Race, Place and Police: The 2009 Shooting of Oscar Grant

Panel/Workshop Organizer Last Name: 
Bobby X
Panel/Workshop Organizer First Name: 
Uncle
Panel/Workshop Organizer Affiliation: 
Love Not Blood Camapaign
Panel/Workshop Presentation Documents: 
Host/Sponsor: 
Love Not Blood Campaign
Abstract: 
The Incident: Oscar Grant’s Death and Aftermath Shortly after the Bay Area welcomed the new year in 2009, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police arrived at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, responding to reports of fighting. Among the men taken from the train was Oscar Grant III. According to SFGate, “as [Officer Johannes Mehserle] moved to cuff him . . . Grant violently pulled his right hand away,” perhaps “[reacting] to abusive words from [another officer].”[v] The abusive words came from Mehserle’s partner Tony Pirone, who called Grant a “bitch ass nigger,” although it is unclear whether Pirone or Grant said these words first.[vi] Thinking Grant might have been reaching for a gun, Mehserle pulled out a weapon and shot Grant in the back. In reality, Grant, a twenty-two-year-old Black male, was unarmed. Public outrage arose following the shooting, stoked by YouTube videos of the incident posted by witnesses. Days later, “hundreds of protestors rampaged through the streets of downtown Oakland, creating a near-riot that lasted for several hours.”[vii] The aftermath included “protestors [laying] prone in front of police, hands behind their backs, saying, ‘I am Oscar Grant.’”[viii] The New York Times reported, “civic leaders said . . . that the violence reflected anger among young people—and particularly young Black men—who feel that they are unfair targets of the police.”[ix] The components of the incident’s aftermath can be loosely characterized by three themes: (1) prosecutorial aggression, (2) judicial intervention and independence, and (3) responsive public outcry. Nearly two weeks after the shooting, Mehserle was charged. After initially charging Mehserle with first-degree murder, the judge ultimately ruled that the most severe charge possible would be second-degree murder. Protests continued, beginning with a “largely peaceful rally of more than 1,000” but also “demonstrators [who] began a rampage through downtown, smashing windows at a dozen businesses, vandalizing several cars and forcing police . . . to spray tear gas.”[x] The bail hearing provided another opportunity for judicial intervention and independence. More than two weeks after the indictment, bail was set at $3 million for Mehserle, causing “thousands of residents [to gather] to voice their outrage . . . and to demand that Mehserle not be given a chance to leave jail on bail.”[xi] On Friday, 6 February 2009, Mehserle posted bail and was released. The trial components included several key moments of judicial intervention, many of which led to public outcry. Mehserle’s preliminary hearing began on 18 May 2009, against the backdrop of protests. In advance of the trial, the defense outlined its intention to bring Grant’s past encounters with law enforcement into its arguments. John Burris, an attorney for Grant’s family, labeled such tactics as character assassination. Also crucial to the defense’s argument was the notion that Mehserle meant to use his Taser on Grant. The prosecution asserted that the shooting was intentional, following a contentious interaction that featured racial language directed at Grant. Also of note, the trial was relocated to Los Angeles “because of pretrial publicity and the threat of violence.” [xii] The Los Angeles jury did not include any Black members. Ultimately, the jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Following the verdict, the Grant family’s attorney asserted, “’the system is rarely fair when a police officer shoots an African-American male.’”[xiii] That evening, more than 1,000 people rioted in Oakland. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “wearing black masks, many looted stores, smashed windows and rolled trash bins into the streets while setting them on fire.”[xiv] In the end, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry reduced Mehserle’s potential prison sentence down to four years and ultimately sentenced him to two years (of which he served only eleven months). Protests followed both Mehserle’s sentencing and early release, with Grant’s uncle asserting, “I do believe it’s a racist criminal justice system.”[
Love Not Blood Campaign