The Oscar Grant Verdict: Trouble In O-Town

Joe Eskenazi at San Francisco Weekly:

Ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle has been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of unarmed BART passenger Oscar Grant.

The jury could have convicted Mehserle of either second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter — both charges that would have required the jury to believe that Mehserle intended to kill grant. That was evidently too much for the jury, which declared its belief that the former policeman didn’t intend to kill the man he shot via its involuntary manslaughter conviction. This carries a sentence of two to four years; a potential gun enhancement could bump that to five-to-14 years .

Heather MacDonald at Secular Right before the verdict was read:

It is true that death at the hands of a representative of the state–in this case, the BART police officer–has an entirely different meaning than death at the hands of a common criminal and produces a far greater sense of injustice.  That sense of injustice is compounded for blacks by the shameful history, now largely corrected, of police abuse.   Still, this one tragically-mistaken killing—BART officer Johannes Mehserle entered a scene of chaos at Oakland’s Fruitvale station on a night in which several guns had already been found along the subway line and thought, according to his testimony, that he was firing his Taser to subdue a resisting, possibly gun-wielding Oscar Grant—stands out from the tidal wave of cold-blooded murders in Oakland by the fact that Mehserle did not intend to murder an unarmed civilian.  Like many urban areas, Oakland has been seeing a retaliatory shooting pattern around vigils for shooting victims.  On June 21, for example, a 17-year-old was shot at an Oakland bus stop; just after midnight the next day, two gunmen sauntered up to a vigil for the bus stop victim and killed a 19-year-old girl and seriously wounded five other teenagers who were attending the vigil.  None of these and the hundred or so other murders a year in Oakland provoke the spectre of riots if their perpetrators are not convicted; indeed, it is often hard to find anyone to cooperate with the authorities in bringing the killers to justice.   The thousands of black-on-black killings a year nationally are treated as a matter of course; so, too, are killings of police officers.

Let’s hope that Oakland residents heed the many calls from community leaders to accept the jury’s verdict peacefully and defeat the sad, but not irrational, expectations of Bay Area law enforcement.

J. Peter Nixon at Commonweal:

I work in downtown Oakland, where many businesses were concerned that the announcement of the verdict would bring a repeat of the civil violence that accompanied the original shooting.  Shortly before the verdict was to be announced, we were asked to evacuate our office building.  I will confess I felt a great deal of ambivalence about this, but as a manager I felt responsible for the safety of our employees.  So I encouraged people to leave.

As I walked to the BART train entrance, the sidewalks were filled with office workers essentially fleeing the city.  I began to feel a sense of shame about this.  It was “white flight” on a concentrated and graphic scale.  I got in line to pass through the BART gates and even had my card out when I just stopped and got out of line.  “I can’t do this,” I thought.

I am probably the least spontaneous person you will ever meet.  The white board in my office has a “do list” ranging across three columns.  I don’t take a vacation without a carefully planned daily itinerary.  And yet there I was, making a last minute decision to remain in downtown Oakland at a time when many (white) commentators were convinced the place was about to explode in civil unrest.

I wish I could tell you it was an act of heroic virtue.  The truth is that I was seized by something outside myself, an irresistible prompting of the Holy Spirit.  I just couldn’t muster the energy to fight against it and keep my legs moving toward that gate.  So I climbed the staircase out of the rail station and walked back down the street against the human tide.  I called my wife to tell her of my decision. She, of course, understood perfectly.

My first destination was the Cathedral, which stands next to my office building.  My hope was that others would be naturally drawn there as a place to keep prayerful vigil while awaiting the verdict.  I’m sorry to say I was disappointed.  It was deserted except for the security guards.  I prayed for a just verdict, not even sure in my own heart what a just verdict would be in this case.  I prayed for a peaceful response, whatever the outcome.  In the Cathedral, an enormous image of Christ in judgment is depicted on the window behind the altar.  I contemplated the image, and prayed that whatever the imperfections of human justice, the city would be able to trust in the ultimate judgment of Christ.

