A jury voted on July 8 to convict a transit police officer who killed an unarmed 22-year-old African American man, Oscar Grant III, on an Oakland station platform 18 months ago. But the officer was convicted of the least serious possible manslaughter charge.
The verdict left Grant’s family and their supporters — and the community that Grant called home — bitter and angry.
The jury, without a single African American among its 12 members, deliberated for only six-and-a-half hours before delivering its guilty verdict on the charge of involuntary manslaughter. The white officer, Johannes Mehserle, will spend up to four years in prison — and probably much less.
About 1000 people — Black, white, young, old — converged on downtown Oakland after the verdict was announced to make it clear they don’t believe justice was done.
Janay Washington, an Oakland high schooler who marched, said: “Had it been a Black person [shooting a white officer], it would have been life. It’s an outrage.
“Can we at least get justice?”
The protests continued into the night, with running battles between demonstrators and police. There were some reports of broken windows in buildings in the downtown area.
Mehserle was the first police officer in California to be tried for murder for a shooting committed while on duty. The jury’s vote to convict him is a break from a long history of cops walking free, no matter how brutal their crimes.
But to protesters in Oakland, the involuntary manslaughter conviction was a stark contrast to the evidence that people around the world saw after the killing in the early morning hours of New Year's Day last year.
There was video evidence from at least five sources of Mehserle standing over an unmoving Grant, pulling out a weapon and firing it at point-blank range.
Grant had been dragged off a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train along with several friends by a group of transit officers. Witnesses on the crowded platform described the cops acting belligerently as they began to handcuff the youth.
A number of passengers used their cell phones to record the incident. The video shows Mehserle helping to hold down Oscar, then standing up, taking his pistol out of his holster, pointing it at Oscar’s back, and firing.
The bullet entered Oscar's back, traveled through his body, ricocheted off the concrete floor and punctured his lungs. Grant died several hours later.
Mehserle’s lawyers claimed the officer mistook his pistol for a Taser gun he meant to use on Oscar. This story doesn’t account for how Mehserle could have confused the two weapons — or why it was necessary to shoot a man laying face down with his arms behind his back.
But the jury apparently accepted Mehserle’s testimony that the shooting was a mistake, and therefore convicted him of only involuntary manslaughter.
Rally participant Jasmine Thana said: “At least he's not acquitted — this shows there's some penalty. He wouldn't have been charged in the first place unless people stood up.”
Protester Cece War said: “It's about racism. Most people out here are victims of police — victims of authority.”
Grant’s family and supporters will be advocating for maximum punishment at Mehserle’s upcoming sentencing hearing, pursuing a civil wrongful death suit, and pressing for a federal prosecution for civil rights violations.
Eighteen months after Grant’s death, BART police still carry guns to enforce transit system rules. Eighteen months later, there is no independent BART police oversight board.
Eighteen months later, all of the systemic racism, police brutality and poverty that sparked rioting when Oscar Grant was laid to rest remain as bad as ever.
[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]