Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Outrage in Oakland

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cops were on edge the night of New Year’s Eve, 2008, into New Year’s Day 2009. There had already been two major incidents involving guns—one incident at the West Oakland Station and a second at the Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. So when BART officers responded to the Fruitvale Station at 2 a.m. following a report of two groups of riders were fighting on a train that had taken off from the West Oakland Station headed toward Dublin/Pleasanton, transit officers boarded the train at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland. They investigated and detained several people, including 22-year old Oscar Grant, a supermarket butcher from Hayward and baby daddy of a 4-year old daughter.

Grant was no Boy Scout. He had been sentenced to 16 months in state prison back in 2007 after running from a traffic stop while in possession of a loaded pistol. He tossed the weapon into the air and hid in a gas station near his home; San Leandro police shot him with a Taser during the arrest process. He’d also been convicted of drug dealing and had been released from prison on September 23, 2008.

But people do not wear their arrest or felony records and there was no way the BART officers could have known his history.

A brief aside about the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland. In the late 1990s, a $100 million mixed-use development project was planned and built adjacent to this station. The Fruitvale region of Oakland is, frankly, the ‘hood. The development project consisted of housing, shops, offices, a library, a childcare facility, a pedestrian plaza and other community services. Sounds nice, doesn’t it. It didn’t work. It is still the ‘hood.

If it is at all possible, always avoid the Fruitvale Area of Oakland, California.

After a brief scuffle, police had the unarmed Grant restrained, on his belly, hands behind his back. Witnesses claim Grant asked the officers not to tase him. Grant briefly struggled while on the ground, and an officer restrained him with his knee. A second officer, Johannes Mehserle, appears to be trying to handcuff Grant.

What happens next is clear on video but not clear on reasoning. Officer Mehserle draws a duty weapon and shoots Grant in the low back, the bullet ricocheting off of the concrete and hitting him in the chest. Grant died a few hours later at Highland Hospital, a place that gets more than its fair share of gunshot wounds. (Oakland had 124 homicides and nearly 7,900 violent crimes reported in 2008; in 2007 it was ranked as the 5th most deadly U.S. city.)

In one of the better-quality videos of the incident, Mehserle, a 27-year old two-year veteran BART officer, looks somewhat stunned when the gun went off. Did he think he was grabbing a Taser? We have no way of knowing; Mehserle has not spoken to BART internal affairs or other authorities on the advice of his attorney, Christopher Miller.

On January 7, the day he was to face an internal investigation, Mehserle resigned from BART and took his family to Lake Tahoe to avoid the media pressure and death threats. His first child was born on January 2.

BART does issue Tasers to its officers, but does not have enough of the devices to give to each officer. It is not known if Mehserle was wearing a Taser that morning. Many police agencies order officers to wear the device opposite their dominant hand, forcing the officer to reach over his body to retrieve the weapon. A Taser has a safety device that must be unarmed, along with a trigger and a laser sighting—just like a duty handgun.

Attorney John Burris is already on the case, and has filed a $25 million claim against BART on behalf of Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson, and his daughter, Tatiana. Burris worked on the Rodney King civil case and has litigated several damage awards from local Bay Area police departments.

Thus far I have failed to mention what civil rights advocates are screaming most loudly about: Oscar Grant was black, Johannes Mehserle is white. So what is about to come makes “perfect” sense.

Grant was buried on January 6.

On January 7, a “peaceful” protest which began at the Fruitvale Station soon turned into a full-fledged riot, resulting in numerous burned, overturned or otherwise vandalized cars, 300 downtown businesses suffering broken windows and ultimately the arrest of 105 protesters (70 of those were booked and released). The next day Grant’s mother appeared for the first time at a news conference, asking for a stop to the violence. “I know it's a frustrating time, but Oscar would not want to see all the violence.”

Of course the riots were justified in the minds of the protestors because of the “white versus black” angle of the crime. Nevermind that many of the businesses vandalized in the riot belonged to enterprising African Americans.

Officer Mehserle was arrested on January 13 in Nevada, and returned to Alameda County the next day. He pled not guilty to a murder charge on January 15, waiving his right to a quick preliminary hearing. There will be a bail hearing on January 26 in Oakland.

Because Mehserle has refused to speak to anyone about the incident, the charge at this time is murder I. If and when he speaks to the authorities regarding his state of mind during the incident, charges could be dropped to murder II or manslaughter. Did he accidentally draw the Taser? Did he think he was removing handcuffs from his service belt? Was he going for a gun?

"When you basically have a situation of an unlawful, intentional killing of one individual by another, and that's all you know—and that's really all we know in this case—then that's a murder," said Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff.

A repeat of the January 7 riot occurred on a smaller scale on January 14 following what was a peaceful protest outside of Oakland’s City Hall. A small group of protesters broke away from the main group, and yet again innocent local businesses and cars parked along the street were vandalized.

On Thursday, January 15, 41-year old Ken Carrethers went to the local media and claimed that Officer Mehserle used excessive force on him on November 15, after what Carrethers describes as a derogatory remark about transit police, but what Mehserle reported as Carrethers using profanities and directing threats toward the officers.

Also on January 15 and again on January 17, Napa police responded to a report of a suspicious package at the home of Mehserle’s parents.

In an LA Times editorial, Joe R. Hicks correctly observes:

But the emotional reactions to Grant's death raise a related issue. Why have activists in Oakland, or in other urban communities plagued by criminality and gang warfare, consistently turned a blind eye to the "black on black" killings that have occurred all around them for decades?

A recent study by James A. Fox and Marc L. Swatt of Northeastern University in Boston found that "from 2002 to 2007, the number of homicides involving black male juveniles as victims rose by 31% and as perpetrators by 43%."

The typical response whenever a white police officer shoots or mistreats a black person—regardless of the circumstances—is for activists to hit the "go" button and organize protests against "racist cops." However, when a black thug pumps several slugs into another black person, it's just assumed to be the high cost of living in the 'hood.
There is so much we do not yet know about this crime. No doubt there will be a request for a change of venue (hello Southern California!). But Joe Hicks is correct: Oakland, where is your outrage at black-on-black violence? Your young men are killing each other! When will you go to bat for them? There will be justice for Oscar Grant, but what about the 16-year-old victim of a drive-by? Why is his (or her) life less precious than Grant’s?

Video 1

Video 2

A well-done summary article
Was shooting a fatal error?

Behind murder charge against ex-BART officer

BART calls meeting on killing, gets flak

BART appeals for calm as footage shows shooting

BART shooting victim's family decries violence

Man accuses Mehserle of excessive force

What Oakland should be protesting

BART shooting victim's family files claim

Fruitvale Transit Village Project


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on joining the team! Wonderful post and I look forward now to your posts along with the others!! :-)