Shortly after 4pm I flipped on my Blackberry and got the news: the verdict was involuntary manslaughter.  It was the least serious offense available to the jury, although it still represents—to my knowledge—the only case to date where a police officer has been found criminally liable in a case of this nature.

I wondered whether I should go downtown and join the demonstrators, who I knew would be deeply angry about the verdict.  The truth was that my own heart was conflicted about the justice of the verdict.  But I felt strongly that the place of a Christian that night was to be present in the midst of the city, not absent from it.  In the Psalms of the Office we pray “the Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”  Did I believe these words or not?

San Francisco Chronicle:

There was outrage, there was looting and there were skirmishes between police and protesters, but that wasn’t the whole story of how Oakland reacted to the Johannes Mehserle verdict.

The trouble Thursday boiled down to a racially diverse mob of about 200 people, many bent on destruction no matter what, confronting police after the day’s predominantly peaceful demonstrations ended.

Sporadic conflicts were quelled quickly early in the evening, but by late night at least 50 people – and maybe as many as 100 – had been arrested as small groups smashed windows, looted businesses and set trash bins on fire.

The violence was contained for much of the early evening within a one-block area near City Hall by an army of police officers in riot gear, but around 10 p.m. a knot of rioters broke loose and headed north on Broadway toward 22nd Street with police in pursuit.

They smashed windows of shops including the trendy Ozumo restaurant, and one building was spray painted with the words, “Say no to work. Say yes to looting.”

A boutique called Spoiled was spared. It had a sign outside and pictures of Oscar Grant with the words, “Do not destroy. Black owned. Black owned.”

On  the verdict, Kevin Drum:

I hardly even know what to say about this. I wasn’t in court and I wasn’t on the jury, so I didn’t hear all the evidence. But for chrissake. Look at the video. Mehserle didn’t look confused and modern tasers don’t feel much like service revolvers. And it’s not as if he was acting under extreme duress. At most there was a brief and perfunctory struggle, after which Mehserle calmly raised himself up while Grant was pinned to the ground, drew his revolver, and shot him. The only thing that even remotely makes Mehserle’s story believable is that doing what he did is just flat out insane. It doesn’t make sense even if he were a stone racist and half crazy as well.

The jury can say what it wants, but it still looks to me like Mehserle decided on the spur of the moment to shoot Grant. I don’t know why, and no explanation really makes sense. But he’s a white cop and the jury apparently concluded that Grant was just black riffraff. The whole thing is just appalling.

Mark Kleiman:

Kevin Drum is upset by the verdict, which he regards as a finding of “semi-guilty.” He joins the victim’s family, the National Lawyers Guild, and a host of the usual suspects in thinking that the officer should have been convicted of second-degree murder instead. As usual, there will be an attempt to organize riots in protest, because of course burning down the stores of black shopkeepers is an excellent way to attack the white power structure.

I haven’t followed the case closely, but when I heard the story my first reaction was “involuntary manslaughter,” which is what the jury decided on. To bring in second-degree murder, the jury would have had to be sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that an ill-trained very junior cop, operating at 2am on New Year’s, didn’t make the unforgiveable error of drawing his handgun thinking it was his taser. They would have had to be sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that instead he decided at random to murder someone he’d never met before, in front of a big crowd of people and several other police officers.

It’s good to see the people who otherwise condemn the pointlessness of harsh retributive justice making an exception in this case. Perhaps retribution is actually a legitimate function of punishment after all? And of course the silence from the usual denouncers of the criminal-coddling criminal justice system, now that the criminal being coddled is a white cop who killed a black parolee, is deafening.

UPDATE: Via Patrick Appel at Sully’s place, Radley Balko at Reason

Adam Serwer at The American Prospect

Julianne Hing at Colorlines

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One response to “The Oscar Grant Verdict: Trouble In O-Town

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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