OSCAR GRANT: THE KILLING, TRIAL AND MODERN JIM CROW
“The officer who killed my son was crying on the witness stand and the judge was sympathetic and offered him cool water to console his tears….When members of my family and friends cried inside the courtroom, expressing our emotions for the loss of my son, the judge called for an immediate recess so that the jury would not be influenced by our emotions” –Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant’s mother.
Whatever the official verdict, the killing of 22-year-old, unarmed Oscar Grant, who was Black, by a White Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer was unconscionable. Events leading up to the trial and the trial itself were a microcosm of White privilege and institutional racism. (Oscar Grant’s mother’s comments are a poignant articulation of the feelings of countless Blacks, especially felons and others, disproportionately and often unfairly ensnarled in the criminal justice system.)
This column looks at Oscar Grant’s killing and related events, including the trial of Officer Johannes Mehserle, in the broader context of continuing racism. (Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” offers an illuminating framework for better assessing current systemic obstacles to justice in the criminal justice system although it focuses on mass incarceration as an extension of slavery and Jim Crow.) More on this later.
On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar J. Grant III was executed by Johannes Mehserle, a 6 ft. 250-pound cop. The shooting took place before dawn after BART police responded to reports of a fight on a train filled with New Year’s Eve celebrants. Several passengers on the train that stopped at the Fruitvale Station videoed events as the police reportedly used excessive force on Oscar Grant and his friends. Alameda County prosecutors alleged that Mehserle deliberately fired the fatal shot; Mehserle testified he intended to use an electric taser during a struggle to handcuff Oscar Grant, but mistakenly drew his handgun. The taser was on Mehserle’s left side but his gun was holstered with a special cover on his right side. On the stand, Mehserle said he wanted to use the taser to immobilize Grant, whom he feared had a gun. “This is an accident, pure and simple,” Mehserle’s attorney told the jury.
No police officer has been convicted of killing a Black man in California in recent memory. And given cops’ blanket protections in California’s Police Officers Bill of Rights, simply claiming they fear for their lives, is ironclad immunization against prosecution.
Oakland’s Black leaders’ battle to have the District Attorney charge Mehserle with murder further illustrates the ingrained obstacles to Blacks receiving justice. Brother Keith Muhammed of the Nation of Islam in Oakland gave a detailed account of the struggle to break the D A’s resistance to meet with Black leaders:
Initially, the D.A.,Tom Orloff, refused to meet with the leaders who had the support of a Black city council member and a county supervisor. Orloff finally agreed to meet with only seven people; the group rejected his offer and eventually 50 community members did meet with him and he claimed it would take two weeks to bring charges against Mehsesrle. Mayor Ron Dellums joined the fray and at a press conference attended by Orloff, demanded–and Orloff immediately agreed–that charges be filed immediately. Subsequently, Orloff resigned.
The case was moved to Los Angeles to offset anticipated widespread community violence were Mehserle acquitted. The trial began with no Black jurors and a judge who presided over LAPD’s Rampart scandal case and reportedly has difficulty being even handed with Blacks.
Oscar Grant’s killing and surrounding events embody the fundamental barriers to Blacks’ achieving full justice and Michelle Alexander’s analysis is both instructive and relevant to the case. Her definition and commentary on “caste” extend beyond mass incarceration and the criminal justice system Caste denotes “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom;” racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry–they need only racial indifference. Alexander’s commentary also underscores the significance of these factors in maintaining a race-based hierarchy that unless challenged by a “social movement” will continue to ensure Blacks’ second-class status.
Unfortunately, Oscar Grant’s killing and surrounding events typify basic obstacles to Blacks’ civil and human rights that will inevitably persist unless they become sufficiently dissatisfied to take a leading role in a social movement(s) whose goal is not to reform, but dismantle racist barriers to full justice for all.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at l.aubry at att.net.