OSCAR GRANT: System of a Down

The case of Oscar Grant remains alive in the hands of activists seeking justice now.

Words: S. Nicole Brewer & Mariama Primus
Image: Chris Stain

Picture this. You are leaving a movie theatre on the opening night of a major release. The parking lot is crowded. And in the blink of an eye chaos ensues. You are mistakenly yanked up by the local police.

While attempting to explain your position, you are slammed to the ground.

Through the flashing lights, noise of the crowd and frantic pleas of your friends, you realize that all of you are in the prone position and cuffed on the ground. You notice that the officer penning you to the blacktop is unwavering in his tone and demeanor. You know you are in a no-win situation. Your body goes limp; there is no struggle in you at all. You feel hot tears cascading down your face… With a boot in your neck and your face grinding into the asphalt, you frantically beg and plead for your life. Then it hits you: you just heard the cock of a gun.

What would be your next thought?

Would you think of your parents and their reaction to what may be happening? Or would your subsequent train of thought be of your spouse or significant other and how they would take the news about this tragic case of mistaken identity? Maybe your thoughts would wander to your two-year old, who is at home fast asleep in his bed—sweet, angelic and innocent, with no idea that his parent could potentially be gone forever.

Time’s up! The trigger has been pulled. What was your last thought?

In the case of Oscar Grant, we will never know his answer. The 22-year old was shot and killed on the platform of a Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, CA at the hands of on-duty officer, Johannes Mehserle, just weeks before the inauguration of our nation’s first Black president. On the morning of Jan 1, 2009, he begged and pleaded for his life, while being handcuffed lying face down on a subway platform. He was unarmed and by most accounts, had done nothing wrong. In fact, some witnesses testified that he was trying to play the peacemaker in the situation. But with one fatal squeeze of a trigger, he was gone, instantly.

Oscar was killed by a man hired to uphold the law; an officer who found it tolerable to shoot a citizen who had already submitted to him, while the knee of another officer dug into Oscar’s neck as he lay on the ground. Adding further insult to injury, before Mehserle fired the fatal shot that took Oscar’s life, Oscar was called a nigger multiple times and suffered a broken cheekbone after he was punched in the face by Anthony Pirone, another Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer (who was never brought up on charges).

While we won’t ever know what was on his mind in those fateful last seconds, we can examine the way his fellow citizens responded on his behalf.

He was on his way home from a trip to San Francisco, having spent the earlier part of that day with his mother celebrating her birthday. She advised him to take the BART train home, putting her faith into this system that she believed would see her son home safely. She never anticipated her son dying at the hands of police brutality— the real story that her son endured.

According to independent journalist Davey D’s firsthand accounts, the people of Oakland, California sprang into action upon learning of the situation. The viewing public was able to see the killing in real time as videos by fellow train passengers, who recorded the brutal incident via cell phones that New Year’s Eve, went viral. “People couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They know how it goes down around here from time to time, but they couldn’t believe they were watching this in real time on their TV sets in their living rooms. It was crazy, but everybody knew what they saw with their own eyes. So when the police tried to say different, it only inflamed people further. It was simply the last straw, the people here had been pushed to the edge so they pushed back,” D said.

On June 10, 2010, during the trial against the BART officers, a press conference was held in Los Angeles. It was evident that Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, was in pain over the loss of her child, confused and frustrated by the overwhelming chain of events. “I wake up every night thinking what if I didn’t instruct my son to get on BART… But I can’t change any of that. One thing that has to change is the police brutality that’s going on. These killings—senseless killings by officers and there is no reprimand for these killings. We, as a society, have accepted these killings by saying that our Black and brown men are worthless. So if they are killed the excuse is [always] that they are going for their waistband… Something has to change.”

Grant and his friends were held in the station by BART police officers against their will for hours. During that time Grant placed calls to his girlfriend, confused about what was happening and eager to get home to her and their four-year-old daughter. He told his significant other that he was being beat up by the police for no reason. Using his cell phone, he also managed to capture a photo of his executioner standing over him with a taser gun—a photo that would be later introduced in hopes of dispelling the officer’s not guilty plea.

Officer Mehserle insisted that he fired his weapon accidentally. He said he confused his gun with his taser, despite the fact that cops keep their taser guns and pistols on two opposite sides (taser, left; gun, right) of their person, and that tasers and guns are different in color and weight (Something every officer learns in training.)

