In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, responding to reports of fighting on the BART in Oakland, officers arrived on the scene and detained a group of young men. One of the officers, Johannes Mehserle, pinned a young man to the ground, face-down. The young man, Oscar Grant III, may or may not have resisted the arrest–that much remains contested. Whatever the case may have been, Officer Mehserle stood, reached for his weapon, and shot Grant point-blank in the back.
Mehserle was arrested and charged with murder for the crime, but eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The officer claimed he had meant to tase Grant, that Grant had resisted arrest, that it had been a mistake. Following the decision, peaceful protests were organized and held across San Francisco and well beyond. Supporters of justice for Grant spread the word online; on Twitter and on Facebook, individuals from around the world organized to express discontent at the decision and push for harsh sentencing for Mehserle. There were also small riots, with 78 people arrested.
Today, Mehserle was sentenced: two years in prison, minus time served. Less than Michael Vick served for organizing dog fights. Less than Plaxico Burress will likely serve for shooting himself. And far, far less than Mumia Abu-Jamal has served for the crime of killing a white police officer.
I wasn’t there on that fateful day, so I can only speculate on what really went down. It’s possible that Johannes Mehserle made a terrible mistake. It’s possible that he abused his power as a police officer. It’s also possible that he knew exactly what he was doing. Whatever the scenario, he took a young life for no good reason at all, depriving a young girl of her father, a mother of her son, and countless individuals of a friend.
Two years in prison is not justice
John Burris, the attorney for the Grant family, said that he viewed the two-year term as confirmation of a racially unfair justice system. It is indeed illogical to view this as an isolated incident, outside of the greater framework of systemic racism that exists in this country. The system is rarely fair when it comes to dealing with police brutality toward people of color, and despite plenty of widely-publicized examples–Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, even Henry Louis Gates–we keep making the same mistakes,
again and again, ignoring the patterns. Between the nation’s desperate, blind push toward a “post-racial” society and the media’s yearning for “objectivity”, these incidents are viewed in isolation, which makes it all too easy to see each subsequent event as accident.
Just as justice was denied in July when Mehserle evaded a murder charge, so was it today with Mehserle’s sentencing. Tonight, on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco, the protests will undoubtedly continue as people react to the meager sentence handed down to Mehserle. And rightfully so: for months, activists have fought, often within a broken system, for justice for Oscar Grant and his family.
But as Jessie at Racism Review reminds us:
The call for a harsher sentence in the particular case of Mehserle, and the grave injustice to Oscar Grant and his family, should not distract us from addressing the larger issue of the systemic racism which perpetuates this injustice on a grand scale.
Photos of protesters by Thomas Hawk available by Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-NonCommercial Generic license.