The verdict is in: Johannes Mehserle, has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and could face up to 14 years in prison. I live in the Bay Area which is centered around Oakland, San Francisco, Sonoma/Napa and Silicon Valley/San Jose. When Oscar Grant, an unarmed black twenty-something, was first shot & killed on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland riding the BART which is a local subway train, it rocked the entire area and then the nation. It wasn’t handled well locally by the authorities, let’s put it that way. (Above: Jasiri X’s rap video from January 11, 2009, days after the shooting, captures the grief and rage re-mixing clips with music to tell the story.)
It’s an emotional case here and right now as I speak, the local news is saying that peaceful crowds & demonstrators have gathered at the 12th street BART station in downtown Oakland to mark the verdict. I can see from my window here in Sausalito that traffic on 101 is very backed up going both ways. In LA, reaction is more subdued. Sample tweets:
What happened to Grant is every black family’s worst nightmare for their children — especially their sons — in a country where racial profiling and police brutality of black folks is rampant and still unchecked. Being hassled by the cops for driving while black or in Grant’s case, breathing while black is almost a rite of passage for young black men. It usually happens somewhere in the neighborhood of 14-25. In my brother’s case, he was with a friend as a 16 year old just driving to another friend’s house when he was pulled over by a cop in our quiet Washington DC suburb, accused randomly & without cause of stealing the car and found himself facedown in a large intersection with a gun pointed at his head. It’s said here in the Bay Area that Oscar Grant’s mom actually encouraged him to ride the subway New Year’s Eve — because she thought it would be safer. There’s not a black mother in the United States, no matter your socioeconomic or educational level, who does not look at Oscar Grant’s mother and say — there but for the grace of God…goes I. According to CNN:
Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, rocked back and forth in her seat before and during the reading of the verdict.
She closed her eyes and appeared to express a sigh of relief.
My brother, I’m glad to say, survived his rite of passage and is now a ground-breaking pilot. Oscar Grant — prone, unarmed and pinned to the ground by a police officer and then murdered for no apparent reason by another — sadly did not. We’ll never know what contribution then 22 year old Grant might have made to our society had he been allowed to live.
The trial has been followed closely here in the Bay Area and there were real concerns about more riots in Oakland if there was an acquittal. (FYI, @YouthRadio has been live-tweeting the trial on site — I recommend reading their micro-blog on the #OGTrial.)The police officer’s excuse was that he meant to fire his taser instead of his gun into Grant’s back. This rings false since tasers and guns have drastically different weights and also — why would he be tasing a subdued, unarmed man who was already facedown? So if we understand Johannes Mehserle the former BART cop correctly — he was planning a lighter, less harsh beatdown via taser for no reason, but mistakenly killed his target of unnecessary & excessive force. Umm…oops? From the Oakland Tribune:
Defense attorney Michael Rains even hired a video expert who attempted to convince the jury that Mehserle and Pirone were hit by Grant and his friends before the shooting.
The training of BART police officers and the history of police officers mistaking guns for Tasers also played a pivotal role in the trial.
The prosecution pointed to police officer training to show that at least one of the BART police officers who responded to the scene did not follow proper procedures in detaining Grant and his friends. Deputy District Attorney David Stein also pointed to the training to argue that Mehserle did not even have the right to use his Taser on Grant.
The trial was moved to LA due to the heat of the publicity — something I thought was unreasonable since he should have to face a jury of his peers, right? Then all African-Americans were struck from the jury pool – no black people would be among those to sit in judgment over Mehserle.
It was a sign of the defense’s desperation that Mehserle testified himself. Also it was a good sign when the jury was given 3 choices — 2nd degree murder, manslaughter and acquittal instead of just two. We know that juries hate to convict cops of murder so giving them a middle option increased the odds that Mehserle might have to do at least some jail time.
My sincerest hope is that he’s given the stiffest possible penalty. Our jails are filled with too many African-American men unjustly shaken down by the system. I also hope that people will continue using their cell phone cameras and videos to hold police accountable. Mehserle’s defense simply couldn’t outrun what people could see with their eyes and the many eyewitnesses whose testimony was backed up with actual video evidence. Racial profiling is a violation of the U.S. Constitution IMHO — we are promised equal treatment under the law. African-Americans pay the same tax dollars to fund police officer salaries but do not receive the same benefit of their service. A new generation able to use technology to show the truth rather than allow the force of a uniform and a lame excuse or a lie to win the day— we are the ones that will show America what black people endure and ensure that justice turns around to protect us rather than punish us for Breathing While Black.
Hopefully Attorney General Eric Holder, a black man who understands racial profiling as well as anyone else, will speak out and use the national attention on this case to update us on how the Department of Justice plans to address the scourge of police brutality and racial profiling in our country. Holder has spoken in the past about his own racial profiling rite of passage:
“I was a young college student driving from New York to Washington, stopped on a highway and told to open the trunk of my car, because the police officer told me he wanted to search it for weapons.” Holder continued, “I remember, as I got back in the car and continued on my journey how humiliated I felt, how angry I got.”
I agree his statement on a recent visit to Oakland re: gang violence that it’s time we “rather than get tough on crime – get smart on crime.” We must commit not only within our communities but as a nation to safety in our streets for ALL citizens, no matter their color. Let the choir say Amen…for Oscar Grant. For us all.
Cheryl Contee aka "Jill Tubman", Baratunde Thurston aka "Jack Turner", rikyrah, Leutisha Stills aka "The Christian Progressive Liberal", B-Serious, Casey Gane-McCalla, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley aka "Marcus Toussaint," Fredric Mitchell
Special Contributors: James Rucker, Rinku Sen, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Adam Luna, Kamala Harris
Technical Contributor: Brandon Sheats