Little Action Taken After Chaotic BART Board Meeting

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:49:00 PM

In a chaotic, unruly, and frequently disrupted special meeting held in part to move forward on the Oscar Grant controversy, members of the BART Board of Directors took virtually no action last week on the controversy itself, instead spending most of their time answering immediate audience concerns and, in some cases, responding to repeated audience participation.  

Grant, 22, was shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day on the Fruitvale BART platform. Mehserle, who has since resigned from the BART police force, has been arrested and charged with murder in Grant’s death.  

A coalition of Bay Area organizations have called for further action by BART and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, including the firing and arrest of other officers involved in the New Year’s Day events on the Fruitvale BART platform as well as the firing of BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger and BART Police Chief Gary Gee. Two BART board members, Lynette Sweet and Tom Radulovich, have also called for the removal of Dugger and Gee. In addition, the BART board has authorized an internal investigation of all of the events on the Fruitvale BART platform on the night Grant died, as well as a more comprehensive look at tthe BART police department as a whole, including its training and its practices.  

It was with this background that the BART board called its special Feb. 11 morning meeting to update board members and the public on its various responses.  

At one point during the meeting, members of the Committee to End Police Executions (CAPE) and black-bereted members of the Bay Area Black Panther Coalition took over the board meeting, ceding themselves a half-hour presentation time, taking control of the front portion of the BART meeting room immediately in front of the staff and board dais, unfurling a 20-foot banner, and peppering board members to make individual commitments on a list of organization demands.  

At another point, the meeting grew so volatile that one audience member rushed the dais to argue directly in the face of board member Joel Keller after Keller and Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks had engaged in a series of sometimes heated exchanges. CAPE co-founder Dereca Blackmon intervened and drew the man away before BART police officers moved in. Audience members frequently interrupted the meeting with shouts and chants, and at several points, members of the audience came to the public speakers’ podium during board deliberations, lecturing, chastising, or instructing board members on certain actions while the board members themselves meekly listened.  

Midway in the meeting, some audience members were heard in what appeared to be shouting at BART police officers in the hallway just outside the meeting room. BART police officers were pointedly restrained in the meeting and when they began to move in on some audience members inside the meeting room at one particularly chaotic point, they backed off after board member Keller repeatedly told them “it’s not a problem.”  

And board member Carole Ward Allen, chairing the special BART Police Department Review Committee set up to coordinate the agency’s response to the Oscar Grant crisis, disappeared without explanation from the dais in the middle of the meeting, missing her scheduled presentation of the committee’s recent activities, amidst confused speculation as to the meaning of her absence.  

In what appeared to be the only action taken in a special meeting—preceding the regular board meeting—that lasted from 9 a.m. until 1:45 p.m., without a break, board members approved a process for the hiring of a consultant to manage the district’s upcoming comprehensive review of the BART Police Department and stipulated that the consultant would report directly to the special board committee itself, not to BART General Manager Dugger.  

At least one board member—Lynette Sweet—contended that the BART Board of Directors is not controlling the agency’s response to the aftermath of the New Year’s Day shooting of Hayward resident Oscar Grant, but instead is allowing the response to be “staff-driven.”  

The meeting got off to a rocky start when the board members attempted to go through the regular meeting consent calendar agenda before switching over to the special meeting, which had scheduled a report from the BART Police Department Review Committee and a discussion of the consultant for the comprehensive BART police review. Midway through the consent calendar discussion—which contained the general transportation agency items of property leases and fund management—many members of the packed meeting room audience began chanting “Oscar Grant was lying down. We want justice for this town,” while CAPE co-founder Blackmon and several Black Panther Party members strode to the podium.  

Interrupting the board discussion, Blackmon took the speakers mic saying, “This is a sham. You know that all of these people came out here to discuss the Oscar Grant situation. Why are you making people wait while you discuss these other things? This is disrespectful to the community.”  

One black-jacketed man identifying himself as a member of the Black Panther Coalition shouted at board members, “Do you want to listen to us now or listen to us shutting down BART?”  

In response, BART board president Thomas Blalock put off the remaining part of the regular meeting and moved forward with the special meeting, and the board never fully controlled its own board meeting after that.  

