Several people recorded mobile phone videos of a police officer shooting and killing a young man named Oscar Grant on a subway BART train station in Oakland, California, around 2 am on January 1, 2009. Grant was shot lying face down on the ground in the Fruitvale station platform, after BART transport police intervened in a scuffle inside a crowded train car, with people returning home after New Year's Eve celebrations. Citizen videos and blogs have been central in the ensuing campaigns for justice.
The case received notoriety thanks to the videos shot by other people on trains from different angles. They were posted online immediately and also aired on television. Here is one of the clips available on YouTube (warning: strong images):
The officer who pulled the trigger, Johannes Mehserle, has since resigned from the police force, and is now awaiting trial for murder. Without making any public statement, initially he fled and was arrested in neighboring state Nevada; later an anonymous donor posted his bail (for US $3 million). Mehserle claims he intended to fire his Taser stun gun, not his pistol. Meanwhile, the family of Oscar Grant is preparing a $25 million wrongful death case.
While some sources found some similarities with the 1991 Rodney King case, this story is still deeply affecting the black community at large, well beyond the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly within citizen media and cyber-activist communities. The resulting movement is providing firsthand information and widespread mobilization aimed at obtaining justice for the family and raising public awareness on racism.
After street protests (with some violent episodes), one local initiative, “Caravan for Justice”, organized dozens of cars and buses to travel to the California State Capitol in Sacramento on February 23 to lobby legislators for justice. A channel solely devoted to this initiative is active on YouTube, including the following video with caravan member Pastor Zachary Carey:
More than 2,000 photos taken at rallies and other events are available on Flickr, along with scores of comments. Under a photo of a young man handcuffed in the back of a police car during an Oakland rally, a commenter noted:
The police in SF and Oakland do nothing to reduce violent crime. Law abiding citizens live in fear because the police are inept and incompetent. The murder of an innocent 22 year old male by the BART police is just another example of how inept the police around here are…
Oscar Grant is you—and you are him, because you know in the pit of your stomach that it could’ve been you, and the same thing could’ve happened. You know this. And what’s worse is this: you pay for this every time you pay taxes, and you endorse this every time you vote for politicians who sell out in a heartbeat.
You pay for your killers to kill you, in the name of a bogus, twisted law, and then pay for the State that defends him. Something is terribly wrong here—and it’s the system itself. Until that is changed, nothing is changed, for we’ll be out here again (in the streets)—chanting a different name.
The Justice for Oscar Grant Committee website promptly started gathering and distributing video, photo and other updates about this case. Their official statement links the “execution-style” killing to “the system’s brutality and terror against Black people, youth and people of color.” A commentator said:
I’m from England and have just watched the brutal murder of Oscar Grant on youtube. Where is the justice in the world? In this day in age, after all that our people have been through over hundreds of years at the hands of such evil racist people….we still are faced with the prospects of not coming home through to police brutality. What is justice when those responsible for upholding the law are the same ones breaking it by taking away lifes based on colour, perception and ignorance.
My thoughts,prayers and condolences are set over seas in abundance to the friends and family of Oscar Grant.
VisionAries published more photos and slideshows of January protest rallies in Oakland, while the Sustainable Business Alliance blog asked people to sign a letter in support of “Assembly member Tom Ammiano and State Senator Leland Yee's efforts to create a civilian oversight board and help build the progressive movement for justice in California.”
Addressing the larger issue of police brutality and community awareness, blogger Crocus pointed out:
The truth is that people/community’s just don’t trust law enforcement institutions anymore and it spans the breadth of the society. People are so suspicious of officers intent and with good reason. We can no longer tolerate police brutality and injustice but unlawful behavior on the part of the law has become so routine that we tend to blank it out and carry on with the boredom of everyday life under the spectacle but “if not passion and action then my dear you are already dead”. Community autonomy is the only way to raise awareness on these issues, but as the process of participation in matters that affect our community’s are being destroyed every waking hour, it becomes near impossible to act collectively. Individual autonomy is a step in the right direction but collective awareness is collective power!
However it is fair to say that over the last couple of decade’s racial awareness and cohesion has vastly improved and thus transformed the landscape of interaction for the greater good. But the police, council’s and the Government still struggle with racism to some degree! It’s not how people interact these days but how intuitions treat people.
Finally, while announcing the March for Justice, to take place in Hayward, California on February 27 (the date would have been Grant's 23rd birthday), Grant's fiancée Sophina Mesa called for justice without further violence:
My desire is to see true justice served for Oscar and our family. I don't want another person to go through what Oscar, his friends, his family, and many other people are enduring at this time. Please join me, mine and Oscar's daughter Tatiana, and our family at the march on Friday.