Oscar Grant, a Victim of American Fear
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.
But of course, unlike the distant deaths of Pakistanis on the front of a "secret" war, Oscar Grant is some of us, or at least he's someone we know or care about, someone we'd go out in the street in the dead of night to look for if he wasn't home on time. For others, he's the embodiment of what makes us glance over our shoulder as we fish around in our pockets for the keys to our front door.
What's worse is that we don't just fear; we fear talking about it. Our president tried once. He mentioned the fear his own grandmother felt for men who looked like he does, and we responded with the level of maturity we've come to expect from our political discourse. If you've ever had a relative of another race confess to you that they'd find you frightening if they ran into you in a dark alley, you know what he meant. But we fear what this fear says about us more than we fear letting it go.
America remains in the thrall of this ever-present fear, even in the aftermath of the Mehserle trial, as the media concerns itself not with the verdict or with justice but with the potential for more violence from the black community in Oakland. Fear is always the enemy of justice. Today in America, the former threatens the latter like never before. Forget what you see on your TV screen -- Oscar Grant isn't the only victim, and the people who share Grant's skin tone or hair texture aren't the only ones who should care.
War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Terrorism. There's always another War. The question is, when will we stop being afraid?