On New Year’s Eve 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black male, was shot in Oakland, Calif., by white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle. Several people witnessed the shooting and it was caught on tape. The police claimed that Grant was resisting arrest and posed a danger to law enforcement. As the video shows, however, Grant was unarmed, lying on the ground, and restrained by another police officer when he was shot — posing very little danger to anyone.
The shooting sparked major public outcry within Oakland and the wider San Francisco Bay Area. Some of the protests turned violent and prompted a trial on Mehserle’s killing of Grant. The trial was eventually moved from Oakland to Los Angeles because of extensive public scrutiny. Mehserle faced three charges: second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Mehserle’s primary defense was that he meant to pull out his taser, but accidentally pulled out his gun. The prosecution had to prove that Mehserle intentionally killed Grant, which is typically difficult to prove, especially when the defendant is a police officer.
Grant’s death is part of a larger problem facing the country: Minorities are disproportionately victimized by the police, who are rarely held accountable. Even if officers are held accountable, they typically get a slap on the wrist. Mehserle's 11-month sentence in state prison is mild for such an egregious crime, especially when nonviolent drug offenders typically serve longer sentences.
On July 8, 2010, the Los Angeles County jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the lowest of the three charges, carrying a sentence of two to five years. The jury added a sentencing enhancement in their verdict because Mehserle used a gun. However, jurors were instructed to add this enhancement only if they believed the gun was used intentionally. This made the ruling awkward because the jury both accepted and rejected the defense’s claim that Mehserle killed Grant accidentally.
On November 5, 2010, Judge Robert Perry sentenced Mehserle to the minimum term of two years in prison; he also dropped the additional gun charge. On June 13, 2011, after serving 11 months in state prison, Mehserle was released. To put this in perspective, Michael Vick served a longer sentence for killing dogs than Mehserle served for killing an unarmed black man.
Unfortunately, there are several cases of police officers' killing unarmed minorities throughout the country. Three days after Mehserle’s sentencing, Oakland police killed a 37-year-old black man named Derrick Jones. The police claimed they thought Jones was reaching for a gun, but he was actually unarmed. The New York City police used the same excuse when they fired over 50 bullets into Sean Bell’s body at his bachelor party in 2006. Police brutality against people of color has been well-documented by groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Color Lines magazine.
The reason this problem exists is because of systemic racism. Racism is not a psychological problem; racism is a problem of who has power and who does not. This system is maintained through societal conditioning that dehumanizes the oppressed and justifies their harsh social treatment. This conditioning is so deeply ingrained that people subconsciously believe and act on it without thinking.
The overriding assumption is that minorities are inherently dangerous, and must be treated with suspicion. As a black male, Grant was automatically assumed to be dangerous, even when he was lying on the ground. Acting on that, Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot him. The court, believing this assumption, sided with Mehserle and granted him a light sentence. In the end, systemic racism perpetuated itself.
In order to alleviate this problem, institutional reforms must be implemented. Locally, BART police officers should be disarmed, as they did not always carry firearms. With the shooting of Grant and another man in San Francisco, BART police have proven themselves to be incompetent in handling weapons.
On a national scale, oversight mechanisms should be implemented to prevent police officers from committing acts of brutality. Acts of police brutality need to be prosecuted and fair sentences adjudicated. More importantly, the public needs to organize on this issue. Organizing tactics, such as protests, boycotts, and education are crucial for creating institutional reform that makes police brutality a thing of the past. Without an engaged citizenry, power cannot be checked.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons