The Walnut Creek demonstration over the racially charged BART shooting case --which some feared would turn ugly and violent -- was loud, shut down a major downtown thoroughfare for several hours and had its share of tense moments, notably when police marched down Ygnacio Valley Road in riot gear.
But Monday's event turned out to be "peaceful," with no arrests, no reported injuries and no incidents of violence or property destruction.
According to final crowd estimates, about 500 demonstrators turned out in front of the Walnut Creek courthouse to voice their opposing views about the fate of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, who is white and who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the Jan. 1, 2009 shooting of BART passenger Oscar Grant, an African-American.
During the demonstration, which started shortly after 1 p.m., police closed off the westbound lanes of Ygnacio Valley Road between Civic Drive and North Broadway for about 2 1/2 hours. Walnut Creek Police Chief Joel Bryden said the closure was due to demonstrators, observers and the media spilling off the sidewalk and into the roadway. Eventually, police also closed the eastbound lanes of Ygnacio Valley Road. Bryden said police closed Ygnacio Valley Road out of concern for the safety of pedestrians and motorists.
Overall, Bryden called the rally a "success" in that it never got out of control and that both sides were able to express their viewpoints, even heatedly, but without anyone getting hurt. "I'm happy that we didn't have to make any arrests, we didn't have any violence."
A sense of alarm rose through the crowd when a phalanx of officers in riot masks and other gear came marching along the closed-off westbound lanes of Ygnacio Valley Road and formed a line facing the demonstrators. "Don't shoot us! Don't shoot us!" some of the pro-Oscar Grant group shouted.
Bryden explained that the arrival of officers in riot gear had been planned and was a precaution. The officers were members of a Contra Costa County-wide task force specially trained to deal with demonstrations. In all, more than 100 officers from Walnut Creek police, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department and other local police departments were on duty at the rally and to help control traffic.
Bryden and other police acknowledged that some of the rhetoric got heated.
Throughout the afternoon, some pro-Grant supporters waved signs or shouted out words that accused people who support Mehserle of condoning murder and that people in Walnut Creek were supporting a killer. Some Grant supporters also taunted police with accusations of racism and asked "Where are your white sheets?"
The rally was organized by an unidentified group that believes Mehserle has been unfairly treated by the criminal justice system, that the whole case against him is politically motivated and that he should not face prison time for a shooting they believe was a tragic accident that occurred in the line of duty. The group also said it wanted to show its support in general for law enforcement.
Once word got out in the media last week about the pro-Mehserle rally, via a Facebook page, those who support Oscar Grant, his family, and the view that his shooting was racially motivated mobilized and turned out in force in Walnut Creek.
In fact, members of the Pittsburg-based Souljah Movement got the jump on the pro-Mehserle group by showing up nearly an hour before the scheduled 2 p.m. start time for the pro-Mehserle rally.
While the parking lot of the courthouse was blocked off for the pro-Mehserle demonstrators, the Souljah Movement group took a position on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse shortly after 1 p.m., chanting "Power to the People!" and asking passing motorists "How can you support a murderer?"
Traffic eastbound on Ygnacio Valley Road began to slow by 1:30 p.m.
"What would you do if it was your son who was shot in the back while lying face down," Chae Hosknis called out to drivers of cars and trucks. Some drivers honked in support of the cry "Justice for Oscar Grant," while others drove by.
Hosknis said he believed affluent, mostly white Walnut Creek (85 percent, according to recent Census figures) was a good place to advocate for their cause. He expressed the view that suburbanites in general are sympathetic to Mehserle and that it's wrong for them to "support a convicted felon." He added: "We're here to support the idea that things have got to change."
Members and supporters of the Justice for Oscar Grant Committee, the main group behind demonstrations on behalf of Grant and his family, came marching down Ygnacio Valley Road to the courthouse just before 2 p.m. They had met in Oakland and rode BART out to Walnut Creek.
Pro-Mehserle supporters began to trickle in around 2 p.m. When they arrived, they seemed a bit stunned that their protest was being upstaged by counter protesters.
They eventually took their place in the parking lot of the courthouse, which police had closed for the day Monday, expressly for their use. While their numbers grew, and they waved signs declaring "Free Johannes," their voices were often overwhelmed by the shouts of the pro-Grant supporters.
During the more than three hours, the two groups--pro-Grant supporters on the sidewalk and the pro-Mehserle supporters above them in the parking lot--shouted and argued with one another, debating the case, and trying to make one another understand their position.
For the pro-Grant supporters, the shooting at the Fruitvale BART station, while Grant was unarmed and lying face down on the platform, was yet another example of the systematic racism that exists in the criminal justice system and in society.
While a few pro-Grant supporters acknowledged that the shooting might be an accident, they said they still believed that Mehserle should pay serious consequences, because, they said, police officers are rarely held accountable for shooting and killing civilians, especially civilians of color.
People who live and work in Walnut Creek stopped by and watched the demonstration, some because they really wanted to hear what demonstrators had to say, others just out of curiosity.
"I've never seen anything like this in Walnut Creek," said Beverly Collier, who has lived in Walnut Creek more than 30 years and was excited by the idea of this sort of demonstration taking place in her home town. "I came down here to support the idea of free expression, as long as it stays like this."
