Behind Bars

Oscar Grant Was Murdered!

By Chris Kinder

“I AM,” shouted the speaker at the Oakland protest of the involuntary manslaughter verdict in the trial of ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle on July 8. “OSCAR GRANT!” roared back the crowd at 14th and Broadway.

The cold-blooded killer of Oscar Grant had just gotten off with an involuntary manslaughter conviction in a trial in Los Angeles. After less than two day’s deliberation a jury with no Black members cleared Johannes Mehserle of second-degree murder, and cleared him of voluntary manslaughter. They settled on the weakest compromise charge, involuntary manslaughter, enhanced by use of a gun. Mehserle could get felony probation, or perhaps 14 years in state prison, at the judge’s discretion, when sentenced November 5. Oscar Grant’s family was outraged.

“My son was murdered,” said Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson

And so he was. As everyone in Oakland knows by now, Oscar Grant III, a grocery worker and father of a young daughter, was shot at point blank range, in the back, while he lay face down on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) platform. He was shot by BART cop Johannes Mehserle, on New Years Day 2009. While Mehserle’s partner, the since-dismissed Tony Pirone, held Grant down with both hands and a knee on his neck, Mehserle stood up, pulled his gun, and fired directly down at Grant.

The facts were indisputable, since, several BART patrons had recorded the events on cell phone video and submitted them to local media. The video images helped spur mass protests in Oakland, and forced the hand of the District Attorney, who made Mehserle the only Bay Area cop ever to be charged with murder for an on-duty killing. Then, the trial was moved out of Oakland to Los Angeles, because a cop allegedly couldn’t get a fair trial in the city he was supposed to “protect and serve.”

Taser or gun? Mehserle makes a decision

Mehserle’s defense at trial was that he meant to fire his Taser at Grant, not his gun. Yet he said after the shooting, to several others over many days, that he “thought he [Grant] was going for a gun.” Clearly, this is a defense of an intentional shooting, since Tasing a person holding a gun would likely cause the gun to discharge. Shooting someone who’s going for a gun makes more sense. Importantly, Mehserle never once told anyone that he had mistakenly pulled his gun when he had meant to fire his Taser at Grant. Furthermore, the Taser is a lot lighter than the gun Mehserle carried. The gun was on a different part of his belt, and unlike the Taser, the gun had safety mechanisms that had to be dealt with before the trigger could be pulled.

As if all that wasn’t enough, it was revealed at trial that Grant had photographed Mehserle pointing his Taser at him only moments before the shooting! Thus Mehserle had drawn his Taser on Grant, holstered it, and then drawn his gun only a minute or two later to shoot Grant. How could this have been an “accident?” Despite all this, the “accident” story succeeded in saving another killer cop—one of many who have ended the lives of young Black males—from a murder conviction.

“Peaceful, legal” ...oh shut up!

Oakland police may have gotten the Mehserle trial off their radar screens with the move to Los Angeles, but they knew they couldn’t ignore the community reaction to the verdict. Protesters planned a rally outside City Hall on the day of the verdict; but it seemed most of the preparation—by city authorities under Mayor Ron Dellums, community and religious leaders, and police—went into protecting a few windows in downtown Oakland. The message that virtually blared from local newspapers and media in the week or so prior to the verdict was, with only light ‘translation,’ “To hell with outrage over the murderous crimes of a racist criminal injustice system! We just want the victims of the system to keep their protests peaceful and legal! In fact, we want no protests at all, only talk.”

The main perpetrators of violence in the community, the police, went into overtime-heaven with their “peaceful, legal” program, called “Operation Verdict.” Weeks in preparation, “Operation Verdict” meant that downtown would be turned into a prison camp controlled by cops. Whole sections of the freeway coming into Oakland were sealed off so that police from the Highway Patrol, Alameda County and other jurisdictions—which underwent special training in advance with the Oakland Police Department—could pour into downtown Oakland unhindered by civilian traffic. Downtown freeway entrances were also blocked to keep protesters from getting onto the roadways.

