Racist Murder of Oscar Grant: An Update

Sign CloseupThe BART cop, Johannes Mehserle, who shot and killed an unarmed Oscar Grant in Oakland on New Year’s Day, has been arrested and charged with murder.   This is a rather stunning turn of events given the way that police brutality is usually ignored here in the U.S., as Joe noted in his recent post about the incident in Houston, Texas and the pervasiveness of police brutality encountered by emergency room physicians.  As I said in the original post about this story, and as the voluminous comments attacking Oscar Grant revealed, the current system of policing is premised on institutional racism in which some citizens are treated as ontological suspects, that is, they are presumed to be guilty of some crime based solely on who they are, particularly young black and brown men. Although some may dismiss Oscar Grant’s murder as merely a tragic accident, the fact is that his death has everything to do with his race, and the fact that this made him automatically “suspect” in the eyes of police.

The racist murder of Oscar Grant is less to do with the individual bigotry of Mehserle and everything to do with the systemic racism of policing in the U.S.  The racially discriminatory practices of a different California police department, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), was the subject of an extensive study by Yale University legal scholar, Ian Ayers, in 2008.   Ayers summarized his research this way:

The study, which I wrote with my research assistant, Jonathan Borowsky, asked not simply whether African Americans and Latinos are stopped and searched by the LAPD more often than whites — it’s clear that they are — but the more complex question of whether these racial disparities are justified by legitimate policing practices, such as deciding to police more aggressively in high-crime neighborhoods.

We found persistent and statistically significant racial disparities in policing that raise grave concerns that African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles are, as we put it in the report, “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched and over-arrested.” [emphasis added]   After controlling for violent crime rates and property crime rates in specific neighborhoods, as well as a host of other variables, we found the following:

  • For every 10,000 residents, about 3,400 more black people are stopped than whites, and 360 more Latinos are stopped than whites. Stopped blacks are 127% more likely to be frisked — and stopped Latinos are 43% more likely to be frisked — than stopped whites.
  • Stopped blacks are 76% more likely to be searched, and stopped Latinos are 16% more likely to be searched than stopped whites.
  • Stopped blacks are 29% more likely to be arrested, and stopped Latinos are 32% more likely to be arrested than stopped whites.

Perhaps in addition to “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested,” we could add “over-killed.”   The study, released in fall of 2008, initially drew only silence from the LAPD which refused to respond.   And, when they did finally respond (just in the last several days), the LAPD chose to reject the reports findings, minimize the significance of the report, and deny the implications for reviewing its policing practices, by saying only “we live in an imperfect world” (according to Police Chief William J. Bratton).

This notion of an “imperfect world” suggests that the routine brtuality visited upon black and brown people by cops is some sort of unfortunate law of nature that it is impossible to reverse.    Nothing could be further from the truth.  This is a human-created system of inequality and it is well within the realm of the possible that human beings could dismantle this brutal, racially discriminatory regime of policing.   What we lack is the collective will to make it happen.    And, until we summon that will, many more Oscar Grants will be over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, over-arrested, and “over-killed.”

It’s my hope that the street protests in Oakland (Creative Commons License photo credit: NeitherFanboy ) will be part of a broader and more sustained effort to address the racial profiling and police brutality that are endemic in the contemporary U.S.