In a letter signed by several local public officials, including Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, Oakland City Councilmembers Desley Brooks, Nancy Nadel, and Rebecca Kaplan and Berkeley City Councilmembers Darryl Moore and Max Anderson, members of the Black Elected Officials released a letter to the BART board at Wednesday’s meeting calling, among other things, for a California Attorney General and United States Attorney’s investigation of the death of Oscar Grant. The letter said that “the community does not have confidence that the BART Police Department or organization has the ability or objectivity to investigate itself.”  

BART had moved to quell that concern by announcing on the day before the Wednesday meeting that the agency had “turned over its internal affairs investigation to the Oakland-based law firm of Meyers Nave … [to] investigate the actions of all the officers present during the events leading up to the shooting death of Oscar Grant on Jan. 1, 2009, on the Fruitvale Station platform.”  

The Meyers Nave lead attorney is Jayne Williams, the former Oakland city attorney. 

BART officials said this internal affairs investigation, which could lead to possible sanctions or firings of BART personnel if violations are found, is separate from the investigation by the BART Police Department of possible criminal wrongdoing by BART personnel in the Oscar Grant incident. The criminal investigation is expected to be completed in two weeks, while the internal affairs investigation is scheduled to last three weeks. If any criminal wrongdoing by BART personnel is found, that information is expected to be turned over to the Alameda County district attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution. The internal affairs investigation results are expected to be reported back to the board for any possible action, as well as to the public.  

But Oakland Councilmember Brooks, speaking for the Black Elected Officials organization, criticized the internal affairs investigation, said, “It is now 43 days since Oscar Grant was killed, and you have now hired a consultant who will take three more months to see if there was police misconduct. You have known for a long time that there were problems with your police department. You’ve been more concerned about the image of BART than you have been with the death of Oscar Grant.”  

Brooks said that she was “not pleased with the selection of Myers Nave without a public process. We expect much more of you. We expect it sooner. We are not going away.”  

BART Board member Gail Murray assured Brooks and other audience members that the board had scheduled a vote on the Myers Nave contract for later in that meeting, and the public would have a chance both to weigh in on the contract and to hear the board deliberations. But several minutes later, after many audience members had left, Murray had to correct herself when she was advised by BART staff that the Myers Nave contract had already been signed.  

That led to a further eruption in the meeting that the public was being misled “even in this meeting,” and further confusion over the details over how the Myers Nave contract came about. Dugger said that she had entered into the contract under broad authority granted to her by the board, but board president Blalock said that Dugger had consulted with him on the contract individually and he had given his approval, and board member Keller, Vice Chair of the BART Police Department Review Committee, said that he had talked with Dugger frequently over the days before the contract’s signing, urging her to move forward rapidly with the internal investigation.  

What was clear was that at least some of the members of the board’s special police review committee had been kept out of the loop, leading to Sweet’s comments on the process.  

“Going forward, this can’t be staff-driven, it has to be board-driven,” Sweet said. “Staff should not have been the sole interviewers of candidates for this contract. The [police department review] committee should have been doing the interviews. This board needs to be on top of this. I refuse to continue to sit on this committee and have staff run this process.”  

Later, at Radulovich’s suggestion, the board agreed to bring Myers Nave to a public board meeting in the near future to discuss their expertise in the field and for a public airing of the scope of their work.  

That may not be nearly enough, however, to forestall further community action on the growing controversy over the Oscar Grant shooting death. Several audience members mentioned that a possible next step in the Grant protests—if organizations and the community are not satisfied with the BART response or actions within the criminal justice process—could be a BART boycott. And at least one speaker threatened more serious disruptions.  

Christopher Kantor, who said he was a member of the organizing committee of a group called No Justice No BART, said, “We’re here to threaten you, not with violence, but with reality. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland Police Department are in the hot seat now [in the BART demonstrations]. We’ve been costing the City of Oakland millions of dollars while [BART] has been sitting back. But we’re bringing it to your turf next. To your platforms. To your BART cars. And to your tracks.”  

Kantor distributed a leaflet calling for direct action against BART beginning on an unspecified date, including “potential disruptions in service” during peak evening commute hours.