OAKLAND, Calif. – Protests over the fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer turned violent Wednesday night with windows broken, fires set and train stations closed.
A few hundred protesters took the streets of downtown Oakland to condemn the shooting and call for criminal charges against 27-year-old officer Johannes Mehserle. Oakland police reported at least 15 arrests.
Mehserle resigned from the transit agency shortly before he was supposed to be interviewed by investigators Wednesday.
Mehserle is accused of shooting 22-year-old Oscar Grant of Hayward, who was lying face-down on the station platform when he was shot and killed early New Year's Day. Mehserle was one of several officers responding to reports about groups of men fighting on a train.
Protesters gathered in the afternoon at the Fruitvale BART station where the shooting occurred last week. It was peaceful at first but began to turn after a splinter group left that site and marched downtown.
Protesters set fire to a trash container and tried to overturn a police car, smashing the front window. Police attempted to disperse the crowd and smaller groups of protesters marched to different areas.
Some protesters threw bottles, a window of a fast-food restaurant and other downtown stores were smashed, at least three cars were set on fire and many other automobiles were damaged. Police in riot gear threw tear gas to try to break up the demonstration.
"The crowd started to become more agitated, more hostile, started throwing stuff at the police," Oakland police spokesman Jeff Thomason said. "We gave a dispersal order four to five times over a 20-minute period, then we had our officers go in and start making arrests."
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums went to the protest scene Wednesday night to urge for calm. He and several council members then led a group toward City Hall and further addressed them.
"Even with our anger and our pain, let's still address each other with a degree of civility and calmness and not make this tragedy an excuse to engage in violence," Dellums said. "I don't want anybody hurt, I don't want anybody killed."
Mehserle was scheduled to meet with agency investigators on Wednesday, but did not show up. His attorney and union representative turned in the resignation letter.
John Burris, the attorney for Grant's family, said the timing of the resignation was not a surprise to him.
"He doesn't want to give a statement because BART could've ordered him to do so, and if he didn't, he could be terminated."
Now that he is not employed by BART, Mehserle can exercise his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and not speak to investigators.
Mehserle's attorney did not immediately respond to calls for comment Wednesday.
The shooting is also being investigated by the Alameda County District Attorney's office.
Dellums later directed the city's police department to conduct a third investigation into Grant's killing and to treat the incident as a homicide.
"My sense of it is that people for whatever reason do not have confidence in this investigation as it goes forward," he said. "When I learned what was happening, I summoned the Oakland Police Department and said, 'Look, this is a homicide that happened in Oakland, let's investigate this like we would any other. Whether or not that will give people greater confidence, I don't know. We'll see."
Grant's family has filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against BART and want prosecutors to file criminal charges against Mehserle.
Amateur video of the shooting have played frequently on local news stations, giving even more publicity to the incident. Burris said Wednesday that one of the latest videos of the shooting shows that Mehserle did have a Taser on his left side, but he went for a gun on his right side, instead.
"The video supports the position we are taking and eyewitnesses' testimony that the officer deliberately went for his gun and there's no mistake about it," Burris said. "He didn't reach across for his Taser. He couldn't have been thinking about that. He went directly for his gun."
Earlier in the day, about a thousand of Grant's friends and family members attended a funeral for Grant, the father of a 4-year-old girl, at a Hayward church.