Some, like Erin Wood were sympathetic to the pro-Grant supporters. Wood works in a tax firm around the corner from the courthouse and lives in Oakland. "I definitely think Mehserle's [verdict] was not harsh enough. [The shooting] didn't look like much of an accident to me." She said that everyone in her mostly white office, including her "Republican bosses" agreed that Mehserle should have been convicted of something more severe than involuntary manslaughter.
She also questioned why the pro-Mehserle supporters didn't take their message of sympathy for the former BART officer to Oakland. "I guess that Mehserle doesn't have a lot of support in Oakland."
"From the looks of it, he doesn't have a lot of support here," said her co-worker Lauren Anderson.
But others were turned off by the loud, angry statements coming from both sides, with one Walnut Creek woman wondering why the groups didn't just channel their energy from protesting into volunteer work to really help people.
Scott Ellis, a longtime Walnut Creek resident and the senior vice president of transaction service for Grubb Ellis,located a block up Ygnacio Valley Road from the protest, said he was disappointed that neither side had people specified to speak to the crowd and that instead people on both sides were just yelling at each other. He was particularly turned off by some of the rhetoric coming from the pro-Grant protesters, saying it would not "change anybody's mind" if they already believed that Mehserle's verdict was fair.
COVERAGE FROM EARLIER IN THE AFTERNOON
UPDATE: 5:15 p.m. About a dozen BART police officers are on trains as they leave the Walnut Creek station to maintain the peace.
4:37 p.m. Pro Oscar Grant protesters briefly gather at the entrance to the Walnut Creek station, prompting ticket agents to shut the gates for just a couple of minutes. Members of the pro-Grant group rode BART to Walnut Creek earlier today from the Fruitvale station, which is where Oscar Grant was shot to death in 2009. Click here if you want links to BART information.
4 p.m.: Police in riot gear continued to stand by in the westbound lane of Ygnacio Valley Road as people on both sides continued to shout slogans from both sides of the debate on whether justice was served by convicting former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter.
Over the course of the past hour, police closed both directions of Ygnacio Valley Road to accommodate the crowds spilling off the sidewalk in front of the Walnut Creek courthouse.
The earlier crowd estimates of 300 on both sides remained as of 4 p.m. but the chanting, notably from the more vocal Oscar Grant supporters, was becoming less frequent.
At one point, about 14 Oscar Grant supporters lay face down in the lane next to the sidewalk and chanted to officers standing by some distance away. "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Media and others with cameras surrounded them and snapped photos.
At one point, police estimated the crowd at more than 300, according to news outlets. Police are in riot gear.
3 p.m.: Westbound Ygnacio Valley Road has been shut down between Civic Drive and Broadway.
The pro-Mehserle rally organizers, who continue to remain unidentified, were planning to begin their rally at 2 p.m. More than 150 supporters of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle had indicated via a Facebook page, In Support of Johannes Mehserle and L.E.O. Rally, that they would attend. Some of those attending are members of area police departments.
But supporters of Oscar Grant were in place along the sidewalk in front of the Ygnacio Valley courthouse by 2 p.m.
Members of the Justice for Oscar Grant Committee arrived, marching east along Ygnacio Valley Road.
"Oscar Grant did not have to die! We all know the reasons why! The whole system is guilty!" they chanted.
Walnut Creek police said earlier Monday that they are prepared for any conflicts that could flare up between the two sides in a potentially volatile meeting.
Police planned to have the pro-Mehserle people take take their places in the parking lot of the courthouse, with Oscar Grant supporters rallying across the street, in front of the Valero gas station.
Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the January 1, 2009 shooting death of BART passenger Oscar Grant. The coordinators of Monday's pro-Mehserle rally believe the shooting was a tragic accident and that Mehserle shouldn't be convicted of a crime, especially because he was an officer on duty.
Earlier Monday, Walnut Creek police said both sides vowed to keep the peace as they demonstrate. At a press conference this morning, Walnut Creek police Lt. Steve Skinner said the department has been in contact with organizers of both the pro-Johannes Mehserle and the pro-Oscar Grant groups.
"Everyone has been positive, upbeat and professional," he said.
These assurances of peaceful demonstrations notwithstanding, Walnut Creek police and city officials were expecting disruptions, notably to traffic along Ygnacio Valley Road around North Broadway and Civic Avenue. Skinner said the gas stations on the corner of North Broadway are opting to close down, as is the restaurant, Buttercup Pantry, which shares a parking lot with the courthouse.
All court hearings scheduled for today were continued to another day; the clerk's office will remain open until 2 for court business. Neighboring businesses have been alerted in case they want to allow their employees to leave work early.
As of this morning, Skinner said the Walnut Creek police won't close any streets around the event, but acknowledged that the situation could change.
Businesses were attacked and looted during riots which broke out in Oakland over the racially charged issue, both after the shooting happened and on July 8, when Grant supporters gathered to express their disappointment in the leniency they believe the jury showed Mehserle.
Skinner said the officers present at the demonstration plan to just stand by and be ready in case any conflicts among participants turn violent or destructive. The department and the city is not taking sides in this debate and wants to support the rights of both groups to free assembly and to express their viewpoints, he said.
To prepare for the rally, the department has called in most of its personnel and civilian staff to be on duty today. The department is receiving help in maintaining order at the courthouse from the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department. The Danville, San Ramon and Pleasant Hill police departments are providing assistance with directing traffic.