Veronica Hendrix

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has – Margaret Mead

*Oscar Grant is dead. Johannes Mehserle killed him.

Oscar’s family will never be the same. How could they?  The City of Oakland won’t be the same either. How can it?

January 1, 2009 changed everything when then 27-year-old BART Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant while he laid prostrate on an Oakland train station platform.

Oscar and his friends had been swept up by the police following a report of a fight on the train in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

They were handcuffed and subjugated to what many youth, especially African-American youth like Oscar, have come to know as the expected rough treatment, taunting and perhaps a few expletives punctuated with a racial slur or two if an officer felt the encounter was particularly contentious. That night, from reports and video footage captured from numerous

on-lookers, was no different. It seemed just like another incident of detained youth, handcuffed while law enforcement tried to sort out who was going to jail and who was not.

Oscar seemed to understand the drill. He apparently knew he was in a potentially volatile situation. And there are reports that he asked the officer not to shoot him or taser him because he had a young daughter he was trying to get home to.  Yet he ended up getting shot in back anyway by Mehserle who alleged Oscar resisted arrest while on the ground. It happened because Mehserle said he accidently drew and fired his gun when he meant to draw and fire his taser. Reconciling this as accident is hard to digest especially when a life has been lost. So it was just a “fatal oops?”

Well essentially that’s what a Los Angeles jury concluded last week after a month of testimony. The trial, which was moved from Oakland, ended with a verdict that found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter based on insufficient training and not criminal negligence. It’s not the verdict Oscar’s family and their supporters wanted to hear relegating the loss of their son’s life  to an “oops,” a tragic, irrevocable mistake that cannot be undone.

The outcome and verdict was precedent setting on several levels. It was the insurmountable public pressure following the shooting that caused the Oakland Police Department to investigate the murder and that same public pressure compelled the District Attorney to finally bring charges against Mehserle.  The timing of the retirement of Chief Gary Gee and the unexpected resignation of District Attorney Tom Orloff while the case was being tried in Alameda County was curious and no doubt spawn by the controversy caused by allegations of racism, cover ups and impropriety connected with this case. And Mehserle managed to earn the dubious distinction as the first police officer in the history of California to face a murder trial for an on-duty shooting.

All this happened as a result of relentless public outcry for justice. Without this collective action, Oscar would have been deemed just another “man slaughtered” by law enforcement and the terms voluntary, involuntary or premeditated would have not been relative. In this case, that is the only triumph and only solace for his family and the City of Oakland.

In a hand written letter Mehserle asked to be released to the public he said, “I hope those who hate me and those who understand that I never intended to shoot Oscar Grant will listen to this message. I have and will continue to live everyday of my life knowing that Mr. Grant should not have been shot. I know a daughter has lost a father and a mother has lost a son.” Yes, Oscar should have never been shot. His family and the community will live each day knowing that too, without a shadow of a doubt.

Mehserle is scheduled to be sentenced on November 5, 2010 for killing Oscar Grant. He faces a minimum of five years and a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. It’s a sentence many believe just doesn’t fit the crime. But it is a sentence.

In 2010 justice still cries to be heard. In this case it weeps and mourns. And through its tears it presses on toward change with the introduction of AB 1586 which seeks to establish an independent citizen oversight board of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District Police that would investigate complaints against district police personnel “relative to on-duty misconduct and off-duty unlawful activity.” Currently that bill is enrolled in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office as of July 7, 2010 awaiting the Governor’s action. If it becomes law, that will be the legacy of the Oscar Grant tragedy, and lesson that attests to the power of collective advocacy, lest we forget.

(If you have comments about Veronica’s View, email them to [email protected])