Prison for killer cop

Disappointed by the lenient sentence, Grant supporters vow to continue fighting for justice

Activists march down 14th Street in Oakland protesting a lenient sentence for former BART cop Johannes Mehserle
Ramsey El-Qare

On Nov. 5, former BART Police officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in state prison for fatally shooting Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American rider, on the Fruitvale train platform on New Year's Day 2009.

Mehserle, who is white, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in July in an incident that has become charged with racial undertones. He received credit for 292 days served in jail so far, which will considerably reduce his time in prison. It was the lightest prison sentence he could have received for the crime.

Grant supporters gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland to express anger and sorrow upon hearing news of the sentence. "I'm not shocked," said Cat Brooks, who helped organize an afternoon rally for the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant. "But I'm disgusted and distraught. It seems like the justice system didn't work."

After the rally came to a close and night fell, protesters spilled into the streets and marched toward the Fruitvale BART Station, the scene of the crime. But after a dozen car windows were smashed along the way, police officers in riot gear corralled the group into a residential neighborhood. Police then placed 152 protesters under mass arrest, mostly on charges of unlawful assembly. Roughly two-thirds of those arrested were Oakland residents, according to the Oakland Police Department, while others were from Berkeley, San Francisco, Hayward, and other local cities.



A stage outside Oakland City Hall was transformed into a venue for personal expression in the wake of the sentencing. Community members lined up to air their frustrations and resolve to keep fighting. They piled flowers onto a shrine that had been created with a picture of Grant's face. Some painted pictures, while others gave spoken word or hip-hop performances. Several told stories of loved ones who'd died in police shootings.

Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle, was at the Los Angeles courtroom where Mehserle was sentenced, but shared some thoughts with the Guardian beforehand. Asked what he'd thought when the verdict had been announced, Johnson said, "My first thought was that we're witnessing the criminal justice system failing to work as it should have worked." If the sentence fell short of the 14-year maximum, he said, "it will be another slap in the face, signifying that black and brown men are worthless."

East Bay labor organizer Charles Dubois was among those attending the Nov. 5 rally. "Every black parent, every brown parent, lives with this nightmare of their children being killed by some cops because they thought they had a gun," Dubois said in an interview with the Guardian. "It's been happening since I was a kid. It's been happening then and it's happening now, and it's going to keep happening until we do something."

California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-SF) also weighed in during a phone call with the Guardian. "This verdict is outrageous," he said. "It's Dan White all over again."



Judge Robert Perry sided with arguments presented by Mehserle's defense attorney, Michael Rains, when he levied a reduced punishment. Mehserle could have served up to 14 years prison for involuntary manslaughter committed while wielding a gun, but Perry tossed out the firearm enhancement.

"No reasonable trier of fact could have concluded that Mehserle intentionally fired his gun," the judge was quoted in media reports as saying. But that appears to be what the jury found, as the prosecution argued in a presentencing memorandum.

Also from this author

  • Beyond the rage

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

  • Protests turn to riots in wake of Mehserle verdict (VIDEO)

  • CPUC head Michael Peevey is stepping down