Oakland officials praise response to violence after BART shooting verdict

As business owners boarded up broken windows and scrubbed graffiti Friday, Oakland officials assessed the damage wrought by protesters after the verdict in a high-profile police shooting case and blamed outside agitators for the worst of it.

Thursday night’s demonstrations in downtown Oakland were the first big test for the city’s new police chief. They began peacefully enough in the hours after former transit Officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the Jan. 1, 2009, shooting death of Oscar Grant III. But after a nearly three-hour speak-out in front of City Hall ended, some protesters began throwing bottles and rocks at officers in riot gear who had encircled downtown to contain the protest. As the evening went on, stores were looted, fires were set and the windshield of a California Highway Patrol cruiser was smashed.

In all, 78 men and women were arrested, Chief Anthony Batts said during a Friday morning news conference, three-quarters of whom were from outside of Oakland. Batts described many of them as “anarchists,” and vowed that authorities “will be moving forward to identify them and make further arrests.”

“They get into good crowds and cause issues,” Batts said. “We have pictures of some of them. We’re working with federal agencies…. We’re going to go to them so they understand they will not come to this city and destroy this city.”

Oakland officials have been planning for the day of the verdict since the protests shortly after Grant’s shooting descended into vandalism and looting. Intense preparation began about six weeks ago, said City Administrator Dan Lindheim, who estimated that 1,000 law enforcement agents were on duty Thursday.

Officials refused to describe the extent of the planning and personnel, but Batts said officers from 15 agencies throughout the Bay Area were on hand to help keep the peace. The smallest agencies sent two or three officers, the largest, 90 to 105. Bay Area Rapid Transit Police were among those on duty.

The need for assistance is particularly deep in embattled Oakland, which has a $31-million deficit and just sent pink slips to 80 police officers in an effort to cut costs.

“On Monday, we lay off 80 police officers, and those officers stood tall” during the demonstrations, Batts said, “People were spitting on them, throwing rocks at them and they were being professional knowing in two to three days they’ll be losing their jobs.”

Many on Friday morning praised Batts, the former head of the Long Beach Police Department who assumed his new job last October, and the Oakland department for controlling the violence and minimizing the property damage. They also congratulated the network of community and religious organizations for helping keep the peace.

“The way they contained [the protesters] was borderline brilliant,” said James Fang, president of the BART board.

Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums also thanked the Police Department on Friday, noting that “everyone showed great restraint and respect for people’s civil rights.”

“If you embrace the reality of people’s legitimate rights and step back, then things are going to happen,” he said. “Some people will exploit that openness. I would rather err on the side of guaranteeing the constitutional prerogatives of people rather than to have been oppressive and militaristic.”

After all, he acknowledged, “democracy can be messy.”

At the same time Friday, all parties were looking forward to Aug. 6, when Mehserle will be sentenced in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The judge could send him to state prison for a term of four to 14 years.

Mehserle’s attorneys released copies of a handwritten letter from the 28-year-old former BART policeman in which he apologized to Grant’s family and said that he “never intended to shoot Oscar Grant.”

In block print on lined paper, Mehserle said in the July 4 letter that “I have and will continue to live every day of my life knowing that Mr. Grant should not have been shot. I know a daughter has lost a father and a mother has lost a son.

“It saddens me knowing that my actions cost Mr. Grant his life,” he wrote just days before being convicted of involuntary manslaughter. “No words can express how truly sorry I am.”

Mehserle wrote that he had wanted to talk to Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, and Sophina Mesa, his fiancee, but he stayed silent because his own newborn son, his family and friends had received death threats after the “terrible event” of Jan. 1, 2009.

“For now, and forever I will live, breathe, sleep, and not sleep with the memory of Mr. Grant screaming ‘you shot me’ and me putting my hands on the bullet wound thinking the pressure would help,” he wrote, “while I kept telling him ‘you’ll be OK.’ ”

Mehserle tried to convince himself that the wound was not so serious, he wrote, “but I recall how sick I felt when Mr. Grant stopped talking, closed his eyes and seemed to change his breathing.”

For the city, Aug. 6 is another day of possible demonstrations. Although unwilling to discuss the details of the city’s preparations, Batts said that Oakland will be ready, yet again.

“We will have a plan in place,” he said. “Maybe a little differently, maybe the same, but we will be prepared.”