Transit Shooting Adds To Oakland's Racial Tensions

In Oakland, Calif., a former transit police officer will be formally arraigned Thursday for the shooting death of an unarmed man. The incident on New Year's Day has irritated some long-standing racial tensions in Oakland. A protest Wednesday night was mild compared to one a week ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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)

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Ex-Cop Charged With Murder In Transit Shooting

A former transit policeman was charged with murder Wednesday in the New Year's Day shooting death of an unarmed black man.

The incident, which happened on a BART train platform, was caught on video by several witnesses with cell phone cameras. Those pictures have prompted nearly two weeks of angry demonstrations in the Bay area.

Johannes Mehserle, 27, was arrested Tuesday in Nevada and on Wednesday appeared briefly in court, where he waived extradition to California. He was expected to be returned to California later Wednesday.

"He had left the state fearing for his safety," NPR reporter Richard Gonzales told Michele Norris. "He is not believed to have been trying to hide or run ... but word circulated that he left after receiving death threats."

Witnesses said Mehserle, who is white, fired a shot into the back of 22-year-old Oscar Grant while the supermarket worker was lying facedown on a train platform at a station in Oakland. Grant and others had been pulled off a train after reports of fighting, as New Year's Eve revelers were shuttling home after midnight.

"Videos of the action show him being pushed facedown," Gonzales says. "Officer Mehserle has his knee in his back. Then the officer rises, pulls out his gun and shoots Grant in the back. The officer looks momentarily stunned."

Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said he would not speculate on whether the charge would end up being first-degree murder or second-degree murder.

"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 to something lower than a murder," Orloff said at a news conference announcing the charge.

Mehserle's attorney, Christopher Miller, planned a news conference later Wednesday at his office in Sacramento.

The shooting inflamed long-running tensions between law enforcement authorities and many African-American residents.

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets calling for the prosecution of Mehserle, with one rally last week spiraling into violence that resulted in more than 100 arrests and damage to dozens of businesses.

Another demonstration was planned Wednesday afternoon.

John Burris, the attorney for Grant's family, said the news of the charge was "terrific."

"It is consistent with the evidence I have seen. I think the family will be pleased," Burris said.

Mehserle had refused to talk to Bay Area Regional Transit investigators before resigning last week.

"I want to know why he did it," said BART board member Carole Ward Allen. "We've heard from everybody else but him. While I can't speak for the entire BART board, we want to make this process as transparent as possible."

State Attorney General Jerry Brown assigned a prosecutor to monitor the case, and the Justice Department sent mediators to help avert additional violent demonstrations.

From NPR and Associated Press reports

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