The Oscar Grant Verdict: A Few Thoughts

Posted: July 11, 2010 by RA in Race, Society
Tags: , ,
Grant Mural

Noah Berger/AP

Last week, Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Oakland native Oscar Grant in the early hours of Jan 1, 2009. He was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder charges. Involuntary manslaughter convictions carry a sentence of two to four years.

I’m surprised he was found guilty of anything. And that makes me angry. Or rather, I should be angry, but I’m so used to these injustices that I can’t muster up the rage. So I’ll just say a few things:

  • People get tougher sentences for possessing 5 ounces of crack cocaine.
  • He claimed Grant was resisting arrest (that, along with the oft-used “disorderly conduct” charge, often means about as much as the crap my dog would cough up after binging on grass). Grant was face-down, with an officer’s knee in his back, about to get the cuffs slapped on him. Mehserle claimed he was reaching for his Taser because he thought face-down, knee-in-back, cuff-ready Grant had a gun. See aforementioned dog comment.
  • I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of premeditated murder in this case. However, the jury instructions from the case clearly state that, whether or not we’re inclined to believe his Taser-error defense, his willingness to draw and discharge a weapon without caring to ensure he it wouldn’t cause fatal injury consituted the necessary intent to support a voluntary manslaughter charge. Especially if precipitated by frustration, anger, or a heightened emotional state. In other words, if you’ve got a gun and a Taser, and you’re dealing with a defenseless man, the decent thing to do would be to make sure you’re not about to pull the trigger on the gun. Especially not shouting “fuck this” to your partner before pulling the gun.
  • Then again, there’s the fact that right after the shooting, the officers began to confiscate all cellphones and recording devices for the next half-hour, while Grant lay dying on the platform. Sounds pretty innocent to me.
  • People, per usual, are doing everything from blaming Grant’s mother for “not raising him right” to Grant himself for having a past criminal record, to avoid looking at the facts of the case. We’ve all seen this a thousand times before — where the devil has a more populous and zealous team of advocates than OJ, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector combined. Every potential mitigating factor — many too implausible to be raised by rational adults — are introduced as reasons why this is “sad, but not an example of injustice.”
  • And of course, the masses (led by a fully complicit media) are reframing the issue by focusing on the “rioting” that took place in response to this travesty. Forget the fact that the initial protests were 100% peaceful if impassioned, the argument that the subsequent rioting somehow cancels out the injustice of the crime is unconscionable. But not unfamiliar.
    It happens in damn-near any discussion of race. It happens whenever you complain about being mistaken for “the help” at an event at which you’re probably one of few minorities.  It happened when people, disgusted by Kanye’s Katrina Telethon, sought refunds on their donations to the Red Cross. It happened when Skip Gates responded to being rousted for trying to break into his own home. The idea is that when you’re victimized by an oppresive institution that’s racist to its core, you had better state your grievances in the politest manner possible. Otherwise, you just pissed off those who might actually have listened to your whining. Your fault, homie. In America, rudeness has always trumped racism. Ms. Manners would be so proud.
  • I’ve said it every time a young person of color is brutalized or killed by the cops — If only that minority were a canine, and the cop a professional athlete (preferably black and disgustingly rich), many more people would give much more of a damn.
  • The jury was made up of 7 white, 3 Latino, 1 Asian-Pacific, and 1 unidentified member. This is not to say that these good folks’ decisions could possibly be influenced by racial animus (no, such bigotry is reserved for the Sotomayors and Marshalls of the world). But I can confidently say that at least 80% of this country’s black population — regardless of income level or ethnic origin — has an understanding of the dangers they face at the hands guns of the Law Enforcement. Of how their lives could turn (and possibly end) on a dime with the simplest quick, unannounced motion when in the presence of the police.

Now I’ll leave it to others who do a far better job of distilling their thoughts on this than I.


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.


  1. Queen of Swords says:

    Like you i’m not surprised by this. Thankfully I’m too far away to be exposed to anything other than what I seek out regarding the case ( i.e all race related sites that “get it”). I wish I was disappointed, I wish I was more angry and I wish I had hope that it would change. The sentencing speaks volumes about the way black men are viewed by the justice system and it reinforces what POC already know -we’re screwed. The police can shoot you in the back if you’re handcuffed and face down if you’re a POC because you know..we’re violent and scary and are generally a menace to society anyway…”cops give a damn about a negro, pull a trigger kill a nigga he’s a hero”…., 13 years later that song is still relevant…

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