Cops mandate great skeedaddle1, as peaceful protesters gather

Building managers in downtown were instructed to evacuate everyone from their offices at 4:00 P.M., just as the verdict was to be announced, according to reports on local Pacifica Radio KPFA. Blocks from downtown, where I was just after 4:00 P.M., you could see the result of this “great skeedaddle.” People in shops along Telegraph Avenue were remarking on the excess traffic as hundreds, perhaps thousands jammed the streets to get away. Many more clogged BART entrances near 14th and Broadway to escape what the media was portraying as the “hordes of violent youths” who were (presumably) about to descend on the city center to create mayhem.

Two friends and I were among the hundreds who did “descend” on the town to protest this racist injustice of a verdict, only to find—amazingly—a peaceful protest! Arriving around 6:30 P.M. or so, we had to pass through a phalanx of cops, who had the whole city center completely sealed off between about 12th and 15th streets along Broadway. Earlier, an altercation had occurred in which protesters briefly confronted police, and then were allowed to take over the now empty streets.

“Oakland says: GUILTY”

Once inside this makeshift ghetto in a boarded-up, deserted downtown, we joined what was a spirited, vibrant rally. A large colorful banner hung from lampposts proclaiming, “Oakland says: GUILTY!” The fully integrated and totally Oakland crowd of 1,000 was angry at the verdict but welcoming and friendly. Two guys were playing chess on the asphalt, and they were still there an hour later.

Lack of an adequate sound system meant that most of the crowd was out of earshot of the podium. I heard a few of the speeches, including many who conveyed the message of “peaceful legal.” “Don’t follow the outside agitators,” and “don’t get involved with those anarchists,” were all-too frequent refrains. These comments were met with some murmurs of support, but by far the biggest roar of approval went to the young Black speaker, who said, “How could protesting racist injustice make you an ‘outside agitator’ anywhere? The police are the real outside agitators! You need to watch out for them—they are the ones who threaten us, the communities of Oakland!”

Watch out: “outside agitators” agitating...

“Outside agitator” is an old refrain—I was called that myself once, even though I lived locally, in Oakland, then as now—which is used to slander and taint legitimate protest. In the week or two after the police-murder of Oscar Grant, in January 2009, protests filled the streets of Oakland. Over 160 people were arrested on various trumped up charges—including journalist JR Valrey (“Block Report,” KPFA/Pacifica Radio)—but the police obtained no convictions. Then as now, the City’s biggest concern had nothing to do with yet another killing of a young Black male by police, but with protecting property. Then as now, some windows were broken, and some fires set in dumpsters. Then as now, screams of horror rose up from business owners.

That night’s great “crime,” happened after the rally was shut down on orders from the City at 8:00 P.M., as darkness descended. No one was hurt but, oh dear, some window breaking and looting took place. The “victim” was the Foot Locker, a major shoe store chain on Broadway at 14th that somehow missed getting its windows boarded up in the week prior to the verdict. Somebody smashed in a metal grate, and then broke the window. Shoes and T-shirts went flying through the air to the waiting crowd. A few youths made off with shoes and shirts, struggling to conceal their loot. Apparently a bank window was also smashed. Police stood by in rows, guarding all exits, while this went on.

At a certain point the police declared an unlawful assembly and moved in, arresting some 50 or so youths. Though not a witness to the arrests, I suspect the cops ignored the two or three actual window breakers, and detained mostly innocent people, just as they did in 2009. News on local stations later that night went overboard emphasizing the “violence,” while underplaying the earlier peaceful rally. They also neglected to mention that all the reported incidents took place in a one or two-block fishbowl.

Police had the area surrounded the whole time, and provoked protesters, first with instructions to stay on the sidewalks, and later with a squeeze play of pushing and shoving.

As if to force every last drop of so-called “news” out of this, the last broadcast I saw showed one car driving by on Broadway at about 11:30 P.M., while the newscaster proclaimed with satisfaction, “Okay, traffic is beginning to flow again now!”

Dellums says, “Keep calm, the government’s on our side.”

