Murdered in cold blood in Oakland

January 7, 2009

Todd Chretien reports on the outpouring of anger after Oakland police killed an unarmed man on the platform of a transit station.

ON NEW Year's Eve, as scores of horrified people looked on, Oakland transit police forced 22-year-old Oscar Grant to the ground, kneeled on his head and then shot him in the back.

Grant, an African American father of a 4-year-old daughter and an Oakland grocery story worker, died several hours later. The bullet entered his back, ricocheted off the concrete floor and punctured his lungs.

Police attempted to confiscate cell phone videos taken by Bay Area Rapid Transit passengers and initially claimed that security cameras didn't record the incident. However, in the last two days, they have been forced to admit that the security cameras did capture the assault.

Additionally, one especially graphic video taken by a passenger was released by the Bay Area television station KTVU. It shows an unarmed and unresisting Grant, lying face down, shot at point-blank range by an officer as his horrified friends and onlookers watch.

Although police and BART authorities still refuse to give the name of the officer who shot and killed Grant, KTVU obtained a copy of the civil lawsuit filed by Grant's family, which names officer Johannes Mehserle as the shooter.

A video taken by a commuter captured Oakland police hovering over Oscar Grant after shooting him (Oakland Cop Watch)

Grant "was unarmed and offered no physical resistance to BART police officers," according to the claim filed by attorney John Burris. According to KTVU's summary of the lawsuit:

Grant fell to his knees and put his hands up "in an effort to demonstrate that he was submitting to the Latino officer's thuggish display of authority."

But the officer dug his knee into Grant's back, causing Grant to "yell out in agony," the claim states.

Grant feared for his life and "made a valiant effort to de-escalate the situation by appealing to the officer's sense of humanity by telling the officer that he had a 4-year-old daughter" and asking the officer not to use a Taser gun on him, according to the claim.

The claim alleges that Mehserle, who was standing nearby, kneeled down and restrained Grant's hands, then "inexplicably" stood up, drew his firearm and pointed it directly at Grant's back.

The claim states, "Without so much as flinching, Officer Mehserle stood over Mr. Grant and mercilessly fired his weapon, mortally wounding Mr. Grant with a single gunshot wound to the back."

THE NEW Year's killing has provoked a growing community response as the police account of the incident has fallen apart. Although Mehserle has yet to issue a statement, according to media accounts, police officials suggested to the press that he intended to use his Taser gun on Grant and claimed he might not have recognized the difference between the two weapons.

That assertion has been met with disbelief by anti-police brutality activists. Burris cast further doubt on the police account at a January 4 press conference:

It's an outrageous set of facts. My sense is clear that this was an unjustifiable shooting. There were no movements, and he was not trying to overrun the police officer. A gun cannot discharge accidentally. You have to have your finger on the trigger.

When conduct like this occurs, there is a price to pay. Police have to be held accountable when they engage in this kind of unlawful conduct.

Following the killing, a spirited, spontaneous protest of 20 people took place outside BART Police headquarters on January 5. Grant's family is holding a memorial for him in his hometown of Hayward, just south of Oakland, on January 7.

Activists are planning a rally to demand justice for Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland later in the day, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. The protest was called by concerned community members and is spreading quickly by word of mouth.

Police brutality is nothing new in Oakland. In the last few years, a string of police killings have angered residents, including last spring's shooting death of 15-year-old José Luis Buenrostro-Gonzalez, which remains an open case, with no officers being accused of any wrongdoing.

"We have no intention of letting the cops off the hook," said Dana Blanchard from the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "The whole criminal injustice system is rotten, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure Oscar Grant's death shines a light on it."

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