We have been sitting atop a powder keg since New Year's Day, when a BART police officer, for no apparent reason, shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant III while he lay face down on a train platform at the Fruitvale station, killing the young, unarmed African-American man. Several passengers captured the shooting on their cell phones. The videos broadcast and rebroadcast on television and the Internet created outrage not just in our city but around the world.
Last week, demonstrators took to the streets to protest. Peaceful calls for justice deteriorated into a free-for-all of burning and destruction. Dozens of businesses were vandalized.
As a result, many others later boarded up their windows to avoid a similar fate.
Violence cropped up Wednesday night, as well, after peaceful protests.
We can breathe a cautious sigh of relief now that the officer accused of firing the fatal shot, 27-year-old Johannes Mehserle, has been arrested. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff announced Wednesday that Mehserle had been detained in Nevada. He is expected to be arraigned today in Oakland on murder charges.
"I feel that the evidence indicates that this is an unlawful killing done by an intentional act," Orloff said.
Orloff originally had said he did not expect to publicly announce the findings of his investigation until the end of next week. But on the eve of another big protest Wednesday in downtown Oakland - during which demonstrators said they planned to march on City Hall as well as lay on the ground in front of the district attorney's office, Orloff did a sudden about face. On Tuesday evening, he announced Mehserle's arrest. Then, the day of the protest, he held a news conference to announce the filing of criminal charges.
Some have suggested Orloff filed the charges earlier than he had said he would because of mounting public pressure for action to be taken against Mehserle - who not only had been free for the past two weeks but also had refused to give his side of the story to BART or to the district attorney. Orloff may have been hoping to diffuse a situation that was growing tenser by the day.
Orloff denies that outside pressure had anything to do with the timing of the charges.
All I can say is, the district attorney is human - just like the rest of us. Of course he's feeling the heat. The world is watching.
Orloff is walking an unenviable tight rope. He must be wondering, as many of us are, what course he can take to satisfy an outraged community. Yet at the same time, if justice is to be served, he can't sacrifice Mehserle to appease the hordes screaming for blood.
The fact is, there are some people Orloff is not going to please no matter what he does, people who I think frankly couldn't care less about Grant and who merely want to use his death to advance their agendas.
I don't care why Orloff filed murder charges this week instead of next week. I'm just relieved he did.
John Burris, who has filed a $25 million civil suit on behalf of Grant's family, also doesn't care why. The Grant family "just wants him to get the longest prison term possible," Burris said.
Orloff said he filed the maximum charge, murder, as opposed to manslaughter, based on the evidence.
Now, we just need to turn down the temperature and let the criminal justice system to do its job.
We need to let the district attorney know that we are watching. It is perfectly all right to hold peaceful protests to keep Grant's killing in the public eye.
What we don't need are irresponsible council members grandstanding on the steps of City Hall and calling Grant's killing an "execution." That kind of inflammatory language is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire and is the exact opposite of the kind of sane leadership we need and expect from our elected officials.
We also don't need outside agitators who call themselves "anarchists" coming into our city destroying businesses that people have worked hard to build. I was living in Los Angeles in 1992 when riots erupted after the announcement that the police officers had been acquitted in the Rodney King beating case. I can tell you, it does not take much to set a city burning.
Mehserle has invoked his constitutional right not to give testimony that could incriminate him. Regardless of what we may believe we see on videos, he is innocent until proved guilty.
We all must refrain from the easy temptation to try this case in the media and on the Internet based on cell phone videos. In that sense, I agree with Mehserle's attorney, Chris Miller, who said in response to the charges filed against his client: "I understand there are a lot of questions out there. This case is not going to be tried in the media. We're sensitive to the community's interests, but my client has a right to a fair trial."
In fact, we should all take our cues from Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, who begged people not to let their frustration turn to violence.
That does nothing but dishonor Grant's memory.
Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group-East Bay. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.