by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
A volunteer attorney with the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild says that, while charges have been dropped for many of the individuals arrested in recent Oakland protests over the shooting death of Hayward resident Oscar Grant by a BART patrol officer, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office is moving forward with between six and seven cases, at least three of them felonies.
Attorney John Viola, who operates a San Francisco law practice, spoke by telephone this week after two “mass arraignment” days for Oscar Grant protesters were held in Alameda County Superior Court last Friday and the following Monday. Viola said he believes at least two more mass arraignment days have been scheduled within the next several days.
“The overwhelming majority have been discharged, but the legal landscape is still solidifying, and we’re still waiting for the dust to clear on who will actually be charged,” Viola said.
The District Attorney’s Office itself has been less than helpful in giving out information to the media about the status of the cases. A reporter asking at the office about the Oscar Grant cases on the afternoon of Feb. 6, the day that many of the cases were dropped at the morning arraignment, was only told, “We don’t have a lot of information on the cases; only a few people showed up today.”
Viola said he believes something in the neighborhood of 130 people have been arrested in Oakland Oscar Grant protests, including arrests made following protest marches on Jan. 7 and 14, a January protest walkout at several high schools, and following the Jan. 30 bail hearing for Johannes Mehserle, the former BART officer who has been charged with murder in Grant’s New Year’s Day shooting death. He said that about 70 of those cases were arraigned on Feb. 6 and 9, with most of those charges being dropped.
National Lawyers Guild Bay Area Chapter Executive Director Carlos Villarreal said that, while the District Attorney’s Office has a year to file the charges, “typically when they don’t charge on the first day’s hearing, they don’t come back and dig it up. So we’re cautiously optimistic, but we’ll still monitor the cases.”
He said that even though the DA is not moving forward with many of the charges, some of the individuals whose cases have been dropped are complaining that authorities “still have their cell phones or their cameras,” many of which were confiscated by police during the various demonstrations. Villarreal said that approximately eight attorneys are actively working on the Oscar Grant protest cases, that “others have indicated they will help if the charges stick and go to court,” and that his office is actively consulting with other NLG attorney members as well.
While the next major day of Oscar Grant arraignments in Alameda County Superior Court is scheduled for Feb. 17, where some of the individuals arrested in the student walkout are expected to appear, Villarreal said that none of the future arraignment dates are expected to have as large a number of potential cases as those on Feb. 6 and 9.
Meanwhile, Viola said that “probably one of the most serious cases still being charged” is that of Cleveland Valrey Jr., the San Francisco Bay View newspaper reporter and KPFA radio show host who goes by the name JR, who has been accused of setting fire to a trash can during the night of downtown Oakland vandalism following the Jan. 7 protest march.
The District Attorney’s Office has charged Valrey with violation of California Penal Code Section 451, felony arson, which carries a possible sentence of between 16 months and three years in state prison, and is a strike under the state’s “three strikes” law.
“It’s an incredibly serious charge for someone expressing outrage at a time when they should have been outraged,” Viola said, adding that “the people who really should be held accountable” are the BART officers whose actions led to Oscar Grant’s death.
The attorney said that Valrey was innocent of the charges, and that anyone actually guilty of the act for which he is being accused – setting fire to a trash can – should have been charged only with felony vandalism at the most, a lesser offense. Valrey was present in downtown Oakland during the Jan. 7 protest and vandalism but has said he was there only in his capacity as a reporter and that his camera was confiscated by Oakland police officers.
BART officials announced Wednesday evening that they had picked Oakland law firm Meyers Nave to conduct an independent, third-party internal affairs investigation of the actions of all the officers present during the shooting death of Oscar Grant III on the Fruitvale Station platform.
“Meyers Nave has strong ties to this community and extensive experience in conducting internal affairs investigations,” said BART board member Carole Ward Allen, who chairs the board of directors’ newly formed BART Police Department Review Committee. “All of us on the committee felt it was essential for the public to have complete confidence in the findings of this internal investigation – and that the best way to guarantee that confidence was to bring someone in from the outside with an impeccable record to conduct the investigation independently.”
According to the statement released by BART, Meyers Nave has a “20-year history of producing independent, objective reports that have led to the discipline and termination of officers in other jurisdictions as well as changes in the policies and procedures of other law enforcement agencies.”
Additionally, the board committee announced Wednesday that it had retained the services of Reginald Lyles to support the committee in its work.
A long-term member of the Oakland faith community, Lyles has spent over 20 years with the Berkeley Police Department, and he retired from law enforcement as a Novato police captain in 2003.
Racism, Repression and Rebellion: The Lessons of Labor Defense
This is the audio of POCC Minister of Information JR speaking (starting about 3 minutes into the recording) at the Black History Month rally Feb. 14 at the ILWU Local 10 Union Hall. Photos and audios of all the speakers can be seen and heard on Indybay.