In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a police officer while allegedly resisting arrest on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Grant, a black Bay Area resident, was subsequently hospitalized, where he died the next morning. Videos of the incident show that Grant was already being physically restrained when he was fatally shot. Johannes Mehserle, the offending officer, was charged with murder but pleaded not guilty, arguing that he mistook his gun for a taser. He was eventually found not guilty of second-degree murder and instead, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. On Nov. 5, 2010, Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison and may be released from custody after seven months.
The Stanford University College Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) finds this ruling grossly inadequate and stands in agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, which has currently begun a civil rights case against Mehserle. Following the killing, the trial has sparked massive rage and protests in Oakland and in surrounding communities. Since the November ruling, there have been nearly 150 people arrested for riots and protests related to the Grant killing. Especially in Oakland, an area already rife with racial tensions between policemen and residents, community members viewed this incident of police brutality with outrage and disgust, and the verdict of the case even more so.
One thing is pretty clear: this was a case of unwarranted police brutality. Much of the video evidence suggests there was no need to shoot or even tase Grant, as another officer was already restraining him when he was shot. Experts have also testified that it is very difficult to confuse a taser with a gun, as guns are much heavier. Moreover, tasers are designed in a very different way than guns for the explicit purpose of avoiding confusion. In light of this evidence, the sentence given to Mehserle was unjust given the severity of the crime he committed. What message are we sending when many animal cruelty laws dole out harsher sentencing than the one Mehserle received?
From Rodney King in 1991 to Oscar Grant in 2010, our generation has seen repeated cases of unjust police brutality. But let’s not forget some obvious facts. King and Grant were black; the policemen were white. King and Grant held low societal standings; the policemen had complete authority.
However, Grant was not so fortunate to escape with his life, and we find it unjust that one man in a position of authority can essentially get away with killing another by labeling it an accident (despite evidence to the contrary). To our dismay but not to our surprise, this type of institutionalized racial injustice and state-sanctioned human rights violation is being propagated in the courts.
According to the Oakland Tribune, Mesherle’s defense attorney Michael Rains said, “He will appeal the jury’s involuntary manslaughter verdict with a hope to both clear Mehserle’s record of a crime and to prevent other police officers from enduring a criminal trial for making a mistake on the job.” If the troubling position of Rains becomes the judicial norm and a fatal error by police has no legal ramifications, we in the Stanford NAACP are not only concerned for the safety of minorities nationwide but for any person in America whose human rights will be at stake.
It is unsettling enough that policemen, the “upholders of safety in society,” kill people. But, as we sleep in our warm Stanford beds tonight, perhaps we should be even more sickened by the fact that policemen can then walk free after a couple years with a possible legal “thumbs up.” As we bike past serene palm trees, perhaps we should feel a little queasy that, if you are a white police officer, there is currently little legal consequence for shooting a handcuffed black man in the back. If that is the world and the country we live in, perhaps liberty and justice is not for all.
Imani Franklin ’13, Belinda Tang ’14 & Matt Miller ’12
The Stanford NAACP Political Action Committee