Oakland Transit Shooting Sparks Riot

The fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train is raising tensions in Oakland, Calif. On Wednesday night, a riot followed a peaceful demonstration as protesters set dumpsters on fire and broke windows.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS: host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The streets of downtown Oakland, California are calm today after a riot last night. Roving bands of young people smashed storefront windows and set cars on fire. They were protesting the killing of an unarmed man. He was shot by a police officer with the Bay Area Rapid Transit or the BART. The incident occurred a week ago, on New Year's Day. Now, a video posted on the Internet appears to have inflamed passions, as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: The video of the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a supermarket worker and father, is chilling.

(Soundbite of people fighting)

GONZALES: It shows him being detained by BART cops who were trying to settle a dispute between Grant and his friends and another group of young men. Grant is sitting against the wall, appears to have his hands up and seems to be cooperating with the police. Then the cops push him, face first to the ground. He is surrounded by three officers. One cop has a knee in his back. The same officer rises, pulls his gun from his holster and shoots Grant at pointblank range.

(Soundbite of gun fire)

GONZALES: The video was shot with a cellphone camera from a BART train directly across the track. It's been posted on YouTube and on the Web sites of local TV stations, where it's been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. At least two other videos of the shooting are also available on the Internet. That helped draw hundreds of peaceful protesters yesterday afternoon to the site of the shooting.

But soon, the word spread that the officer who had shot Grant, 27-year-old Johannes Mehserle, had resigned from the force. He was scheduled to meet with BART's internal affairs unit in the afternoon, but the resignation made that moot. Come nightfall, a group of about 200 rowdy protesters marched to downtown where they were ordered to disperse by police.

(Soundbite of policeman)

Unidentified Man: If you do not do so, you may be arrested or subject to police action.

GONZALES: Not long after that, the crowd began breaking windows, setting small fires and vandalizing cars.

(Soundbite of protestors)

GONZALES: This morning, there was an uneasy calm in downtown. One of the protest organizers, Mandingo Hayes, said through distressed vocal cords, he had hoped the crowd last night would stay peaceful, but he understood the anger of many.

Mr. MANDINGO HAYES: I mean, how many times can you just watch - expect African-Americans to watch what's going on in our community, not just black on black crime, but police on black crime, and expect for us to just go along with the system. So, you saw frustration there.

GONZALES: Hayes spoke outside a meeting of the BART board of directors, which had met to hear the public's complaints about what has been widely interpreted as a slow investigation. Most speakers were black elected officials and clergy who condemned last night's violence. They also condemned rumors that the shooting may have been an accident, perhaps caused by Officer Mehserle believing that he was firing his Taser rather than his gun. But Reverend Amos Brown, as the head of the NAACP in San Francisco, he called Grant's killing an execution.

Reverend AMOS BROWN (President, NAACP, San Francisco chapter): That was murder. I'm not trying to explain it away as being a mistake. I'm not trying to explain it away as being he didn't know whether or not he had his Taser or he had his gun. The evidence is there, and we should all say that was murder. And this gentleman needs to be brought to justice.

GONZALES: There are two investigations into the killing of Oscar Grant by BART and the local DA. Meanwhile, his family is filing a $25 million wrongful death suit against BART. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

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