14 January 2009

The Color of Murder

This is Oscar Grant. 22 years old. Supermarket employee. Father of a four year old daughter. Just a guy out having a good time with friends on New Year's eve in San Francisco. Until he got in a fight, got detained by the police, and shot while in custody. The bullet penetrated his back, exited his body, ricocheted off the floor, re-entered his body and punctured his lung. Oscar Grant died on New Year's day.

This is Johannes Mehserle. Oscar Grant's killer. 27 years old. A BART police officer.

People get shot and killed by police officers in the line of duty every day. Why do I make any sort of notice of this killing? At the time of the shooting, Oscar Grant was unarmed, surrounded by no less than 5 police officers, lying prostrate on the ground, and may have been handcuffed. He had been leaning against a wall where he was detained on suspicion of fighting on a train. At some point, he is ordered to his knees, forced to the ground, and physically subdued by two officers. One officer has a knee to Oscar's neck while the other one wrestles with his hands, presumably to handcuff him. After handcuffing Grant, in one of the most inexplicable actions of all time, the officer stood up and fired a single bullet into Grant's prostrate body killing him.

That officer was Johannes Mehserle. He was arrested on suspicion of murder.

Still, why is this incident of note? The entire thing was caught on video, and witnessed by literally hundreds of people on the train. I haven't provided links to these videos because both are incredibly disturbing. If you wish to see them, simply google Oscar Grant shooting. I watched them both.

The thing that disturbs me most is that not one police officer moved to disarm Mehserle after the shooting. Despite his having just shot a man unprovoked. No one turned to Mehserle and said WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO THAT FOR? The whole incident is a textbook lesson in incompetence. It is one of the worst cases of police brutality imaginable. It goes beyond professional misconduct.

Perhaps more disturbing from a social perspective is that despite having two independent videos of the shooting, Mehserle was not charged immediately. He refused to cooperate with officials investigating the shooting. He resigned his post on the police force. Despite this, he remained a free man. He was free to leave the state of California. He did leave the state of California. When he was finally charged, Mehserle was in Nevada.

Let's review. An unarmed, handcuffed man is shot in the back and killed by a police officer while a second officer has his knee to the man's neck. Despite the officer not cooperating with investigators working on the case, despite the eyewitness testimony of hundreds of witnesses, despite being presented with two independent sources of video of the incident, police did not charge the shooter with any crime FOR 10 DAYS. He was not arrested, detained, warned to stay in town. He was a free man.

What. the. hell?

I'm still trying to wrap my head around Mehserle's thinking that day. Was Oscar Grant cursing at him? Was Oscar Grant wriggling a little too much for his tastes? I imagine that Oscar Grant was shouting and moving, and trying to get the officers who were hurting him to stop. He was likely doing the exact same thing I would do in that situation. Exactly what you would do in that situation. Aren't police officers selected due to their ability to remain calm in times of stress? Aren't they trained to think clearly in high-pressure situations? What did Oscar Grant do to provoke his shooting?

Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Oscar Grant was not culpable in his own death.

I can only surmise one of several options. 1) Mehserle shot Grant because he was irritated at his behavior. 2) Mehserle shot Grant because his is grossly incompetent. Perhaps he thought he had a stun gun in his hand. (Which he also would have been incompetent to use while an officer had a knee on the suspect's neck.) 3) Mehserle shot Grant because he is mentally unstable. 4) Mehserlve shot Grant because he thought he continued to pose a serious threat of bodily injury to officers and the public. While lying handcuffed on his belly on the ground with someone's knee on his neck. Yeah. Right.

None of it make sense.

There is a fifth option. 5) Mehserle and other police officers in San Francisco have wanton disregard for the value of black lives.

On one of the videos, an obviously black, female voice yells following the shooting..."I got you mother fuckers."

Indeed you do, hon. But I have to wonder if Oscar Grant would be getting any justice at all if the videos hadn't gone viral on the internet.

In six days we inaugurate a new President. Let us please herald a new approach to American justice. For God's sake, this has to end.

UPDATE here from the NY Times.
Mr. Mehserle is charged in the death of Oscar Grant III, who was shot at close range on Jan. 1 while lying face down on a train platform. Mr. Grant, a butcher’s apprentice, was among several people who had been removed from the train by officers investigating a fight. Passengers captured cellphone videos of the shooting, which have been viewed thousands of times on Internet and news sites.

District Attorney Tom Orloff of Alameda County said Mr. Mehserle, 27, had refused to speak to Oakland police or transit police investigators and was charged with murder “because at this point I feel the evidence indicates an unlawful killing done by an intentional act.”
It's about time.

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