It’s been five days since the verdict of involuntary manslaughter was handed down to former Oakland, Calif., transit cop Johannes Mehserle for the shooting death of unarmed Oscar Grant III as he lay face down with his hands behind his back in front of a train packed with horrified passengers who were returning home from New Year’s Eve celebrations in January 2009. His murder, which was caught on video by dozens of cell phones, sent shock waves all over the world.
Some are saying Mehserle’s conviction is a good thing; after all, it’s the first time in the history of this great blue, liberal state of California that an officer was convicted for killing a black man while on duty. That may be true, but as far as I’m concerned, being the first to get a crumb when you deserve a meal is not good enough. Justice was not served. The Grant family deserved more. This hard-working Oakland-Bay Area community, which came together and tirelessly and meticulously organized for the past 18 months to see this case through, deserved more.
A Series of Wake-Up Calls
Mehserle only getting involuntary manslaughter, and not second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, cut deep. It was a slap in the face. It symbolized just how broken the justice system is and how powerless we are within it. It was another wake-up call that left me wondering just how much more can you invest in a system that is continuously unresponsive to black people and other marginalized communities?
The first wake-up call, for many of us in Oakland, came the night Grant was murdered. To better understand, one has to remember what was going on at that time. The inauguration of President Barack Obama was three weeks away. Many of us were in a hopeful, festive mood. Hope, change and the anticipation of new beginnings are what many of us were thinking as this nation was gearing up to have its first black president.
Many of us were happy that he had already named Eric Holder, another African American, to hold the nation’s top law enforcement spot as attorney general. The thought of us black folks having to revisit the all-too-familiar scenario of white-cop-shoots-unarmed-black-man-and-gets-away-with-it was the furthest thing on our minds the night Oscar Grant was killed. I’ve often wondered if similar thoughts were rolling through Grant’s mind that fateful night.
Was he thinking it was a new day when he was approached by an aggressive Johannes Mehserle that night? Did he feel comfortable enough to question why Mehserle had pulled him and his friends off the train? Did he think that the days of having to cower and be scared of white cops in black and brown neighborhoods were over?
Grant’s murder was a harsh wake-up call. It reminded us that there would be no post-racial America, that it was business as usual. This was further underscored when we learned that moments before Grant was shot, he was called a “bitch ass nigger” by Mehserle’s racist partner Tony Pirone, who has since been fired after months of community pressure. One can only wonder what Grant was thinking when he heard those words.