Justice denied for Oscar Grant

July 9, 2010

John Green and Alessandro Tinonga report on the verdict in the trial of the cop who killed Oscar Grant--and the bitter response in a city with a long history of police violence.

A JURY voted to convict the transit police officer who killed an unarmed Oscar Grant III on an Oakland station platform 18 months ago, but of the least serious possible manslaughter charge, leaving Grant's family and their supporters--and the community that Grant called home--bitter and angry.

The jury, without a single African American among its 12 members, deliberated for only six-and-a-half hours before delivering its guilty verdict on the charge of involuntary manslaughter. The white officer, Johannes Mehserle, will spend up to four years in prison--and probably much less.

About 1,000 people--Black, white, young, old--converged on downtown Oakland after the verdict was announced to make it clear they don't believe justice was done.

"Had it been a Black person [shooting a white officer], it would have been life," said Janay Washington, an Oakland high schooler who joined more than 1,000 people at a demonstration after the verdict was announced. "It's an outrage. Can we at least get justice?"

As many as 1,000 people gathered in downtown Oakland to protest the verdict for officer Johannes Mehserle on July 8
As many as 1,000 people gathered in downtown Oakland to protest the verdict for officer Johannes Mehserle on July 8 (Alessandro Tinonga | SW)

The protests continued into the night, with running battles between demonstrators and police, and some reports of broken windows at buildings in the downtown area.

Mehserle was the first police officer in California to be tried for murder for a shooting committed while on duty, and the jury's vote to convict him is a break from a long history of cops walking free, no matter how brutal their crimes.

But to protesters in Oakland, the involuntary manslaughter conviction was a stark contrast to the evidence that people around the world saw after the killing in the early morning hours of New Year's Day last year--video from at least five sources of Mehserle standing over an unmoving Grant, pulling out a weapon and firing it at point-blank range.

Grant had been dragged off a BART train along with several friends by a group of transit officers that included Mehserle. Witnesses on the crowded platform described the cops acting belligerently as they began to handcuff the youth. A number of passengers used their cell phones to record the incident--the video shows Mehserle helping to hold down Oscar, then standing up, taking his pistol out of his holster, pointing it at Oscar's back, and firing.

The bullet entered Oscar's back, traveled through his body, ricocheted off the concrete floor and punctured his lungs. Grant died several hours later.

Mehserle's lawyers claimed the officer mistook his pistol for a Taser gun he meant to use on Oscar. This story doesn't account for how Mehserle could have confused the two weapons--or even why it was necessary to shoot a man who was laying face down with his arms behind his back. But the jury apparently accepted Mehserle's testimony that the shooting was a mistake, and therefore convicted him of only involuntary manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter is a far cry from justice, but Meserhle's conviction is still the first example in recent memory of an on-duty California cop being held accountable for shooting someone. "At least he's not acquitted--this shows there's some penalty," said Jasmine Thana at the rally. "He wouldn't have been charged in the first place unless people stood up in January."

John Burris, a lawyer representing Oscar Grant's family, said the guilty verdict represented a "small victory. But this verdict is not a true representation of what happened to Oscar Grant. This was not an involuntary manslaughter case."

THE DOWNTOWN protest began minutes after the jury announced its verdict in Los Angeles--where the trial was moved on the grounds that Mehserle couldn't get a "fair trial" in Oakland--and soon swelled to five city blocks, as more and more people reacted in shock and anger.

Emotions at the rally ran from anger to deflation, frustration to determination. The fact that the jury was majority white--with no African Americans and half the jurors claiming police officers as family members--was lost on no one. "It's about racism," said protester Cece Ward. "Most people out here are victims of police--victims of authority."

The turnout after the verdict might have been even larger without the constant fearmongering over the past week by political leaders and the media, who warned of violence and rioting if Mehserle was acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge.

City officials had plenty of riot cops to intimidate protesters and bystanders alike. The city even tried to co-opt the downtown speakout and rally by organizing a counter-event at the same location. But anti-police brutality activists didn't give that a chance to get off the ground.

Speakers battled to be heard over the crowd, sharing personal anecdotes of police brutality, frustration at the injustice system and commitments to continue the struggle. Speakers led chants of "I am Oscar Grant" and "F--- your tears"--the latter a reference both to Mehserle's crying when he was on the witness stand and to city leaders' newfound interest in the Grant case over the past few days.

If politicians truly cared about violence after the verdict, they could have taken a few more positive steps. Eighteen months later, BART police still carry guns to enforce transit system rules. Eighteen months later, there is no independent BART police oversight board. Eighteen months later, all of the systemic racism, police brutality and poverty that sparked rioting when Oscar Grant was laid to rest remain as bad as ever.

Activists will meet next week to coordinate next steps. Oscar's friends and family will be advocating for maximum punishment at Mehserle's upcoming sentencing hearing, pursuing a civil wrongful death suit, and pressing for a federal prosecution for civil rights violations. Meanwhile, the struggle against police violence in Oakland goes on.

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