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.
Against Injustice, Unity
It's with all that in mind, along with knowing all the work people put into organizing around this issue, that I'm disheartened by the jury's verdict. The Mehserle trial should have been an open-and-shut case, with this man being charged with voluntary manslaughter, at least, if not second-degree murder. I'm still bewildered by it, as was everyone else who took to the streets the night the verdict was read. What more was one supposed to do?
It would be one thing if people in Oakland sat back and just complained and this was the result, but Oakland isn't like that. I saw people rise to the occasion and do all the right things. Seeing folks from all walks, ages and ethnic backgrounds come together, link similar struggles and seriously put their shoulders to the grind in the name of getting justice for Oscar Grant and his family was breathtaking.
There were town halls held every single week at Olivet Baptist Church in West Oakland. There were dozens of marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, speak-outs and fundraising concerts. A number of artists created songs for the cause. Others made T-shirts and posters.
Coalitions were formed and bridges built, linking elected officials, activists and folks from different communities who saw Oscar Grant not only as a young black man who got killed but as someone who could just as easily have been them or a member of their community. When the trial moved to Los Angeles, organizers from the Bay Area linked up with organizers in L.A. to form tight coalitions.
Most importantly, people sat down and developed strategies with the Grant family, who have been a source of inspiration and have been incredibly strong throughout these past 18 months. The end result was an impressive string of victories that included an unresponsive Alameda County district attorney Tom Orloff and BART police chief Gary Gee being forced to step down and resign, two of the officers on the platform with Mehserle (Tony Pirone and Marysol Domineci) being fired, and BART itself being investigated by an outside firm, which concluded that the agency mishandled the shooting case and had inadequately trained its police officers.
A Stacked Deck
Although jaded by seeing acquittals in high-profile police shootings, such as the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, I was hopeful this case would turn out differently. The dozens of videos documenting Grant's shooting spoke volumes. No way this was going to be covered up and swept away. Unfortunately, when you have every police union in the state throwing their weight behind a rogue officer, what seems an obvious conclusion can quickly become complicated.
When you take into account the consistent polling data that show the huge differences in the way whites and blacks view police, you can understand why this was cause for concern. Many of us believe that no matter how egregious their acts, the police can do no wrong in the eyes of whites. One of the reasons cited by Mehserle's defense and Alameda County Judge Morris Jacobson for moving the trial from Oakland to Los Angeles was because African Americans could not be impartial. They cited as proof an unscientific poll that was widely reported by local news outlets.
It was troubling that Mehserle's violent past was not allowed into the courtroom, thanks to California's powerful Policemen's Bill of Rights. The Los Angeles jury and many in the public were not privy to hearing how, six weeks before he murdered Oscar Grant, Mehserle is alleged to have savagely beaten a 41-year-old black engineer named Kenneth Carrethers, whom he overheard dissing the police to a friend. After the beating, Mehserle is said to have driven around to three different hospitals, looking for a place that would support his "he got hurt because he was resisting arrest" narrative. Why a guy like this was still on the force is beyond me.
Time to Refocus
Mehserle's lightweight conviction was jarring, and the pain was intensified by the fact of so many communities across the nation focusing instead on the "big" decision that basketball great LeBron James was going to make. Why weren't our urban broadcasters rallying us around Grant's case? Where was our progressive media to weigh in and do some serious investigative reporting on this? Why weren't more black folks outside Oakland talking about this?
Instead, Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan and King James news was the order of the day. Have we gotten so used to police shootings and cops getting away with it that covering them is seen as no longer worth the air space? That to me was the biggest wake-up call.
With all that being said, the lack of attention and the unfairness in the verdict has strengthened our resolve here in "Tha Town." People have come to lean on each other and draw strength from knowing that more than a few will be stepping up to fight for justice and put a permanent end to police brutality and misconduct.
The Oscar Grant case is not over. The U.S. Department of Justice is looking into it. We are pushing to make sure the other officers on the platform get jail time for lying, and we intend to change some laws. As Oscar's Uncle Bobby (Cephus Johnson) said over the weekend, This is war, and we have many battles before us.
Davey D is a journalist and community activist from the Bay Area. He hosts the daily syndicated radio show Hard Knock Radio, which has been covering the Oscar Grant case since the beginning.