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Crime, punishment, grief, payback — and compassion?

By Katy Murphy
Thursday, November 4th, 2010 at 9:54 pm in community, crime.

So often — in life, in politics, in causes, on blogs — we end up in us-versus-them mode, so sure of the other side’s wrongness (and/or evilness) that we dehumanize them, at least to some degree.

That’s what I found so interesting about this story by my colleagues Scott Johnson and Angela Woodall. When I read the headline about the aftermath of tomorrow’s sentencing of Johannes Mehserle — which yours truly will be covering — I expected another story about merchants boarding up their shops and other signs of fear.

But that’s not what this story was about.

It opens with the perspective of Oakland Parents Together program director Kwame Nitoto, who went to a (figurative) place, he later admitted, he didn’t want to go. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

That sentiment is shared by the Rev. Mutima Imani and her partner, David Kant-Wofford, who helped spearhead a citywide initiative after the verdict to prepare the city for the sentencing with a series of workshops, like the one last week, that emphasize dialogue, listening and empathy.

Imani and others saw the violence firsthand after the verdict and, despite the presence of peacekeepers on the ground at the time, realized afterward that much more needed to be done.

Over the past two months, Imani has conducted 15 Community Dialogues and Peacekeeper Training sessions with hundreds of people at churches, community centers and schools across Oakland, focusing heavily on the East and West Oakland neighborhoods where tempers ran hot after Grant’s shooting, and where relations with the Oakland Police Department aren’t always smooth.

The program is funded in part by Measure Y, and benefits from additional support through Faces of East Oakland, a nonprofit group that has been sponsoring community-building workshops for several months.
Since the verdict, Imani’s group has strategically targeted merchants associations, youth groups, faith-based organizations, community activists and city staff members.

The reception has been largely positive. At first, some residents they met were itching for payback rather than peace.

But the three-hour training sessions helped many see the issue from another perspective.

Imani asks every participant to put aside feelings and argue each side of the case. For two minutes, everyone must advocate for Mehserle to go free. Then they must argue on behalf of Grant. The workshops also incorporate role-play, meditation and active listening.

Imani and Kant-Wooford even went to some of the anarchist groups, appealing to them for a peaceful protest. We’ll see if their message came through.

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  • Ms. McLaughlin

    Last night on one of the network news reports, there was some rather panicked reporting on the expected violence downtown when the sentence is announced.

    Once again, it seemed as if the media was announcing, “Trouble! There’s going to be trouble! If you like trouble, you won’t want to miss it! Our news trucks will be there, trying to make it as huge a deal as we can, so mark Friday Night on your calendar with a big, bloody red T for Trouble!”

    How unspeakably irresponsible. When the riot they’re hoping to incite doesn’t pan out, may they slink away with their tails between their legs and reflect.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Thanks Katy. I’ve appreciated that your reporting has taken on a tone of adding perspective and not just saying what someone else said. Reporters help us decide what’s important and how to interpret it. We don’t want bias, but at the same time I hope most want more than a reiteration of so-called “facts.”

    IMHO, a good reporter builds trust with an audience and you don’t do that just by presenting two sides to an issue.

  • Nextset

    Since this is an education blog I assume that we are contemplating what and if should be said and done in the schools to have the students get into this issue.

    I’d assign as required reading the “Rioting for fun and profit” Chapter of Banfield’s “The Unheavenly City”.

    Also it would be useful to required reading – aloud – of the just instructions actually used in this case. Most people have not heard of jury instruction – which are the most basic reading of California law. The are rewritten in recent years to (dumb them down) make them simpler – say, 8th grade level English. All crimes are defined along with the intent required and the explanations of criminal liability.

    It would be interesting even as an English excercise to have CALCRIM or even the older CALJIC jury instruction for an actual murder case, or a drunk driving case, or a burglary case used in a school class. It’s almost as much fun as reading celebrity wills.

    The English language in action and all that. Words by which to execute people, rule from the grave, etc.

    Seriously, the proletariat really would be well served by getting exposure to what they will be on the receiving end of throughout their life. They leave public school way too clueless.

    I’m sure that if the teachers were to have class members write local judges for a set of actual instructions used in recent serious trials they’d be happy to select and forward some, maybe even show up and read a set for the experience.

