Revolution #155, February 8, 2009
The Struggle for Justice for Oscar Grant
Killer Cop Gets Bail, People Take to the Streets
“We Can’t Rely On This System For Justice”
OAKLAND—On January 30, people packed the courtroom to demand that Johannes Mehserle, the cop who shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back on New Year’s Day, be kept in jail. The judge, Morris Jacobson, admitted that Mehserle, who had been apprehended in Nevada (where he fled during the initial investigation), was a flight risk. And Jacobson was openly skeptical of Mehserle’s inconsistent story about the shooting of Oscar Grant, saying, “He has a willingness to add to the story, to change the story, to make up something that’s not true to avoid consequences.” But the judge still set a bail of $3 million dollars.
People were demonstrating outside the courthouse and an overflow crowd filled the halls of the building chanting, “We Are Oscar Grant!” After it was announced that Mehserle would get bail, a march of about 50 people grew to several hundred as people joined in. They blocked traffic at a major intersection downtown. “He would still be in jail if he was black. This is an injustice,” a young woman yelled. Others chanted, “Murderers! Murderers! Murderers!” and “The Whole System Is Guilty!”
The authorities responded with a massive police assault on the demonstration. They brought out an armored vehicle and fired tear gas and “less than lethal” munitions at the protesters. Groups of cops grabbed people from the crowd, throwing them to the ground and beating them. At least eight people were arrested. Police shoved people with nightsticks and dispersed the demonstration.
While unleashing this vicious and violent assault on protesters, the authorities told people to let the system take its course. “The important thing to remember is that the wheels of justice are now in motion,” said Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. “Johannes Mehserle was charged with murder. He will receive due process under the law, and this process will run its course. In the meantime, I am calling for peace in our streets.”
WE’VE SEEN WHERE THIS ROAD LEADS. WE’VE SEEN THE COPS THAT SHOT SEAN BELL GO FREE. WE’VE SEEN “THE RIDERS”—A GANG IN THE OAKLAND POLICE DEPARTMENT WHO TERRORIZED THE PEOPLE IN WEST OAKLAND—GO FREE. WE’VE SEEN THE VAST MAJORITY OF COPS WHO BRUTALIZE AND KILL NOT EVEN CHARGED WITH ANY CRIME.
When people are righteously outraged by yet another police murder, they are told over and over to rely on the legal system, to let due process take its course. But let’s look briefly at how this legal system—a system that operates within the larger system of capitalism—really works and think about whether we should rely on it—or rely on the struggle of the people.
Investigation or Cover-Up?
This system responded to Oscar Grant’s murder at the hands of BART police by promising an immediate and full investigation. An “investigation”—not an arrest—on the basis of eyewitness video. But what happened in reality?
BART, known for its constant surveillance of passengers through a network of cameras, said their videos captured “nothing of importance.” BART police tried to confiscate witnesses’ videos seconds after the shooting—even chasing a young woman who had been on the platform filming the police detaining Oscar and other young men that night.
The chief of BART police went on TV to say that the videos that people made on their cell phones were “inconclusive” despite the fact that people everywhere were shocked when they saw the videos showing Officer Mehserle shooting Oscar Grant in the back as he lay face down on the train platform.
Three weeks after the murder another video was aired on KTVU which showed a second cop punching Oscar Grant in the head, moments before the shooting. A week later BART Police had not even opened an investigation into the incident. This video had been available on the TV station’s website since January 7. The BART police chief’s comment was, “Until we get an original copy of the KTVU video and we can send it to a forensic lab we cannot have any degree of certainty as to what happened in that confrontation.”
BART police and BART did not try to interview witnesses despite the fact there were scores and perhaps hundreds of witnesses on a BART train, packed with people coming back from New Year’s celebrations. Instead BART police pushed people back on the train after they witnessed the shooting, even pointing tasers at people who were outraged by what they were doing to Oscar and the other young men who were yanked off the train. Police ordered the train to pull out. The cops never even reported the shooting over their radios. And these people are supposedly going to “investigate”? Is this a system we should rely on for justice?
The BART police have maintained a blue wall of silence about the killing. When the BART police gave their internal investigation over to the Alameda County DA, they did not even recommend that Mehserle be prosecuted.
The Alameda District Attorney Tom Orloff—who prosecuted Huey Newton and other members of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s—waited two weeks before arresting Mehserle, until the struggle of people in Oakland forced him to do so. During the time when Orloff was conducting his “investigation” over 100 people were arrested for demanding justice for Oscar Grant.
Weeks after the murder BART Chief of Police Gary Gee issued a letter to his force. He did not command them to cooperate with the investigation, or to come forward with what they knew. He did not express concern that one officer had shot an unarmed man, or that another had punched him in the head. He did not mention the need for sensitivity for the community’s feelings or for Oscar Grant’s grieving family. Instead it was a letter of commendation, saying to the troops, “you have our full support.” He cautioned them “to maintain your professionalism and integrity, despite being exposed to public abuse and the media’s reporting.” And far from expressing concern for the feelings of the community and Oscar Grant’s relatives, he instructed the force on how to support one of their own by sending food and money to Mehserle in jail.
THIS IS NOT AN INVESTIGATION. IT IS A COVER-UP. Why would anyone who is serious about justice believe this farce? THE POWERS THAT BE DON’T WANT THE TRUTH. THEY WANT TO PROTECT THEIR SYSTEM AND PACIFY THE PEOPLE. They intimidate with overwhelming force those who take independent political action. They try to instill fear in others so they will distance themselves from the protesters and instead rely on the very police who have committed the murders and the courts that protect them. Relying on this system will not mean justice for Oscar Grant or anyone else brutalized by the police. It is a dead-end for the people and only strengthens the system. Those who truly want justice and are willing to fight for it must instead build a defiant movement of resistance.
The weeks since Oscar Grant’s murder have shined a spotlight on police terror, and have been a case study in criminal cover-up—a vivid reminder of how this system really works. We only saw the videos after people who made them went to the press. Even with this damning evidence, only after people took to the streets was the cop even arrested. All along, all we hear from the mayor, the courts and the police is “have faith in the process.” But if the events of the last month have shown anything, this is the one thing we cannot do. Because the whole system is guilty. Police brutality and murder is rewarded by this system because it is part of the state-sanctioned violence the system uses to keep people down. Only through exposing the lies, the cover-up, and by building determined resistance and struggle can there be any hope for justice for Oscar Grant.
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