In the Aftermath of the Oscar Grant Verdict: What Now?

AP Photo
AP Photo

"My son was murdered. He was murdered," Wanda Johnson said repeatedly, forcefully, as she spoke out against the verdict in the trial against former transit officer Johannes Mehserle, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter but acquitted of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter in the videotaped shooting death of her unarmed son, Oscar Grant.

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A Los Angeles jury deliberated about six hours over two days before reaching a verdict July 8 about the shooting on an Oakland, Calif., train platform in January 2009, saying they saw it as an accident rather than the case of an out-of-control cop. Mehserle had testified that he accidentally drew his weapon instead of his Taser and shot Grant, 22, while trying to subdue him on New Year's Day. The U.S. Department of Justice has announced that it will investigate the officer for possible violation of Grant's civil rights.

The verdict touched off a night of looting in the streets of downtown Oakland by angry protesters, a manifestation of the frustration and disenfranchisement that so many in the black community still feel, especially when it comes to gaining justice from the court system.

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Longtime civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson weighed in on the matter when The Root asked him why people resort to rioting when they think the legal system has failed them.

"Why do people riot?" Rev. Jackson asked rhetorically. "It's an act of desperation. They do not feel like they are stakeholders in the system. It's dangerous when you have people like that. You have to provide them with jobs and jobs training, and draw up a plan for stability and growth."

He should know. Jackson remembers the Newark riots in 1967, when African Americans felt powerless. Unemployment was high, and therefore poverty was high, and housing was scarce. He also recalls the riots of 1968 after the death of his mentor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which decimated nearly 30 blocks on the West Side of Chicago. The neighborhood is only now starting to experience slow economic recovery.

But there is nothing like a police shooting in modern-day history to ignite violence within the black community, which already has an uneasy relationship with the nation's largely white police forces. It's the same with the court system, where some African Americans feel the deck is stacked against them. (More than a few criminal justice experts would agree.)

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The vociferous Rev. Al Sharpton, who has stood side by side with families of police-shooting victims, also agrees. The New York City-based civil rights leader parts with Jackson over the jobs issue, however.

Sharpton recalls a clamorous day in New York City in July 1992, when police officer Michael O'Keefe shot Jose Garcia, a Dominican immigrant, in the lobby of a building in Washington Heights. The police said a gun had been found on Garcia, but the shooting touched off several days of violence as people rampaged through the streets, overturning garbage cans and verbally taunting officers.

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In 1989, Miami police officer William Lozano touched off three days of racial violence when he shot a black motorcyclist. A single bullet from his service-issued revolver pierced Clement Lloyd's left temple, killing him immediately. Allan Blanchard, an African-American passenger on the bike, died a day later as a result of injuries sustained when he was thrown in the path of a car.

And who can forget the case of Rodney G. King in Los Angeles in 1991, whose videotaped beating came to symbolize police brutality? In news reports at the time, two officers, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officer Laurence M. Powell, said that they believed they had acted properly in the violent beating. Although they were charged with assault and use of excessive force, they were eventually acquitted, in April 1993. That verdict triggered six days of protest rioting, looting, arson and property damage. Fifty-three people died, and scores were injured. Corresponding anti-police riots occurred around the country.

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In Oakland yesterday, the rioting began at nightfall. Earlier in the day, the verdict had given way to peaceful protests by up to 1,000 people. But by night, people began looting stores, smashing car windows, tossing powerful fireworks at police and lighting fires in trash cans, according to Reuters. An estimated 50 arrests were made.

Solutions to the ongoing tension between minority communities and the officers that patrol them have been offered before, but Jackson suggests that cities could make a better effort to integrate police forces. He shrugged off talk about whether black leaders such as himself and Sharpton are relevant today. Still, he went on to applaud President Barack Obama's immigration-reform address: "President Obama said it would cost more not to do immigration reform than to do it. The same should be applied to urban America. We should start with prenatal care, Head Start and day care on the front side rather than jail care, welfare and despair on the backside. America has adjusted to blacks living in a Depression. We need to get beyond that."

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In the meantime, another black woman is learning to live without her son. No riot will help make up for that.

Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

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