Youth Leadership: The Real Story About Oakland and the Mehserle Verdict

by Deborah Meehan

Unfortunately, the media missed an important and impressive story about leadership in Oakland. Last week a jury in Los Angeles delivered an involuntary manslaughter verdict in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a BART police officer on trial for shooting Oscar Grant, a young, African American, unarmed passenger who died on New Year’s Day. Many media outlets reported rioting in Oakland in response to the verdict. First, let’s set the record straight. Between 5PM and 9PM over 1000 people gathered peacefully in different locations around the city. After dark, 5 storefront windows were broken and Footlocker was looted. (An unreported aside, community members placed themselves in front of the store to stop the looting.) No one was hurt, 83 people were arrested, and most were young, white anarchists who did not live in Oakland. Hardly a riot, thanks to the preparation and leadership of youth organizations.

We share office space with Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), so I had an inside look at the level of organizing that was initiated by RJOY, Youth Uprising, Youth Radio and other youth organizations in preparation for the pending verdict. These organizations understood that if Mehserle got off (it is possible with this verdict that he may not face jail time) it would send a message that it is okay for police to kill an unarmed young African American man. They also understood that if this happened it would be important for young people to have multiple opportunities and venues for making meaning of what happened and to talk openly about their feelings. The Philanthropic Initiative on Racial Equity and mosaic in their report, “Changing the Rules of the Game: Youth Development and Structural Racism” also link the meaning-making process to leadership development, explaining that the work of youth development organizations is to help youth analyze and comprehend the world around them at a critical stage in their development. As young people better understand how their lives and opportunities are influenced by racism they can become a collective voice and advocate for themselves. This is what we saw take place last week in Oakland.

The youth organizations, in coordination with the city of Oakland, provided safe spaces at 5 sites throughout the city where young people could meet, participate in peacemaking circles, use art, music, digital storytelling and radio to talk about what had happened and their feelings. The youth organizations provided multiracial teams of trained facilitators at each of the centers. People were also encouraged to attend a large demonstration being organized in front of city hall, and close by open mikes were set up for young people under 25 to speak out. A coalition, “Oaklanders for Peace, Justice and Healing,” developed teams of peacekeepers trained in nonviolent communication and had 40 people in orange vests talking to the crowds and encouraging participation in peaceful opportunities to speak to injustice. RJOY executive director, Fania Davis, described the emergence of “ a clear voice for peaceful expression of first amendment rights to speak out powerfully for peace and justice.” This is the real story, one of leadership that effectively organized a collective voice against systemic injustice.