    Discussions of what’s going on with controversies in criminal law would be more intelligent if the students actually heard the exact words given to the jury charging them to decide the case – say in the OJ Simpson case, or the SF Knoller dogbite murder case. regardless of what side you may relate to, going through the instructions is cheap and easy and would allow the students to understand the controversy in a way that adults who only read the new articles do not.

    I was just watching briefly a fairly aggravated case and the defendant on trial takes the position that he were “just there” and isn’t criminally liable for the charges. Other defendants clearly were the primary actors. He turned down a plea bargain and is on trial for life in prison. (This happen a lot now because gang enhancements are draconian & blacks don’t plea bargain well.) The jury instructions explain how much or how little is required to find him guilty of the various charges and enhancements. Nowadays the enhancements have far greater penalties than the underlying crimes. When you do get life, usually it’s the enhancements that did it.

    It would be nice of the kiddies understood how things are. It’s cheap and easy to give them the exposure, and it’s good English training.

  • Nextset

    typo: 2nd to last paragraph …takes the position that he was “just there”…

  • Maria

    Its saturday AM, and over one hundred arrests, injured officers, and broken windows on International Blvd. I guess it did not work?

    The story does relate to education ;by that I mean this is what OUSD Thriving Students will become once they graduate . Reactionaries, broken thugs, and puppets to all including anarchists who probably have trust funds the size of the city budget!

    So Lets break it down to the tax payers:

    1. We pay for Measure Y to “pacify” the thugs
    2. We pay for the Extra police Officers amd overtime to stop the rampage
    3. Then we pay the city costs for the clean up.
    4. Those of us with busniesses must then pay extra insurance and deductible costs.

    Yes. Oakland is a great city……if you do not have a job, do not own a home, do not have childen, or simply live in the hills.

    God help us for buying a property in such a disastrous place. Let the inmates have the city and lets leave-thats my dream!

  • Donna

    Nextset had some suggestions and observations that I would like to take one step further. Maybe this would have to wait until 12th grade when kids don’t constantly have to take tests against *standards*.

    1st lesson: How do you get on a jury? Jury pools are selected from DMV and voter registration rolls. Thus, populations without licenses and unregistered or ineligible to register won’t even make it past the front door. Discussion: Who is most likely to fall in each group?

    Following lessons: The elements of the various crimes du jour, e.g. voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, murder, felony murder rule, etc.

    Next lesson: Meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt” and proving up the elements the crime.

    Next lesson: Plea bargain vs. jury trial vs. bench trial.

    Next lessons: Jury instructions, incl. enhancements.

    Next lessons: Penalties, and what judges are required to weigh in their decisions. Comparison of penalties (with and without enhancements) for the same crime in various states.

    Last lessons: How things ultimately shake out, such as time off for good behavior, what happens to cops and child molesters on the inside, parole, etc. Impact on job hunting if one is a convicted felon, etc.

    Kids get their *info* on the criminal justice process from TV entertainment shows. Much as I frequently blow off what Nextset has to say because I feel his views are jaded by the population he deals with day in and day out, FWIW, in my opinion, this idea is a keeper. All of us (who aren’t criminal law attorneys or judges) could probably stand to learn more about this process and its implications.

  • Hot r

    Much better than reading jury instructions is the wonderful program at the McCullum Youth Court in Oakland. There students learn to be jurors, clerks, defense and prosecuting attorneys on a wide range of actual misdemeanor cases involving youth offenders referred there through the court system. I highly recommend this outstanding program.

  • Nextset

    Hot R: Those programs are drama classes.

    The real work is in the reading of the statutes and cases. Jury instructions boil both down to 8th grade level.

    I like Donna’s post #6. What we are talking about is classroom work, not play acting in a courtroom. The students need the classroom hours to get a working knowledge of law. It is not a difficult subject. It just takes reading – and then working with the material.

    It’s important for the lower class to get exposure to this in a classroom because they are on the cutting edge of law, not the middle class. One wrong move with the legal system for proles can have very fast and very serious consequences. The Middle Class is not as likely out at 2am, and doesn’t have the mating habits of the lower class that result in jail and other adverse consequences.

    Back to Brave New World – the various classes have completely different norms for everything from mating to finances. It really doesn’t occur to them that their norms are not normal. They don’t think of the way the other groups do things – of even know. The law, in it’s majesty, forbids the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges (In a Winnebago??) When you see the proles in court for the most insane things you have to remind yourself it’s only insane if a non-prole is doing it. For them it’s just another night.