone must advocate for Mehserle to go free. Then they must argue on behalf of Grant. The workshops also incorporate role-play, meditation and active listening.
The meetings have brought together people in unlikely ways.
At a meeting last week, Jack Bryson, the father of two young men who were with Grant the night he was shot, strode over to Oakland police Capt. Darren Allison and, choking up, embraced the officer with both arms.
“I know all police officers aren’t Mehserle, so I want to shake your hand,” he said to vigorous applause. “Change has to start somewhere.”
Additionally, David Kant-Wofford and others have quietly reached out to some of the anarchist groups that targeted the city after the verdict, urging them to pursue nonviolent measures if and when they choose to resurface for the sentencing. “This is the first time an organized group has made it clear to them that we would prefer they didn’t (engage in violence),” Kant-Wofford said. “We told them that we would prefer that they not be violent.”
Mayor Ron Dellums also sent a representative to last week’s session. And several African-American participants voiced appreciation and enthusiasm for the presence of several white faces in their midst.
“There was a time when it would have just been black folks in here,” Nitoto said.
The city’s efforts to quell fears since the July 8 protest seem to have paid off so far. Most of Oakland’s downtown businesses did not expect the sentencing to dissuade people from attending Oakland’s First Friday-Art Murmur gallery crawl that attracts people from around the Bay Area. Ara Jo of the Rock Paper Scissors collective on Telegraph Avenue said she informed vendors who sell crafts during First Fridays that the sentencing will be announced that night. But she said she didn’t expect disruptions. She echoed others who said they expected additional protests today regardless of the sentence.
Most galleries plan to stay open tonight. Some restaurant owners said they had no plans to close unless business was slow. Rain, many said, would be more of a deterrent to visitors than protests.
Come what may, Grant’s death and Mehserle’s sentencing have started a process of soul-searching across Oakland.
“My hope is that we all witness the system work the way it was designed,” Bobby Young, Grant’s uncle and a frequent participant in Imani’s peacekeeping workshops around Oakland, said last week. “In many ways, the system hasn’t worked, especially for men of color, and I hope this has a ripple effect across the U.S.”