While in 2009 Mayor Ron Dellums (safely, without being threatened by anyone) had roamed the streets talking to youth who were out to protest the police killing of Oscar Grant, this night in 2010, he chose to stay sequestered in a special “Operation Verdict” security bunker. Flanked by cops, he tried to calm things in advance by promising, at a 5:00 P.M. press conference, that he didn’t like the verdict either, and he would work with the family on a hoped-for civil rights prosecution by the Justice Department. Thus the old myth that somehow the U.S. federal government—the greatest purveyor of violence on the Earth—is a friend of Black people, is once again dragged out under Obama. And who better to do the dragging-out than Dellums, who has shown all along that he cares more for property than for the victims of the murderous actions of his own cops?

Dellums’ self-discrediting behavior as a liberal compromiser more interested in protecting property than in addressing racist police murder happening on his watch has now led to his announcement that he will not run for another term as mayor of Oakland. This discrediting was important in radicalizing the on-going movement against racist police murder.

No federal government, whether Democrat or Republican, is going to magically reverse the crimes of the racist injustice system in this country, even in one case, like that of Oscar Grant.

No civil rights prosecution will bring Oscar back. But more than that, Grant was the victim not just of one out-of-control cop, but of a system that’s out of control. The system that legally maintains the death penalty even for the “factually innocent;” that lets cops off with a slap on the wrist—if that—while Black people are “legally” shot to death all the time off camera; and that violates its own precedents to frame those it considers its political enemies, such as journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal—that system is out of control.

That is, the system is out of our control, the working masses who make the things people need, and produce the wealth that the Wall Street tycoons love to squander. It is in the control of our enemies, the capitalist ruling class. It’s their system, not ours—no matter who’s president. And their system can’t be “reformed” it must be overthrown.

High-priced shoes to sell, or revolution?

But what about the window-breaking and looting? Is that a rebellion against the system? Or is it a way to get some high-priced shoes to sell?

However it’s thought of, what is important here is the sadly ineffective nature of this response to the murder of an unarmed Black man by police, and to the crimes of the racist injustice system as a whole. The “power” to break a window is not doing us any good right now. We need a different sort of power, the power that can only come from a disciplined, working-class mass movement, one, which, relies on its own strength, not on anarchist fantasies—and not on the Democratic Party or the U.S. federal government!

While numerous Black community organizers, socialists and other radicals worked on organizing this protest, and spoke at the rally, they still lack the organized mass power that is needed to overthrow the true perpetrators of violence, the ruling-class.

Despite the over-the-top paranoia of “Operation Verdict”—and despite the raid on the Foot Locker—business does still go on as usual. The working people seem to have (temporarily) lost their ability to bring the wheels of production to a stand still. But the power to do so—and the power to remake society into one that is truly color blind and just—is still there. What we need now is a multi-racial, working class revolutionary movement that can bring that power to life, a power for human life, for liberation of all peoples and for the planet.

Following the Mehserle verdict protest in Oakland, a new round of arrestees need to be defended. Among the arrestees on July 8th were civil rights attorney Walter Riley and his son, who were attempting to enter Riley’s office on Broadway near 14th when they were accosted by the thugs in blue. We must demand they drop all charges against the victims of the July 8th police attack!

The protests over the murder of Oscar Grant go on. The members of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), outraged over the murder, have called for a labor/community rally, set for October 23rd in Oakland. The rally call supports honoring Oscar Grant, and “Jail Killer Cops!” Organizing meetings for the rally in San Francisco and Oakland have been well attended by longshore workers, and packed with supporters.

Chris Kinder is an Oakland resident, socialist, and member of the Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

1 The so-called “Great Skeedaddle” took place in the middle of the Civil War, in 1860s Savannah, Georgia, in the heart of the Confederacy. Rumors that Union troops were landing out on the Georgia Sea Islands sparked a panic amongst the slave-owning aristocracy, whose glorious vacation mansions still line the streets of the old town. Rather than face the hated Yankees, they packed up their carriages and high tailed it out to their plantations, which were well inland. Hence, “The Great Skeedaddle.”