Kind of Red

July 31, 2010

Taken for Granted

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 9:57 pm

January 1, 2009 Oakland BART Fruitvale Station -- Freeze frame image from Oscar Grant shooting

Shortly before the dawning of the first day of last year, an errant bullet briskly fired from the .40 caliber handgun of former Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle, and bore through the spine of Oscar Grant III, spilling his blood onto the cold concrete of an Oakland subway station. Pop! The distinct sound of gunfire rifled through the subway station, and momentarily muzzled the prattle of the rowdy crowd.   The previously ebullient gathering of teenagers and young adults celebrating the onset of a new year swiftly morphed into a chaotic scene.  At the sound of that distinctive “pop,” one life departed, one changed forever and dozens watched it all transpire.

It all began when officers rushed to the scene after receiving reports of an altercation on a train in Oakland’s Fruitvale station shortly after 2 ‘o clock in the morning on January 1, 2009.  Mr. Mehserle arrived with other officers, and quickly restrained an unarmed Mr. Grant, along with others nearby.  The officers essentially arrested them for “contempt of a police officer.”  What happened next varies depending on who provides the account, yet all parties agree that within a split second, Mr. Mehserle drew his gun, shot Mr. Grant in the back, and Mr. Grant died soon thereafter.

At the time Mr. Mehserle shot Mr. Grant, Oscar was subdued, facedown on the subway platform with the knee of another transit office firmly wedged in his back.  Several of his friends found themselves seated nearby as the entire scene unfolded.   They reportedly heard transit officer Tony Pirone hurl racial epithets at Mr. Grant, and then watched in horror as Mr. Grant was killed in front of them.  At least five people passing by caught the entire episode on cell phone video cameras: the confrontation with transit officers, the restraint of Mr. Grant, the shot, Mr. Grant laying on the subway platform motionless with that errant bullet lodged in his back, as his life slowly exited his frame.

"We Are All Oscar Grant" protests of the jury verdict finding former Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter

The shooting sparked intense public outrage, though it initially failed to gain much media attention outside of the Oakland region.  Nevertheless, numerous members of the Oakland community rejoiced at the news of Mr. Mehserle’s arrest and pending trial.  The prosecution sought a murder charge because Oscar Grant III’s death represented “an unlawful killing without explanation.” Mr. Mehserle faced possible sentences ranging from probation to fourteen years in prison.

As the trial drew to an end, many in Oakland waited with baited breath for the elusive serving of justice.  When a jury rendered its verdict finding Mr. Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter a few weeks ago, rather than the graver charge of second degree murder, it broke the hearts of hundreds who organized to support the Grant family and draw national attention to Oscar’s untimely death.  While Mehserle’s conviction represented the first time in California history that a law enforcement officer was tried for murder in a “line-of-duty shooting” (and consequently the first such conviction), the conviction of involuntary manslaughter seemed woefully inadequate as retribution for the life of a young man inexplicably cut short on New Year’s Day last year.

For many across this nation, Mr. Grant’s death represents the tragic belief, one forged after centuries of both empirical and anecdotal evidence that the life of an African American man is worth less than that of other men.  It reaffirms the expectation, that far too often, African American men will encounter violence at the hands of those who have sworn to protect them.  For too many, this merely serves as a dreadful reminder of other tragic tales, where members of law enforcement can take the lives of young African American men with impunity.  It also reinforced the reason many African American communities harbor a bitter distrust of law enforcement.  Certainly one can presume that members of the jury believed Mr. Mehserle’s account whereby he said he intended to draw his taser rather than his gun.

Nevertheless, at the time Mr. Grant was shot, he was facedown on the ground, with a transit officer’s knee to his back.  At that moment, he posed no legitimate threat to the officers, or those around them.  In such an instance, the use of even a taser arguably represented excessive force, rendering the defense of a mistake as moot.  Granted, the jury’s verdict was perfectly permissible under the law, and presumably followed the logical conclusion of plausible retelling of the series of events, but it does little to placate the anger felt by many who have seen the video of Oscar’s killing.  Oscar Grant III died at the hands of Mr. Mehserle, and nothing seemed “involuntary” about it.  The video footage of the shooting displayed the horrifying death of a young man at the hands of a uniformed officer.  For many, the footage offered irrefutable evidence of a crime that resulted in the death of a promising young man.  A Los Angeles jury did not draw the same conclusion, and perhaps it was due to the fact that many of them enjoy a sense of justice that others do not have the luxury to take for granted.

Oscar Grant III


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