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Transit Shooting Adds To Oakland's Racial Tensions


In Oakland, California, a former police officer with the transit system will be arraigned today for the shooting death of an unarmed man. Twenty-seven-year-old Johannes Mehserle was arrested late Tuesday. And there's been a public outcry ever since the shooting on New Year's Day. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, there was another big demonstration in Oakland last night.

(Soundbite of protests)

RICHARD GONZALES: A crown of about 2,000 mostly young people rallied peacefully in front of Oakland City Hall to protest the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, an African-American who was fatally shot by Officer Mehserle, who is white. The shooting happened on New Year's Day, while Grant was being held face down on a train platform, a scene captured by cell-phone video cameras and widely viewed over the Internet. Mayor Ron Dellums congratulated the crowd for not allowing Grant's killing to be swept under the rug.

(Soundbite of speech, January 14, 2009)

Mayor RON DELLUMS (Democrat, Oakland, California): Every time someone's life is taken by a public servant in the name of democracy, we the people have a right to raise questions. You did, and you bent the process to your will.

GONZALES: Last night's protest was mild compared to one week ago, when an angry crowd railed at the slow pace of the investigation of Grant's death. In a series of community meetings, local residents, black and white, demanded officer Mehserle be charged with murder. Initially, District Attorney Tom Orloff said his investigation would take two weeks to complete. But yesterday, he made the surprise announcement that Mehserle had been arrested and charged with murder.

(Soundbite of press conference, January 14, 2009)

Mr. TOM ORLOFF (District Attorney, Alameda County, California): Murder charges were filed, because at this point, what I feel the evidence indicates is an unlawful killing done by an intentional act, and from the evidence we have, there's nothing that would mitigate that.

GONZALES: Mehserle was taken into custody in Nevada, where, reportedly, he had sought refuge from death threats. He resigned from the police force of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency, rather than submit to investigators questions about the shooting of Oscar Grant. Orloff said the fact that the officer didn't cooperate with investigators made it impossible to know his side of the story. The DA says that influenced the decision to file murder charges; so did the public outcry in Oakland.

Mr. ORLOFF: Because of the intense public interest, I think more resources were put into wrapping this up then would be put in other situations.

GONZALES: An attorney for Mehserle, Christopher Miller, said the video of the Grant killing doesn't tell the whole story, and he expects the former officer to be exonerated.

(Soundbite of street noises)

GONZALES: But back on the streets of Oakland, few would agree. In fact, the video of Oscar Grant's death underscores lingering tensions between police and young African-American men, says 29-year-old Marcus Miles(ph).

Mr. MARCUS MILES: When I saw the tape is when I actually got emotional. I was like, yo, why did he get shot when he was face down? Even if the officer intended to tase him, he didn't pose a threat. And that's when I felt like something was going to happen, because I knew if I felt like this, the black community felt like this and other people who are for justice felt the same way, and that's why we're here today.

GONZALES: By the end of the evening, most protesters dispersed peacefully. However, later in the night, a handful of young men went on a window-smashing spree. But overall, city officials credited protest organizers for keeping the peace. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.
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