I wrote for the Los Angeles Daily News during the Rodney King riots in 1992. I remember the first time I saw the shocking videotape of a group of officers beating and kicking a lone black motorist. Then I followed the trial of four police officers, the not-guilty verdicts, the rage and the ugliness. Six days of rioting left parts of Los Angeles charred and 54 people dead.
As Oakland, Calif., awaits the verdict in the trial of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the 2009 New Year's Day shooting of Oscar Grant, some officials fear that violence will erupt in Oakland if the Los Angeles jury delivers a verdict that enrages area anarchists.
For one thing, it is possible the jury of seven whites, four Latinos and one decline-to-state individual will acquit Mehserle, who pleaded not guilty and testified that he meant to shock Grant, 22, with a Taser but accidentally fired his gun.
Judge Robert Perry, however, did Oakland a big favor Wednesday when he ruled out first-degree murder. As Demian Bulwa of the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the judge said he saw no evidence of premeditation.
In that jurors generally don't like to convict people who have put their own bodies on the line to protect the public at large, the judge has given this panel options to redress the lethal consequences of Mehserle's actions. Over the objections of both the prosecution and defense, Perry gave jurors the option of convicting Mehserle of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. From my limited newspaper perch, a manslaughter conviction seems far more likely than a murder conviction.
But beware. From the early days of this case, some individuals have made it clear that they will be satisfied with nothing less than a conviction for murder. John Burris, who is representing Grant's family in a civil lawsuit against BART, said at the time the Alameda County district attorney charged Mehserle with murder, "Anything less than murder would not have been satisfying."
When activists tried to organize peaceful protests of the shooting in January 2009, anarchists hijacked the protests. Local businesses were trashed, Oaktown cars were torched and more than 100 individuals -- most from out of town -- were arrested.
"The first time, we were maybe caught off-guard," City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who represents the Fruitvale district where Grant was shot, told me. "This time, there's no excuse."
Authorities cannot allow the situation to get out of control.
I remember the way Los Angeles felt after the Rodney King riots -- scared, angry and ashamed.
We don't know what the jury's verdict will be, but we do know that Oakland is forewarned. If the verdict seems unjust, the answer is not to create more victims.
Or, as De La Fuente put it, "Don't let this thing escalate because of outside agitators. They are not here for Oscar Grant."