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Oscar Grant, a Victim of American Fear

Why even decades after the civil-rights era, a cop shooting an unarmed black man is barely a crime.
 
 
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Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who killed Oscar Grant while he was lying face down and handcuffed in an Oakland train station, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter -- his crime, according to the jury, was negligence in not knowing the difference between his heavy black gun and his light yellow Taser. Of the possible outcomes Mehserle was facing, involuntary manslaughter was the best he could have hoped for short of acquittal. He faces a maximum sentence of four years for the original crime, possibly more for the use of a firearm.

I want to focus for a moment on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. To convict on the higher charge of voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution would have had to prove that Mehserle's fear of Grant and his friends was "unreasonable." It decided the crime was involuntary. In other words, Mehserle's fear? That was reasonable.

Fear is at the core of questions of justice involving the deaths of black people at the hands of the authorities in the United States of America, dating back to when Toussaint L'Overture put the fear of G-d in slaveowners by revealing that their "property" might someday rise up against them. L'Overture still has that effect on some people. Following emancipation were the days when "justice" was meted out in the South by terrorists posing as vigilantes. Even then, when such atrocities were an accepted part of black life, people inside and outside the South found ways to sympathize with the anger and fear white Southerners felt toward their black neighbors -- The New York Times editorialized in the 1890s that no "reputable or respectable negro" had ever been lynched.

Even decades after the civil-rights era, a cop shooting an unarmed black man is barely a crime -- a 2007 ColorLines investigation of police shootings in New York City found that in 12 instances when the victim was unarmed, only one officer was found criminally liable. There hasn't been a murder conviction on a police shooting in Oakland since 1983.  As Kai Wright wrote in the aftermath of the Sean Bell verdict, "American law has been sanctioning the killing of black people to mollify white fear for centuries. ... We scare the shit out of America. And that fear excuses just about any reaction it spawns." Mehserle is profoundly unlucky to be punished at all.

Times change, but the radioactive fear of black people, black men in particular, has proved to have a longer half-life than any science could have discerned. This is not a fear white people possess of black people -- it is a fear all Americans possess. It makes white cops kill black cops, it makes black cops kill black men, and it whispers in the ears of white and nonwhite jurors alike that fear of an unarmed black man lying face down in the ground is not "unreasonable." All of which is to say, while it infects all of us, a few of us bear the brunt of the suffering it causes.

This aged fear is not the only thing preventing justice for Oscar Grant. We live in a time when Americans are also possessed by a fear of terrorism. In the thrall of that fear we've done more than just cede civil liberties; we've come to accept extraordinary government power over life and death in the name of Keeping Us Safe. Instead of believing that people who hold the power of life and death in their hands should be held to the highest standards of conduct, we remember our fear and just feel thankful for their presence. Instead of believing that great power comes with responsibility, we shrug at the collateral damage, because at least it isn't us.

 
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