Outrage in Oakland: Transit Officer Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter–Not Murder–in Killing of Unarmed Oscar Grant
Scores of people were arrested in Oakland, California Thursday night in protests over the verdict in the Oscar Grant shooting. Grant was the unarmed 22-year-old African-American man who was shot dead by Johannes Mehserle, a white transit officer, on an Oakland train platform on New Year's Day, 2009. A jury in Los Angeles convicted Merserle of involuntary manslaughter but he was acquitted on the more serious charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.[includes rush transcript]
Report from Oakland, filed by John Hamilton.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We go now to Oakland, California, where scores of people were arrested last night in protests over the verdict in the the Oscar Grant shooting. Grant was the unarmed 22-year-old African-American man who was shot dead by a white transit officer on an open train platform on New Year's Day 2009. Cell phone videos of the shooting show the transit officer Johannes Mehserle, pulling out a gun and shooting Grant in the back while he was lying face down on the ground on the train platform. On Thursday, a jury in Los Angeles convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter, but he was acquitted on the more serious charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The jury included eight women and four men. No African-Americans served on the jury. Mehserle will be sentenced on August 6th and voluntary manslaughter carries a penalty of two to four years in prison, but a sentencing enhancement for using a gun means he could face an additional three to 10 years behind bars.
AMY GOODMAN: Members of Grant's family expressed shock that Mehserle was acquitted of second-degree murder. Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, spoke outside the courthouse.
WANDA JOHNSON: That the system has let us down but God will never ever let us down. Though the system has failed us, though we fight continually, but you know what, one thing I know, that the race is not given to the swift nor to the strong but to the one who endures till the end. And as a family and as a nation of African-American people, we will continue to fight for our equal rights in this society. The Scripture tells us that the rich bribed the judges and certainly we have seen the judges be bribed. Certainly we have seen how this judicial system has worked on such a case as this. We couldn't even get six hours of deliberation. And we have a new juror who came in who had not probably even reviewed the evidence with the other jurors. But the jury had already had their minds tainted. And so I believe I still remember what Dr. King said that he had a dream. I believe that one day as a nation of people, that you guys will not look at us according to the color or content of our skin, but that we will be treated right as a people. And my son was murdered.
He was murdered.
He was murdered.
He was murdered.
My son was murdered.
And the law has not held the officer accountable the way that he should have been held accountable. And I look at this, and I just say like my brother said to any other family who goes through this, do not give up. Do not give up. Even though the system will fail us and let us down, God will never fail us nor will he let us down. And I will trust in him until I die.
AMY GOODMAN: Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant. The family's attorney John Burris also spoke to the media after the verdict.
JOHN BURRIS: Now of course, we feel that the involuntary manslaughter conviction is better than no conviction at all. We do recognize and appreciate that there are that there probably is some historical significance that I and my long history being involved in police matters since 1979 and well over 30 homicides involving the police, have never had a case where an officer was convicted of any crime against an African-American male. So in that sense, it is a small victory. But it does not in and of itself fairly and accurately represent that the system works. But it cannot work in a situation where a person is killed with his hands behind his back, with an officer over him, claiming that he has seen something come and that becomes an involuntary manslaughter.
AMY GOODMAN: John Burris, attorney for Oscar Grant's family. John Hamilton was in Oakland yesterday and filed this report.
JOHN HAMILTON: The streets and highways leading out of Oakland were packed with cars early Thursday afternoon as jurors announced a verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial was imminent. By 4:00 p.m. when the jury rendered its verdict, much of downtown Oakland appeared to be a boarded up ghost town. At the Alameda County Courthouse, District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said she was disappointed, but that the verdict was a partial success.
NANCY O'MALLEY: The jury also found true that Johannes Mehserle used his gun and that finding itself indicates to us that the jury completely rejected Mehserle's claim that he had been grabbing his taser. As you're well aware, that we believe that Johannes Mehserle was guilty of the crime of murder. We presented the case that way, we presented the evidence that way, and the jury felt otherwise.
CROWD CHANTING: No justice. No peace. No justice. No peace.
