Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant while he was lying face down on the Fruitvale station train platform on New Year's Day 2009, was released from a Los Angeles jail June 13 after serving a total of 365 days for his involuntary manslaughter conviction. He was sentenced to two years behind bars, but Judge Robert Perry granted him an early release due to credit for time served and good behavior.
The same date of his release, the National Lawyers Guild filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 150 protesters who were mass-arrested during the Nov. 5, 2010 demonstration in Oakland in the wake of Mehersle's sentencing. Meanwhile, a handful of individuals who engaged in the Jan. 14, 2009 and July 8, 2010 protests launched by Grant supporters — which morphed into riots after community rallies came to an end — are still battling court cases.
Two of the protesters arrested last July initially faced serious felony arson charges for igniting a trash can, which could have led to incarceration for a longer duration than Mehserle served for fatally shooting Grant.
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“There were several felony arrests last July, and people were facing charges that could lead to more than a year, no question about that,” noted attorney Dan Siegel of the Oakland-based firm Siegel & Yee. Siegel is currently representing Todd Lister and Adrian Wilson, the two defendants who were accused of arson. The codefendants now face attempted arson charges, carrying a minimum penalty of eight months, with a midterm of one year. “Theoretically, that's what they're still facing,” Siegel said, but added that he was confident the as-yet unresolved case would result in a more lenient outcome.
Meanwhile, some of the burglary charges stemming from the looting that occurred in Oakland last July could potentially lead to multi-year sentences, Siegel added, leading to more time in jail than Mehserle served.
Some of the hundreds arrested over the course of the three protests who had prior criminal convictions had their probation or parole immediately revoked as a consequence, said Rachel Jackson, a member of the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant and one of the organizers of the Nov. 5 community rally in downtown Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Of the hundreds of arrests made in Oakland during waves of protests launched by Grant supporters, just a small number were on serious charges such as burglary or arson. The mass arrest of 150 individuals last November was initially made on charges of unlawful assembly, yet nearly all of the arrestees were cited and released after spending up to 24 hours in jail, and all had their charges dropped.
In that instance, Oakland police corralled 150 demonstrators who had been participating in a lawful march through the streets into a residential block in East Oakland. Once they were surrounded, Oakland police — who were aided in the streets by 32 other law-enforcement agencies that night, according to National Lawyers Guild attorney Rachel Lederman — placed them all under arrest. No dispersal order was issued prior to making the arrests, and it would have been impossible to comply if one had been issued.
In a class-action lawsuit, the National Lawyers Guild argues that the Nov. 5 protester roundup and mass arrest was a violation of the Oakland Police Department's crowd control policy, and that it constituted a violation of protesters' rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. “Even legal observers and a few people who happened to live in the neighborhood were swept up,” Lederman said.
“The policy is clear, and the constitution is clear,” she went on. “You must have probable cause to believe an individual is committing a crime. But in this case, the whole crowd was herded onto a residential street, blocked in, and held on the street for hours. There was never a dispersal order, and all exits were sealed off.”
The Oakland Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Arrestees were held handcuffed in vans, in some cases for hours, without access to a bathroom, Lederman noted. All of the women were subjected to pregnancy tests upon being booked into jail, “which made no sense and was abusive in this particular case,” Lederman maintains, because the short time they spent there didn't justify the excuse that the test would have been necessary to determine whether anyone needed prenatal care. Several men, meanwhile, were subjected to DNA swabs, which is “only supposed to happen if you're arrested for a violent felony,” according to Lederman.
Jackson, who was also arrested that night, said she believed police conduct was “incredibly intimidating, and it has a chilling effect on free speech.”