The use of force by law enforcement has long been a catalyzing topic,
out of which much activism and community organizing has emerged.  That’s the good news. The bad news is, it’s still going on

On Thursday, the East Side Arts Alliance – ESAA – sponsored a Town Hall on police violence – outlining the continued relevance of the issue in Oakland.

Progress on this issue over the years has been incremental. From the 1934 West Coast strike by the longshoreman’s union to the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant at the hands of a former BART police officer, there have been repeated calls for accountability, not to mention numerous flash points. Among them: 1934’s Bloody Thursday, when two protestors were killed by police; the killing of “Lil” Bobby Hutton in 1968 at the hands of OPD; the 2003 Oakland Riders trial; and the violent response by the police to longshoremen who joined in solidarity with anti-war protestors, also in 2003.

As Grant’s uncle Ceephus “Bobby” Johnson reminded the alliance audience on Thursday, “what occurred to Oscar has been occurring” for some time.

That point was underlined by former Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale, who pointed out that Point No. 7 of the Panther’s 10-Point Program (originally written in 1966) declared, “WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO POLICE BRUTALITY AND MURDER OF BLACK PEOPLE, OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR, All OPPRESSED PEOPLE INSIDE THE UNITED STATES.”

At the Town Hall, Seale resembled a kind, doting grandpa more than the beret-wearing firebrand of the Panther days. Yet, to this day, there are few orators around who can speak with more passion or conviction.

Reminiscing on the Panther era, Seale talked about how the organization was founded at a time when police brutality was “rampant,” describing how the Panthers would observe police actions with fully-loaded weapons – pointed down in accordance with the law at that time – and how Huey P. Newton would rattle off legalese to police, asserting the Panthers’ legal right to do what they were doing.

Seale spoke of the need for a “3-D democracy,” which involved “community control” of police oversight commissions that he said should be elected, not appointed. 

“How do we strategize?” he wondered aloud. “How do we bring attention to what’s happening?”

Other speakers and presenters attempted to frame the Grant situation as occurring within a much larger context. Members of Critical Resistance showed a video that referenced everything from slavery to Jim Crow to Wounded Knee to Vietnam to ICE immigration raids to the 2005 Parisian riots to the SF8. Members of Mujeres Unitadas discussed the organizing around immigration issues in Arizona. And Nation of Islam minister Keith Muhammad referenced “Operation Nutcracker” – a police action against residents of the Acorn housing complex.

“These are all part of the same system,” said ESAA staffer Maisha Quint, while Muhammad identified police violence as the main issue unifying the struggles of people seeking justice.

“Let’s focus like a laser beam on that,” Muhammad said.

Much of the calls to action revolved around the Nov. 5 scheduled sentencing date for Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle.

Johnson and Bryson both decried the “Justice for Johannes” organizers as a counter-movement, complaining that TV station KTVU – the recent target of a protest for running a segment, which claimed Mehserle “was not a monster” – had promised to give equal access to the other side, yet had made “racist” comments when shown a postcard campaign directed at the judge in the case, questioning the literacy of Grant’s supporters.

One of the intents of the Town Hall was to continue the momentum created by the actions around the Mehserle verdict. Johnson and other Grant supporters are calling for the maximum sentence for Mehserle – 14 years – as well as urging forward movement on a civilian review board of BART police, which would be a first for the transit agency in its 39 years.

Throughout the evening, speakers tempered their disappointment with the jury’s finding of voluntary manslaughter (as opposed to a more serious charge), with the caveat that the conviction of Mehserle marks the first time a police officer has been convicted of such a crime in California.

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