JOHN HAMILTON: A few blocks away near Oakland City Hall, a crowd of many hundreds gathered calling Mehserle's conviction on involuntary manslaughter charges far short of justice.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: I'm afraid, I'm scared. This is just another reminder in my life and my 29 years on this earth that my worth to this society is not that much. I'm saddened for the family of Oscar Grant and other families who have witnessed or been a part of or victimized by certain and similar violence because he's not the only one and unfortunately this happens in a lot of different circumstances.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: I think we kind of expected that something like this would happen because there's a long history of police abusing minorities of people that don't have much money, to put it frankly, and then getting slapped on the wrist. So when the trial got moved to L.A., we kind of figured something was gonna happen that would be more lenient than a typical murder charge.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: To hear involuntary manslaughter. It's a slap to me, it's a slap in the face to specifically African-American men in this country but also humanity in general. Michael Vick did two years for a dog being killed on his property. Johannes Mehserle is going to do two to four years for murdering a man execution style. There's something wrong with the picture in my frame of reference.
JOHN HAMILTON: Much of Johannes Mehserle's defense centered on the contention that the former transit officer thought he was drawing a taser weapon rather than a firearm when he shot and killed Oscar Grant. Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan:
REBECCA KAPLAN: Well this horrible crime and horrible tragic loss of life occurred in part because people policing BART were carrying both tasers and guns. And guns in that kind of small, enclosed environment that you have in a BART car are very dangerous. I think is worth asking the question whether they really should be carrying guns or not.
JOHN HAMILTON: What made Thursday's verdict of involuntary manslaughter so hard to swallow for many Oakland residents were the multiple video cameras that recorded Oscar Grant's killing. West Oakland community activist and artist Cat Brooks:
CAT BROOKS: I cannot reconcile what I saw on the video with the verdict today. How many angles do you need to look at that tape to understand that was murder? There had to be least a thousand people out here tonight in Los Angeles, mobilizing tonight. We all know it's murder. Across the country we know it's murder. You know, but it's nothing new in America. Black and brown babies have been being killed by law-enforcement for hundreds of years. Before law enforcement, it was slave owners. It's the history of this country. What the miracle of this was, is that finally for the first time a police officer was put on trial, for murdering an unarmed civilian. The tragedy of it is is that black and brown people were told yet one more time their lives mean nothing in this country.
JOHN HAMILTON: As hundreds filed out downtown Oakland, many others remained shadowed by an increasing number of riot police.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: I would like people to express themselves but try to be peaceful about it.I don't think it helps us to break windows and small business owners in downtown Oakland. I know everybody is mad and a lot of people feel like it's not the right punishment, but we have to come together as a community on a regular basis, not just when something bad happens, not just when it's a tragedy.
JOHN HAMILTON: As the sun drew low, police put on gas masks and declared it an unlawful assembly.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: 409 of the penal code prohibits remaining in present at an unlawful assembly. If you remain in the area, just described, regardless of your purpose, you'll be in violation of section 409.
JOHN HAMILTON: Soon, anger over the Mehserle verdict boiled over as demonstrators smashed windows and set small fires.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Well the overwhelming majority of people behaved very appropriately. And you know it's unfortunate there were a handful of people throwing things. But I want to make it clear, the overwhelming majority of people here have been behaving peacefully and appropriately and deserve to be respected for this call for justice.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Move forward. Move forward. Move forward and make a right. Move forward and make a right.
JOHN HAMILTON: At least one woman was injured when a police car backed into her. Dozens of downtown businesses had their windows smashed. A few suffered looting. Police made scores of arrests with an exact number yet unknown.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: We've been pushed back as far as we can go. You have some people back there who have been barricaded and trapped in and they're attempting to get us to leave. They're pushing us all. And they don't want us here because we're speaking truth.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Get back, get back, get back.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: Half these police officers don't even live out here. They traveled here. They traveled here, but we live here everyday. I live here everyday. I work here, I go to school here, take care of kids here. I ain't going nowhere. So they're going to have to break me down. Simple as that.
CROWD CHANTING: No justice, no peace.
JOHN HAMILTON: For Democracy Now!, I'm John Hamilton, in Oakland.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, the transit officer Johannes Mehserle faces two to four years in prison. But a sentencing enhancement for using a gun means Mehserle could face an additional three to 10 years behind bars. He will be sentenced on August 6th. This is "Democracy Now!," democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report.