Tag Archives: racial profiling

Why There Are Riots Tonight in Oakland

I wasn’t surprised that officer Mehserle wasn’t convicted of murder despite all the video footage and witnesses of him shooting an unarmed teenager. I first had my suspicions when Forum reported there wasn’t a single black person on the jury. But then I took heart in thinking that the prosecution would want a whiter jury so it would be harder for the defense to appeal. Besides, the victim, Oscar Grant, was hand-cuffed face down with another police officer’s foot on his neck. So for weeks I held out some hope for a verdict of second-degree murder.

Mehserle claims that he accidentally grabbed his gun when he meant to grab his taser. I asked an ex-cop about this and he doesn’t think such a thing is possible. For one thing, a gun is much heaver than a taser and tasers are designed to have mechanisms that don’t work like firearms to prevent exactly this kind of situation. Moreover, officers’ training drills into their heads over and over the exact location of such things. The location of a cop’s firearm should be second nature.

The defense’s case is based on the very idea that Mehserle was poorly trained. Ironically, the prosecution’s case was based on this too. He probably was, since LEOs receive inadequate training in economies far less strained than California’s. In the last big election there was a measure to give more funding to California’s police force but that didn’t have a hope and a prayer of passing when the budget is taking huge cuts in education and social services. So he probably was under-trained.

When you get down to it though, why the hell should he be reaching for his taser in the first place? It’s not like they were busting an armed robbery. They were responding to a call that a fight had broken out on the BART train. A simple fight, possibly nothing more than kids horsing around—and on New Year’s Eve, the night everyone horses around. If you watch the video it doesn’t appear he’s resisting arrest. So there were lots of reasons to believe that the jury might hand in a murder verdict.

But I gave up hope of that when I heard on the radio that Mehserle cried on the stand.

I don’t think the jury was a pack of outright bigots. Surely they recognized that what happened was a tragedy. But racial identity is a powerful thing. Simply put, they saw Mehserle as one of their own. When they listened to him talk they tried to imagine themselves in his situation. “But it was an accident!” Aw, gee, poor guy, he was scared, the jury thought, I would be too. We can’t put him in prison with those people. Just imagine what they’d do to him! On the contrary, the victim was one of “those people.” They see a boy but they don’t see their own child. They don’t see themselves.

Oscar Grant, 1986-2009

If you don’t believe me, try to imagine it if the situation were reversed. Imagine a black man claiming he “accidentally” shot a white man who was lying on the ground completely defenseless and over-powered. That case would be a joke. It would be a guilty-verdict hands down, case closed. No way it would be a story the media clamor to cover all across the country.

Of course all this is conflated by the fact that Mehserle wasn’t just any white man but a man of the law. One could argue that a black cop who shot a young white man would get just the same sentence. Though I find that very hard to believe, it really doesn’t matter. Because black police officers aren’t shooting white men. Tends to happen the other way.

This sends a very clear message to black folks: the law does not protect you. It is here only to convict you. Protection from crime is for “those people.” They already knew this of course. America doesn’t need another black martyr. Hell, Oakland has enough to last us for the next hundred years, ThankYouVeryMuch.

Maybe that’s why there’s no part of me that cares whether Mehserle deep down and truly meant to reach for that taser. He knows that his behavior was inexcusable and unforgivable. He also knows that his identity as a white police officer is the key to him escaping a life sentence. If he had been a man of honor, he would have settled this case quietly, explaining his side while taking a guilty plea. I’m not saying I would have had the fortitude to do that if I were in his position. But it would have been the right thing to do for Oscar Grant’s family. Sure it would have been a sacrifice, but taser or no taser he took this boy’s life and he shouldn’t have, and he knows it.

So I don’t want to hear a word about how the jury are the only ones who saw all the evidence. Mehserle had a chance to step up and offer himself as America’s white martyr. Because everyone knows we have plenty of slots available.