Beyond the rage

What the Mehserle verdict says about how far we've come -- and how far we have to go

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A protestor squares off with Oakland Police officers just before being arrested
PHOTO BY RAMSEY AL-QARE

rebeccab@sfbg.com

Downtown Oakland became supercharged with emotion in the hours following the July 8 announcement of the verdict in the trial of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. And in the days that followed, the city remained electrified as residents struggled to make sense of the verdict, the rioting that occurred in its wake, and the historic significance of these developments.

But as the emotions dissipate, the issues behind the verdict and its aftermath remain — along with a series of questions that could determine whether this intensely scrutinized shooting of an unarmed man will lead to any changes in police practices or the justice system, as well as how the community will react if the judge imposes a light sentence.

After being moved out of the Bay Area because the publicity surrounding the case, a Los Angeles jury found Mehserle, a white officer, guilty of involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was detained on a BART train platform in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009 following reports of a fight.

The verdict stood out as an almost unprecedented conviction of an officer in a case involving deadly use of force, and a departure from an all-too-familiar narrative in which tragedies resulting from police shootings bring no consequences for those responsible for pulling the trigger. However, in the wake of the verdict, Grant's family members made it clear that they did not believe that justice had been served.

"This involuntary manslaughter verdict is not what we wanted, nor do we accept it," Oscar Grant's uncle, Cephus "Bobby" Johnson, said at a July 10 press conference at True Vine Ministries, a West Oakland church. "It's been a long, hard road, but there are chapters in this war. The battle's just getting started."

To Grant's relatives and a coalition of supporters who came together in response to the shooting, the trial is intrinsically linked to a long history of police brutality that occurs with impunity in cases involving youth of color. Meetings organized by clergy and community members have been held weekly in West Oakland over the past 19 months with the ultimate goal of bringing about greater oversight of the BART police and effective police reform on a broader scale.

On July 9, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the FBI have opened an investigation into the shooting and would determine whether prosecution at the federal level is warranted. Defense Attorney Michael Rains also made a motion to move Mehserle's sentencing to a date later than Aug. 6, the date it was originally expected.

As the events of July 8 solidify into the Bay Area's collective memory, attention is now shifting toward the next steps, and to lingering questions. Mehserle's sentencing is key: will his sentence be light, reflecting the jury's conclusion that he simply made a mistake — or will it include substantial prison time, reflecting the fact that he shot and killed an unarmed man without justification? Will he receive a lighter sentence than someone else without a criminal record found guilty of involuntary manslaughter simply because of his identity as a former officer with law enforcement organizations still in his corner? If Mehserle receives a long sentence, will it signify a shift in a justice system that many perceive as biased — or a stand-alone result of intense public scrutiny?

And as a result of all this, will the BART police finally get the type of training and serious civilian oversight they so badly need?

 

RAW REACTION

On the day the verdict was announced, thousands turned out for a peaceful rally near Oakland's 12th Street BART Station and City Hall to hear speakers sound off about how their lives had been affected by police brutality.

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