Yet during the trial it was discovered that Mehserle had a preexisting history of using excessive force against people of color, as he was previously sued for slapping a Hispanic woman. Just 45 days prior to Oscar Grant’s murder, Mehserle had been cited for beating up 41-year old Kenneth Carrethers, after he overheard negative comments Carrethers made about the general efforts of the BART police unit. Carrethers disclosed that he was beaten to the ground and hog-tied by Mehserle, who then proceeded to intentionally dislocate his shoulders. Allegedly, the officer then shoved the victim into the back of his police car and drove around to three hospitals until he found one that would comply with his efforts to cover up the incident. But Carrethers’ complaint went unheard and if action was taken then to reprimand Mehserle, perhaps Mehserle the officer would not have been out in the field (on the streets) the day he killed Oscar Grant.

Those who witnessed the disturbing video of Oscar Grant and others being detained in such a reckless manner were horrified by what they observed. Their frustrations were further exacerbated when they learned that the BART police also confiscated the cell phones of those passengers who shot video footage of the entire ordeal. Whether the videos could be entered into the trial as evidence became the subject of debate within the courts. And for a community in shock, this was the last straw.

Oakland became a city divided by tragic circumstances and the moral imperative for a police department to correct what is, by human standards, a flawed system. The case was laced with stories of mass corruption, jury tampering and radicalized police unions. Even racial and socio economic lines were drawn in the sand by members of Oakland’s City Hall and select officials of the judicial system in Los Angeles.

The trial took place outside of the Bay area community because Mehserle feared that he wouldn’t receive a fair trial in Almeda County. With an all White jury (said to be filled with jurors who had a previous background/connection to law enforcement) and a judge— Judge Robert Perry, who is allegedly favored by the police department, simply put, none of the conditions were just.

However, a somewhat hidden silver lining did underscore the atrocious series of events.

The old adage that “when tragedy strikes, the good in man comes forth” seems to ring true. Neighbors began to look out for one another; people organized and united to become not just individual voices in a messy sea, but one strong voice against the perpetrators of violence. In other words, E pluribus unum Latin, which in this case means: plumbers, protesters, vigil attendees, court transcribers, citizens, journalists, law researchers and community organizers finally stopped seeing each other as out-group members and suddenly responded to the Grant case as one new in-group.

This new in-group transcended race, age, gender and socioeconomic lines. The people of The Bay found themselves to be a giant force that had the ability to pinpoint a correct reaction to any unjust situation.

In the end, Johannes Mehserle the officer that shot Oscar Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter (and not 2nd degree murder) and sentenced to two years in prison.

Grant’s family and the citizens of the Bay area were outraged, as the judge’s verdict did not seem to reflect the severity of the crime committed. Especially when you consider the fact that this nation has sentenced people to longer prison terms for killing animals, DUI’s and drug possession. Thousands of Oakland citizens poured out in protest of the “dismissal” of yet another senseless killing against a member of the African-American community.

John Burris, the Grant family attorney, expressed his discontent with the resulting judgment stating, “We are extremely disappointed with this verdict. The verdict is not a true representation of what happened to Oscar Grant and what the officer did to him that night. This is not an involuntary manslaughter case…” Grant’s mother continues to declare that her son was murdered.

The case of Oscar Grant symbolizes a systemic problem of racial profiling and injustice. Since his murder, there have been approximately ten more incidents of this nature in the Bay Area alone. They haven’t received much media coverage, probably because they weren’t caught on tape. While African-American men account for approximately 35% of homicide victims in the United States with an unreliable number as to how many of those were committed by officers, Oscar Grant’s ordeal help set a new precedent. It became the first case to convict a police officer in connection to a homicide, which offers a small glimmer of hope that perhaps things are changing.

Mehserle served only 11 months of his sentence in LA County Men’s Jail. While there, he was kept separate from other inmates for the sake of his “safety.” On June 12th, 2010, the night before he was freed, hundreds of Grant supporters marched from the Fruitvale station to downtown Oakland protesting his release. During the peaceful protest, Jack Bryson, a friend of the Grant family was interviewed by The Guardian newspaper. Bryson said, “You can’t train a White police officer who has been taught to hate the [African-American/Minority] community– [who] then becomes a police officer and he’s been racist. Now you’re asking him to come police the community he was raised to hate.”

