Outrage in Oakland After Cop Kills Unarmed Man: Piecing Together the Story


Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed African-American man on New Year's Day, has been arrested on homicide charges.

The arrest came as somewhat of a surprise; on Monday BART officials completed their probe into the incident but refused to recommend whether Mehserle should be charged with a crime. Although Alameda County had launched a separate investigation, few expected an arrest so soon. Distict Attorney Tom Orloff stated Thursday that he would decide if Mehserle should be charged within two weeks.

At a news conference today, Orloff said Mehserle was being charged with murder because the evidence shows "an unlawful killing done by intentional act."

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story, Grant’s family’s lawyer said late Tuesday night “ ...  the family is delighted, and it will really help with the healing process ... This is also very important for the community. This had to occur; it was almost a no-brainer.”


On Jan. 1, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old African American man, was shot and killed by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer.

Videos of the shooting, which show Grant pinned facedown on the ground shortly before being shot in the back, catapulted the story to national attention and sparked community outrage that boiled over into violent protests last Wednesday night.

Nevertheless, authorities dawdled in investigating the crime -- Johannes Mehserle, the officer who killed Grant, was only detained yesterday.

What Happened Jan. 1

BART police officers, who had received reports of fighting aboard a BART train headed for the East Bay, detained a group of men, including Grant, at the Fruitvale BART Station. George Ciccariello-Maher, writing in the San Francisco Bay View, describes what happened next:

Several of the men, all young and mostly black, were lined up, seated, along the platform. Some were cuffed, Oscar Grant was not. As he was attempting to defuse the situation, BART police decided to detain him, placing him facedown on the platform, with one officer kneeling near his neck and another straddling his legs.

For some still unexplained reason, one officer, now identified as Johannes Mehserle stood up, pulled his gun and fired a shot directly into Oscar Grant's back.

The bullet went through Grant's back, ricocheting off the platform and puncturing his lung. There are gasps from the bystanders and shock on the faces of the other officers, who clearly didn't expect the shot to be fired. Grant, who was begging not to be Tasered at the time of the shot, clearly didn't expect it either.

But this surprise notwithstanding, the decision was then made to cuff the young man as he lay dying.

A friend of Grant’s, interviewed by KTVU, says Grant had tried to calm the situation and begged officers not to hurt him:

"Oscar yelled, 'You shot me! I got a 4-year-old daughter,' " said Fernando Anicete. "Oscar was telling us to calm down, and we did. We weren't looking for any trouble."

Kristina Vargas, an eyewitness who recorded the incident with her camera phone, relates her impressions of the shooting in a video interview:

When the gunshot went off, I turned to the boy, and saw the smoke from the gun, so I know it was the boy that was shot. The police were standing over him at that point. And I look at the officer … and his eyes are like -- he’s in shock for what he just did.

And you see another officer nudge him on the shoulder and ask, 'Why did you do that? What happened?' And the officer who shot the boy was like, 'I don’t know,' just looking at him like he couldn’t believe what he had done.

Wow. I was in shock … I cannot believe that in a couple of seconds you just draw your gun out and shoot somebody who’s just lying on the floor with his hands behind his back.

Following the shooting, BART police tried to confiscate all the videos taken by witnesses. They failed. Three clips videos made it onto YouTube, where they were viewed hundreds of thousands of times and eventually picked up and played on the news, bringing the story to national attention.

As Valleywag notes, without those videos, the story would have quickly faded from public attention -- "Another death by cop in America's inner cities, rendered in bloodless black-and-white text, would go unremarked by readers. But the video, which shows Mehserle, seemingly unprompted, reaching for his gun and shooting Grant, is chilling."

Rumors have circulated that Mehserle mistook his gun for a Taser and shot Grant by accident. But experts claim the scenario is unlikely.

The Associated Press reports:

George Kirkham, a professor of criminology at the Florida State University who also viewed the footage, said he finds that hard to believe because most Taser stun guns do not look or feel like pistols, and the officer fired in a manner consistent with a handgun, not a Taser.

"It's not believable that any officer can mix up a Taser and a firearm," said Kirkham, who has examined almost 500 police shootings over the past 30 years. "It's like looking for your steering wheel on the right side of your car rather than the left side."

Despite ample evidence of wrongdoing, officials did not press criminal charges against Mehserle, who resigned from the BART police and refused to be questioned by BART officials. 

The glacial pace of the investigation has infuriated many in the community. Last Wednesday, a peaceful protest starting at the Fruitvale station where Grant was shot, boiled over into vandalism and destruction as some protesters set trash cans and cars on fire and smashed store windows. More than 100 people were arrested.

At CounterPunch, Kara N. Tina describes the protest:

As the march reached the Lake Merritt BART Station and headquarters of BART police downtown, clashes immediately broke out, leaving one police cruiser destroyed alongside a burning dumpster. Marchers dispersed down side streets to the sounds of police weapons discharging and the sting of tear gas in the air. … Hundreds of businesses and cars were damaged or destroyed, and dumpsters were left burning. The next day, a BART board of directors meeting was filled beyond capacity and overwhelmed with community members expressing indignant rage, clearly feeling validated and empowered to speak up by the previous night's rebellion.

But some residents were angered that protesters targeted local businesses and landmarks. Officials claim that more than 300 businesses were vandalized.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that at one point the protesters:

... smashed a hair salon, a pharmacy and several restaurants. Police in riot gear tried to control the crowd, but some people retreated along 14th Street and bashed cars along the way. The mob smashed the windows at Creative African Braids on 14th Street, and a woman walked out of the shop holding a baby in her arms.

"This is our business," shouted Leemu Topka, the black owner of the salon she started four years ago. "This is our shop. This is what you call a protest?"

