Since the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III on New Year's Day in 2009, a photograph of the 22-year-old African American man from Hayward has become iconic. The picture shows Grant's smiling face, and the black ski cap and a hooded sweatshirt he was wearing the day it was taken.
It has been copied onto posters and displayed like wallpaper in downtown Oakland cafes and along city blocks, manipulated with different hues and accents to produce scores of flyers, banners, hip-hop album jackets, T-shirts, and even masks. An expansive mural in Oakland displays Grant's image on a larger-than-life scale, framed with roses.
The ubiquitous pictures of Grant, the victim of a shooting by police, are a constant reminder that his life was taken suddenly when BART cop Johannes Mehserle shot him in the back on the Fruitvale train platform. At the time, Grant was unarmed and physically restrained, having been arrested following reports of a fight.
Cell phone camera footage of the shooting went viral, and the case drew national attention. The defense argued that it was all a tragic accident, saying Mehserle had mistakenly drawn his firearm when he meant to draw his Taser.
Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and his sentencing is expected Nov. 5. With all the attention surrounding the case, this final determination has taken on the proportions of a moment of truth.
Mehserle could be sent to prison for as long as 14 years, or merely be placed on probation. For many Grant supporters, it's a question of whether the justice system will incarcerate a police officer for killing a young person of color, after so many other youths have been slain in police shootings that never went to trial. For Mehserle's supporters, the outcome will signify something else entirely.
Mehserle, a white Napa native in his late 20s who resigned from BART after the shooting, was tried on a murder charge. But a jury in Los Angeles (where the trial was moved because of the publicity here) found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter on July 8. Protesters, decrying the verdict as too lenient, converged in downtown Oakland for a street rally directly afterward that later gave way to bursts of rioting and looting.
The grassroots community leaders who urged supporters into the streets aren't the only people now mobilizing around the sentencing. In the months following the verdict, the law enforcement community rallied in support of Mehserle, whose conviction for on-duty police conduct stood out as a rarity.
The former cop's supporters have set up websites, hosted vigils, and arranged media interviews for Mehserle and his allies. A website called Justice4Johannes.com decries his conviction, denouncing the justice system as biased against police. "Do not let our officers fall victim to a spineless system," the website urges, "who would rather protect criminals than protect our law enforcement officers who daily put their lives on the line for you!"
As the date of the sentencing approaches, each side has demonstrated that they are as active as ever. When the Giants played in AT&T Park in October, Mehserle's father, Todd, made an appearance in McCovey Cove on a stately sailboat with "Free Johannes Mehserle" banners ruffling on its tall masts. But a smaller wooden ketch with activist Jared Aldrich at the helm, hoisted banners that read "Justice for Oscar Grant" and, on another occasion, "Jail Killer Cops."
On Oct. 23, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 shut down Bay Area ports, using a stop-work day to hold a rally at the Port of Oakland calling for the maximum sentence for Mehserle.