While the mainstream media chose to generalize the response of Bay Area citizens based on the actions of a negative few was beyond harsh. The part of the story that could inspire other narratives was set aside for juicier plot lines, instead of the stories that could unite the community further. As a result, uplifting tales were never highlighted. Media outlets chose to be engrossed in lesser matters, such as which team Lebron James would decide to play for in the upcoming basketball season.

Shortly after Mehserle’s conviction, The Oscar Grant foundation was born. While it is still evolving, the organization aims to empower citizens by fostering better communication between the police force and members of the community to produce more police accountability. To date the organization has held local “life skills” events educating members on their rights when dealing with the police, including how to correct drivers license issues and expunge criminal records, while extending support to those families who have lost loved ones to police brutality.

Of the foundation’s primary plan of action, they wish to see ex-BART officers Mehserle and Pirone properly convicted in civil court for the crimes committed against Oscar Grant and his friends that fateful night.

Although the federal court dismissed the family’s initial case against the BART system for $50M, Grant’s six-year-old daughter was awarded $1.5M in January 2010, and Grant’s mother, $1.3M on June 28, 2011. However, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel, said the $50M federal lawsuit on behalf of Grant’s family against current and former BART police officers should be decided at a jury trial, which may be held later this year.

Grant’s uncle Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson believes the organization has a solid chance of helping to bring some justice to the death of his nephew. Stating confidently in an interview with us after Mehserle’s release, “We will win the civil rights case as long as the Department of Justice files charges. When they investigate, they will find they are in error of policy and procedure. Their [Oscar Grant and his friends] rights were violated; they were illegally detained in handcuffs for six hours–although in court the officers denied they were actually under arrest. Pirone testified in court that if Oscar hadn’t been shot they wouldn’t have even taken their names.”

The Oscar Grant Foundation recently put out a call to action: “Reaching out to all brown and Black men and all others to come with us to the Department of Justice [1301 Clay Street in Oakland]. They [Dept. of Justice] have to look at a case where a community expresses outrage.” Scheduled for July 8, 2011 (a year since Johannes Mehserle’s conviction to the date), the event will welcome all who wish to support, but is designed for men specifically, to take a collective stand and work to protect their community from rogue officers and racial profiling.

So what did we learn from the investigation in this case of an unarmed 22-year old man and his murder that was committed in full view by citizens and local law enforcement? We know that the inequality of power does not have to exist, that citizens can join together to hold people accountable and lend backing to one another in such a way that enables them to stand firm against social injustice.

Lori Davis is a protestor and mother of 20 year-old Raheim Brown, who was shot and killed by an Oakland School Police officer with a record earlier this year. Like so many other women of color who have lost family at the hands of the police department, she was denied retribution for funeral expenses by the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime. Her claim was denied on the basis of it being a police-related death. She turned to the community to raise funds to bury her son. And Davis also gives back to this same community, lending her support to other families who are victims of police brutality including The Oscar Grant Foundation, while she awaits the start of the trial against her son’s killer.

She shared her thoughts on the climate of police brutality right now in Oakland. “When a cop kills someone, the community backs down and says, ‘Oh, they’re not going to do anything.’ There’s a lot of men out here dying. And because it’s not being caught on video, they are getting away with it. The community has to get involved. Mehserle has no business being out. You get more time for being a drunk driver.”

The list of aggrieved citizens seems to never end. On May 31st during Urban Beach Week in Miami, 22 year old Raymond Heriss was gunned down (100 bullets to be exact) by twelve Dade County Police officers, while sitting in his car. Just this week in New York City, officers from the NYPD’s 7th Precinct were caught on video attacking innocent men and women outside of a Pete Rock and Smiff n Wesson album release event at Tammany Hall. Among the assaulted were Pete Rock’s wife and stepdaughter. Five patrons attending the event were arrested and detained, including Gabriel Diaz. When he was finally released this past Thursday, he was in a neck brace and suffered injuries to his face and body. The NYPD released a statement earlier this week absolving them of any wrongdoing.

While true justice has yet to be served for those that have suffered at the hands of law enforcement, community organizers continue to fight for social change. They hope for a future that puts an end to racial profiling and the excusal of police brutality against people of color; that perhaps one day Oscar Grant, Jordan Mile, Sean Bell, Raheim Brown, Derrick Jones, Amadou Diallou and countless other victims’ lives will be taken seriously.

True, in some instances progress has been made. But how far have we really come if people continue to be killed, hurt and provoked senselessly? In the words Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, we are in need of a “system that not only applies to the citizens, but also applies to its officers.”

Image by Chris Stain.

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