Some witnesses claim that the protests became violent at the behest of outsiders -- mostly white anarchists who do not live in Oakland. In indybay.org, an anonymous poster writes:

When the masked young people (who, in their great majority, were white kids) started burning the first garbage dumpster near Laney College, about half the black folks in the crowd said, "Aw fuck this! I'm outta here! I ain't getting caught up in the middle of that, those cops'll be shooting soon!" and left.

Then later, at 14th and Broadway, many black youths joined in the demonstration. They were chanting slogans like, "We're all Oscar Grant!" These black youth were very militant, they were facing down the riot cops and defiantly raising their fists in anger and solidarity.

Meanwhile, behind them on 14th Street, east of Broadway, masked white punks proceeded to smash car windows, shop windows, etc. After a couple of trash cans were turned over and lit on fire on the northeast and southeast corners of 14th and Broadway, the police began pushing the crowd down 14th. More cars were smashed, one SUV was set ablaze, and I clearly saw a small group of masked white kids smashing the windows of the three storefronts on the southeast corner of 14th and Webster.

All the way down 14th to Madison, black youth continued to face down the police, legitimately but militantly protesting, exercising their First Amendment rights. And the white punks continued to break shit.

Grant's family and friends begged protesters to stop writes the Mercury News:

"I am begging the citizens to not use violent tactics anymore," said Grant's mother, an emotional Wanda Johnson, who appeared with about 30 of Grant's relatives and friends at a news conference called by attorney John Burris at his East Oakland office.

"I know it's a very frustrating time," Johnson said, referring to the protracted police investigation into the shooting. "But Oscar would not want to see the violence and the fires. We believe this situation is going to come to a close, and justice will be served. I'm asking you, please, please stop it and let justice prevail. Please stop it."

The Chronicle writes the incident has incited a strong reaction because so many African Americans daily face the threat of police brutality.

"When is this going to stop?" the 29-year-old [African American man] shouted. "I'm sick of people acting like we deserve what we get, that because we are black, they can shoot us in the back and get away with it."

The [Grant] case has elicited a strong reaction, especially among African Americans, who long have said they frequently are stopped, handcuffed, beaten -- and even shot -- because of their race. Grant's attorney believes race played a role in how he and the other young men were treated by the BART police.

"I don't think the officer shot the gun because Oscar was black, but I think the way he approached the situation in an aggressive way was based on race," said attorney John Burris, who is representing Grant's family in their claim against BART. "If they were white, the officer might have asked them what was going on, rather than throw them in handcuffs."
Mark Harrison, a police-procedure consultant who has testified in use-of-force cases, said he, too, thinks the situation at the BART station escalated because of race.

"If they were kids from Orinda being rowdy on the way home from a Raiders game, I don't think it would have gone down the same way," Harrison said. "Police are supposed to be trained to deal with everyone. A pinstripe suit doesn't mean someone won't kill you, and baggy pants and a down jacket do not mean he will."

 As in most cities throughout America, trouble between black youth and police has a long history Oakland. The Mercury News writes:

"Historian [Steven] Lavoie said you can trace the history of troubled relations between Oakland minorities and police to the 1950s, when the lure of post-World War II jobs brought African Americans from the South, as well as white Southerners, many of whom would put on uniform and badge.

"The tension that resulted had a lot to do with who was hired, because a lot of the people from the South brought attitudes with them," he said. "Blacks, but also whites not willing to be as tolerant as Oakland historically had been."

Lavoie says relations between police and minorities have dramatically improved since the 1960s, when the Black Panthers formed to patrol the streets, ostensibly to police the police. Despite this week's flare of street violence, "what you should look at is how police responded Wednesday night, versus how they went after peace marchers in the '60s. There's a huge difference."

Patrice O’Neill, executive producer of the Working Group, writes about how to go forward:

I don’t think any of us have a road map for change here, but we have learned some things from the Not In Our Town movement that might be useful: Silence is Acceptance. We can’t stay quiet about a police killing, or more pervasively, about the out-of-control killings of our youth.

In the absence of leadership, ordinary citizens need to take nonviolent action. Maybe our elected officials and other self-appointed leaders will do something if the rest of us start getting creative. [Barack] Obama can’t fix this, we have to do it. The best ideas emerge from local action. We live in one of the most creative, wealthy, generous and diverse areas in the world. If we tried, we could be a model for the country.

As the community rebuilds and the investigation goes forward, it is essential that the case stay in the national spotlight and that authorities know people are still paying attention.

So far, community outrage does not seem to have changed the authorities' approach to the case: on Monday, BART completed an internal investigation of the incident, but declined to recommend whether charges should be brought against Mehserle. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff says he'll decide by next week whether to bring criminal charges against the shooter.

Racewire has posted five things you can do right now, to help Oscar Grant and his family get justice:

1. Digg the story so the national media can pick up on it.

2. Contact BART Director Carole Ward Allen and demand that: 1) The officers involved be taken off duty without pay and charged and fully prosecuted; 2) There be an independent investigation of the shooting that includes a review of training and hiring practices; and 3) BART establish an independent residents’ review board for the police. Call her at (510) 464-6095 or e-mail the BART board of directors at boardofdirectors@bart.gov.

3. Call the BART police to complain about the officers’ conduct and demand immediate action -- Internal Affairs: Sgt. David Chlebowski, (510) 464-7029, dchlebo@bart.gov; Chief of Police Gary Gee, (510) 464-7022, ggee@bart.gov. Call them toll free at (877) 679-7000 and press the last four digits of the phone number you wish to reach.

4. Talk it up on your blogs, networks and talk radio shows (call Michael Baisden (877) 622-3269 or Rev. Al, et al. to get this on the national radar).

5. Stay tuned for other actions, protests, etc., especially if you are in the Bay Area.


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