The Untimely Death of Oscar Grant III

The most recent string of murders follows the same script.

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As Washington prepares for the inauguration of Barack Obama, security is certainly a concern. But there is confidence that he and his family will be well-protected.

Elsewhere in the country, and far from the lead of the evening news, investigations continue into the shootings of black men by police.

You can see Oscar Grant III's death in murky videos on the Internet. Grant was shot dead early New Year’s Day on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland. BART police were investigating reports of fighting. The officer who pulled the trigger has resigned and isn’t talking; BART and the Oakland police are looking into the incident and Grant’s family is trying to calm angry crowds that have attacked businesses in protest. One theory is that the officer thought his weapon was a Taser.

Also on New Year’s Day, 22-year-old Adolph Grimes III was shot in New Orleans in a confrontation with nine undercover officers. Police have said officers fired after Grimes—who had a registered firearm—shot at them. The family said Grimes had no criminal record, and was just visiting from Houston, where he had relocated after Hurricane Katrina. And yes, the investigation continues.

Robbie Tolan is lucky to be alive. But as he recovers in a Houston hospital with a bullet in his liver, Tolan’s promising baseball career may be over. The 23-year-old son of Bobby Tolan, a former major league baseball player was shot on Dec. 31 in his own driveway in Bellaire, a mostly white Houston suburb. Police officials say he and his cousin were suspected of driving a stolen car. The family has said he was shot in the chest when he protested an officer’s shoving his mother. It turns out the car was not stolen. Minority residents of Bellaire complain of longstanding racial profiling by police.

At this point, these depressingly familiar incidents seem to follow a script: bullets fired, accounts disputed, families grieving, lawsuits filed. Even before the facts are in, people take sides, based mainly on rumor and stereotype. In the blog and talk-show chatter, these men are either victims or thugs who were asking for it; the police are heroes doing a job no one wants to do or heartless racists looking to exterminate black men.

Families just want answers and justice for the individuals they know and love. 

Barack Obama’s achievement was supposed to be about more than the election of one man. It was supposed to show that opportunities for minorities are limitless. It was supposed to force minorities to stop blaming racism for holding them back. As the mother of a 26-year-old black man, I am as invested as anyone in believing that better days are ahead and that he has the chance to follow in Obama’s footsteps. The reality is that I still caution my law-abiding achiever to watch his step and stay clear of what may even be interpreted as trouble.

Mary C. Curtis is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, N.C.  She has been a columnist or editor at The Charlotte Observer, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and the Associated Press. Curtis, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, blogs for the Nieman Watchdog site.

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