When BART cop Johanes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant as he lay face down, handcuffed on a train platform he committed involuntary manslaughter, not murder. Or, so said a Los Angeles jury yesterday. With an involuntary manslaughter charge, Mehserle will face at least two years in prison and a maximum of six years, rather than the life sentence he would have faced if he’d been convicted of murder.
(Image from here.)
As the verdict came in last night, here in New York I watched as one of the cruelest ironies played out in the press. While much of the blogosphere and almost all of my Twitter stream was filled with news of the verdict, the mainstream news media devoted its considerable attention to the faux-news money-making event of where a certain basketball player would decide to shoot hoops. The juxtaposition of these two black men – one shot dead by a white cop and the verdict in the trial of his killer largely ignored, the other bid on by some of the wealthiest white men in the country to entertain them — is striking. The spectacle of the press fawning over LeBron James while Oscar Grant lies murdered, dead and buried is says a lot about the way America wants to see black men: entertain us or your life has no value.
There was no justice in this case, but no one who is even a casual observer of racial politics in this country can feign any surprise over the verdict. White cops shooting black men, even when they kill them, do not get convicted of murder in the U.S. The thing is, the shooting of Oscar Grant is not an anomaly. It doesn’t happen every day, but it happens with enough regularity that – as a sociologist – it’s impossible not to see a pattern here, and the pattern falls unmistakably along lines of race, class and gender. White cops shoot black or brown people, usually poor, usually men, and for the most part, get away with it. As Adam Serwer points out, what’s remarkable in this case is that Mehserle ever stood trial at all. The good folks at Colorlines did some excellent investigative journalism which highlights the systematic pattern at work in white-police-involved-shootings:
New York City consistently has the highest number of shooting deaths by police in the country, an average of 12 every year. The city also has substantially disproportionate killing of Black people, who make up 26 percent of the population but represented 66 percent of those killed by police.
Perhaps the most striking data of the period concerns the fates of active officers, on or off duty, found to have fatally shot civilians. Including all shootings–even cases where victims were unarmed–only one officer was convicted of wrongdoing. In 2005, Judge Robert H. Straus found Officer Bryan Conroy guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the 2003 death of Ousmane Zongo, a West African immigrant and art restorer who rented a storage room at a Chelsea warehouse where the NYPD was conducting a raid targeting a counterfeit CD and DVD operation. A jury trial had previously deadlocked when considering the case.
In many ways, the murder of Oscar Grant illustrates an extension of the new Jim Crow in which black men who are not fabulously wealth basketball stars are regarded as dangerous, even when they are laying face down with their hands cuffed behind them. Just as important in the new Jim Crow is the notion of the white cop as hero-victim. Mehserle will, like other white-cop-shooters before him, get lots of press attention focusing on how difficult it is to be a cop (hero) and how “afraid” (victim) he was in his job (generally) and of Grant (specifically).
The caste system perpetuated by the new Jim Crow is sustained by the white racial frame. In other words, the shooting of Oscar Grant and the near-acquittal of Mehserle is going to be legitimated and justified by a majority of whites who will talk about the ways that Grant deserved to be killed, or was a menace and the ways that Mehserle was honorable and just doing his job. For evidence of this you can check the comments at Serwer’s piece here, or pretty much any other blog or news site that’s writing about this verdict. And, as if to drive this point home, last night as the verdict came in and even before we’d posted anything about the verdict, we started getting racist hate mail through the blog saying all that and more.