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.
"The evidence was presented regarding the use of the gun, and in discussing the use of the gun in the jury room, somehow or another the jury decided he had used the gun illegally," criminal defense attorney and National Lawyers Guild observer Walter Riley told the Guardian. "One has to believe the jury expected him to have exposure to a greater amount of jail time because of that."
Perry said he believed Mehserle suffered a "muscle memory accident" that led him to draw and fire his service weapon instead of his Taser, a cornerstone of the defense's case.
Rains wrote to the court prior to sentencing that jurors should never have been allowed to apply the firearm enhancement to an involuntary manslaughter conviction "because in this case, there is no logical way to square a verdict of involuntary manslaughter and a finding that Mehserle intended to use his gun."
Prosecutor David Stein of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office countered that the jury's conviction showed they believed Mehserle intended to shoot, but not to kill, Grant. Yet Perry agreed with the defense, conceding he had mistakenly permitted the jury to enhance Mehserle's sentence.
Riley said he sympathized with frustrations over the gun enhancement getting dismissed. "The use of guns is too prevalent in circumstances where law enforcement comes in contact with young black people," he said. "Our society — our civil society, our judicial authority, and our communities — have to hold government and law enforcement officers to a higher level of accountability in their interactions with citizens. When people with guns shoot an inordinate number of people of one group, it's worth tremendous scrutiny."
Twice before, activists took to the streets in furious protest over this case. In January 2009, things escalated to the point where cars were set ablaze. In July 2010, a street rally gave way to rioting and looting. So on Nov. 5, many downtown Oakland storeowners boarded up and closed business early in anticipation of a third wave of vandalism.
Yet the turnout was smaller than the previous events. And while there were reports of smashed car windshields and other instances of vandalism along the circuitous path of the march, there was far less property destruction.
The community affair outside Oakland City Hall ended around 6 p.m., when the permit expired. Soon after, activists spilled into the intersection of 14th and Broadway streets, then began advancing down 14th Street chanting "No Justice! No Peace!" and "The whole system is guilty!" The march turned right onto Madison Street, then left onto 10th Street.
A police helicopter with a spotlight kept pace overhead while it progressed, and when protesters reached Laney College, police officers in riot gear blocked them in. So protesters cut through a park and wandered in a pack until they reached the intersection of East 18th Street and Sixth Avenue in a residential neighborhood. Once again, police surrounded the protesters. This time, the crowd was trapped.
Rachel Jackson, an activist who was barricaded in, began sounding off. "We were going to Fruitvale," she explained. "We wanted to go to the scene of the crime. All night the police have been trying to suppress our free speech." When a nearby TV news reporter asked her about windows that had been busted along the march, she was incensed. "We will not equate glass with Oscar Grant's life!" she responded. "If we have to come out ourselves and board up windows, we'll do that. But what we are concerned with right now is murder."
Reporters were allowed to exit the confined area, but if anyone else had been inclined to leave peacefully, they were unable to. Police issued a call on a megaphone telling activists, "You are all under arrest. Do not resist arrest." By the time the mass arrest was underway, public information officer Jeff Thomason told a group of reporters that there were more police officers on the scene than protesters.
"When the rocks were being thrown, it was declared an unlawful assembly," Thomason explained. He said a dispersal order had been issued simultaneously. Yet it would have been impossible for the trapped crowd to comply with such an order.
Meanwhile, a resident of the Oakland neighborhood who had come outside when the commotion began told the Guardian that she sympathized with the protesters. "The only thing I don't condone is the vandalism," said Dyshia Harvey, who surveyed the scene from behind a fence with her six-year-old son.
Harvey had been anticipating word of Mehserle's sentencing. "I was upset. I was frustrated, angry, and hurt" by the outcome, she said. But she wasn't surprised. "I already knew we weren't going to get no justice," she said. "For taking a life, 14 years isn't enough. It makes you feel like there's no justice in the justice system."
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley has not stated whether her office will appeal Perry's ruling. Rains told reporters in L.A. that he would appeal Mehserle's involuntary manslaughter conviction.
Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice released a statement indicating that a federal investigation is in the works. "The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California have been closely monitoring the local prosecution of this case," a USDOJ prepared statement notes. "Now that the state prosecution has concluded and consistent with department policy, we will thoroughly review the prosecution and its underlying investigation to determine whether further action is appropriate."
BART settled a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Grant's daughter in January that is likely to total $5.1 million, according to civil rights attorney John Burris' website. Two other lawsuits, one on behalf of Grant's mother and one on behalf of five other men on the Fruitvale station platform that night, have been consolidated into a single trial that will begin in May 2011, Burris told the Guardian.
Meanwhile, Grant's death marked just one of three police shootings that occurred Jan. 1, 2009 — the other two cases also sparked allegations of civil-rights violations, since both victims were African American men. Adolph Grimes, 22, was fatally shot 14 times, including 12 times in the back, by a group of New Orleans police officers, who erroneously believed he was a suspect who'd fled the scene of a shooting.
The same night, Robert Tolan, 23 — the son of a Major League Baseball player — was shot and seriously injured outside his home in an upscale Houston suburb by a police officer who mistakenly believed Tolan had stolen the vehicle he was driving. Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton, the white officer who shot him, was ultimately acquitted.
Not everyone in Oakland reacted to Mehserle's sentence by charging through the streets. The Oscar Grant Foundation, which facilitated live art performances at Frank Ogawa Plaza Nov. 5, is calling for youth groups, Bay Area schools, and adults to participate in an art and poetry showcase inspired by Grant. Information can be found online at IamOscarGrant.org. The foundation is advertising a $1,000 grand prize. Three artists from the Trust Your Struggle Collective didn't wait to join a contest, however, and spent the afternoon of Nov. 5 adorning plywood covering the Youth Radio building windows at 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue, a few blocks from Frank Ogawa Plaza.
The mural displayed a prominent image of Grant holding his daughter, Tatiana, who was four years old when Grant was killed. The pair are flanked by the names and figures of more than 20 people killed by police.
"We asked the youth inside what they wanted to see," Miguel Perez, an artist with the Trust Your Struggle Collective, told the Guardian as he looked over the mural. "They said they wanted to see the names of people killed by police nationwide, not just in the Bay Area. The list is so huge, it's hard to pick out specific names."
Perez said Trust Your Struggle is a group of artists and educators with social-justice backgrounds who create art as activism. "Being a person of color, I've had racist stuff said to me by the police," Perez said. "It seems like it's slowly been changing for the past hundreds of years, but it's still not enough — enough being fairness." *