Fighting for justice for Oscar

May 26, 2009

OAKLAND, Calif--One hundred protesters and activists came out to the Alameda County Courthouse in downtown Oakland to witness preliminary hearings in the trial of ex-Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle, who killed Oscar Grant III early on New Year's Day.

Supporters of Grant and his family lined up as early as 6:30 a.m. to get a seat at the hearing, though many were turned away since only 27 seats had been allowed for family and supporters.

Activists from the Community Council, Town Hall (a coalition of faith-based groups), New Year's Movement for Justice, Campaign to End the Death Penalty and various socialist groups held up signs, rallied and chanted for nearly six hours outside the courthouse demanding justice for Grant and the prosecution of Mehserle for his murder.

At the end of the hearing, Oscar's uncle Cephus Johnson and Nation of Islam's Minister Keith Muhammad spoke at a press conference, stating that despite a misleading smear campaign on the part of the defense, led by Michael Rains, the prosecution made a very strong case for murder charges to be brought against Mesherle. Deputy District Attorney David Stein reportedly presented overwhelming and damning video evidence taken by train passengers the night of the murder that clearly showed a deliberate shooting and the unwarranted use of force on the part of the BART police.

The need to keep up pressure on BART and the courts is very important. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, who is in charge of the prosecution, has shown an unwillingness to even try to counter some of the more disgusting attempts by the defense to portray Oscar Grant as a criminal--as well as Rains' attempts to claim that the other officers present, particularly Tony Pirone, were the instigators, and not Mehserle, who pulled the trigger.

The defense continues to argue that Mesherle got caught up in the event, and "accidentally" fired his gun, which he "mistook" for his Taser. While Pirone certainly used brutal force on Oscar, the argument does not lessen Mesherle's role in the execution-style killing. This is a calculated attempt by the defense to deflect blame onto Pirone, who has neither been fired by BART nor had any charges brought against him by Orloff and the county.

Unless a determined movement can bring substantial political pressure against the District Attorney's office and BART, the other officers on the platform that night with Mehserle will likely face no charges or disciplinary action.

Orloff's indifference is especially troubling as Rains is an attorney who has built his career by successfully defending police officers against misconduct charges.

Rains is best known for his defense of a group of notorious rogue Oakland cops known as the Riders, who went on a rampage in 2000 in which they beat, kidnapped and planted drugs on over 100 Oakland residents. Rains managed to get every single cop cleared of criminal charges, despite the testimony against them by fellow police officers.

It has become clear that neither BART nor the courts are ultimately interested in securing justice for Oscar Grant, or making sure another tragedy like the one that occurred on New Year's Day does not happen again.

Instead, they are more interested in trying to clean up the political mess they find themselves in, in a way that doesn't threaten the political justification for the need for a heavily armed police presence in our communities.

It will be up to activists to organize and struggle, not only to win immediate demands regarding justice for Oscar Grant, but to build broader movements to make sure not one more person is killed or brutalized by police officers again.

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