Racism & The Murder of Oscar Grant III

Like many of the readers here (h/t: Victor, Ilish), I’ve been following the news of the shooting death of Oscar Grant, III (photo from Facebook) in Oakland, California by a transit cop.

At the time of the shooting, Grant was unarmed, on the ground, his hands were hand-cuffed behind him.  Grant was employed as a butcher at Farmer Joe’s Marketplace in Oakland, had a young daughter, Tatiana, age 4.   Several people at the BART train station recorded the incident on their mobile phones, and witnesses reported that Grant begged officers not to shoot him, telling them he had a young daughter.

The BART cop who shot him, Johannes Mehserle, has since resigned his position, thus avoiding internal affairs investigators. And, lawyers have filed a $25 million lawsuit against the transit authority on behalf of Grant’s family.

As Grant was laid to rest today, protestors gathered at the Fruitvale BART station where he was killed to demand justice (update: the protest prompts The New York Times to take notice).

While officials at BART are suggesting that the shooting was an “accident” in which Mehserle mistook his gun for his taser, the videos taken at the scene suggest otherwise.  The BART cops move Grant from a seated (and hand-cuffed) position, place him on the ground face down, and then Mehserle reaches for his gun and shoots Grant in the back. It is not hyperbole to call this an execution. Clearly, this is an example of excessive force, and it is a nothing less than a racist murder.  And, racists are lining up to defend Mehserle’s actions.  For example, Michael Crook joined the Facebook group “Justice for Oscar Grant,” then started a discussion thread called “Quit Whining,” in which he writes:

“This was a justified shooting, and even if the officer was in error, another ape is off the streets. … This is just another family of black monkeys wanting a payday.”

I suppose the good news is that the other members of that Facebook group called out Crook for his racism.   At this point, no one knows  whether or not Mehserle held these kinds of overtly racist views.  And, to some extent it’s beside the point.    Whatever Mehserle’s individual level of racism, Grant is still dead because of racism.  The racist idea expressed by Crook that some lives are less valuable than others is one that pervades our institutions, particularly criminal justice institutions, and operates without individual racists. Institutional racism assures that some people, particuarly young black men, are continually viewed as suspects and are perpetually vulnerable to assault by police.

As I mentioned, there are multiple videos of this shooting taken by concerned passers-by.  This may persuade some that there is incontrovertible evidence of this outrageous, criminal act.  But, the institutionalized racism that creates black men as ontological suspects has already started denying the reality of this mobile phone video evidence.   In one report, there’s mention that Grant possibly had a criminal record; in another, a BART spokesman calls the video evidence is “inconclusive”; and, reports are painting Mehserle as sympathetic for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he is getting death threats.    For observers of racial politics in the U.S., this should all sound eerily similar to the kinds of strategies used in the trial of the LAPD cops accused of beating Rodney King.   As you may recall, even though there was clear, stomach-turning video of those officers brutally beating and tasering the unarmed King, defense lawyers for the cops successfully portrayed King as a “monster” and a “thug” and cast the officers as “victims” who felt threatened by him.   All the officers were acquitted of beating King, and if past is prologue, I expect Mehserle to walk without criminal prosecution.

The sort of citizen journalism and activism of cop-watch style actions are promising for addressing brutal acts such as the racist murder of Oscar Grant. Yet, the lessons of racism in the recent past are that these are important, but not sufficient in and of themselves to bring about justice.  For that, we must work much harder.  Take action.