The shocking verdict in the case of Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who killed Oscar Grant, finally came down on Thursday, July 8. The jury decided to call the killing involuntary manslaughter, claiming Mehserle unintentionally killed Oscar Grant. Involuntary manslaughter is what a drunk driver would get if they accidentally killed somebody in a car crash.
Even if you don’t expect any justice from the courts, even if you are used to cops getting off for murder, brutality and harassment, this verdict was still a shock. There were hundreds of witnesses and several cameras that caught this shooting on tape. There’s a word for what happened January 1, 2009 and it’s murder. Mehserle pulled out his gun, aimed, and fired at Grant in his back while he was being held face down by another officer. This shooting was not an accident. This was not justice. And we have every right to be furious.
From the city officials, to BART, to the police, and the newspapers, their response has been to try to silence people, to scare people away from coming together in protest. For the past weeks the Oakland police have been massing their presence in downtown Oakland. Their message was clear as day: as soon as the verdict comes out, no matter where you are, don’t protest, don’t express your outrage, just go home where you can be safe. Many businesses in Oakland and Emeryville and even Berkeley closed early and sent the workers home.
The officials in Oakland showed that when it comes to trying to stop people from protesting, they can mobilize all of their forces. They can get businesses to close down; they can redirect traffic; they can close BART, close schools; they can bring an army of cops together from the entire Bay Area.
This is quite a different response from what happened after Mehserle murdered Grant, when neither city officials nor BART said a word about the shooting for an entire week. Mehserle wasn’t even brought in for questioning until two weeks later. As Mehserle left the state, the city officials just sat there in silence, showing once again that cops are allowed to get away with murder.
The message from city officials, the police, and the media is to be calm, to not be outraged. What this really means is to be quiet in the face of the brutal violence of this system. They want us to accept the day-to-day violence and shut up about it. They want us to accept it when one of our own is murdered by the police. They want us to accept it when their system kicks people out into the streets. They want us to be silent when their system denies people a right to make a living and feed their families. We’re just to accept it all quietly.
People have a right to be angry – we should be angry. And we have a right to demonstrate our anger. We should not accept the violence of their system in silence. Most of the time, on a daily basis, this system is allowed to get away with violence – the silent violence of poverty or the brutal violence of the cops. It might even be noticed by most of us, but we often feel alone or too powerless to fight it. There’s no question the city officials want us to take that route again this time – but let’s not choose the path of least resistance again.
The media and city officials focus on the property damage, but compared to the violence they help impose every day, it is nothing. We need to come together and demonstrate our anger and outrage. We can show loud and clear that we will not tolerate it when it comes to cops murdering our own people. This can be a step towards organizing our forces to take back our lives and impose the kind of order we need – to live as human beings, not to live in the shadows of those who control this society, nor in fear of the cops. But right now we can’t allow ourselves to remain silent in the face of this outrage.