Last January I was in Berkeley taking an urban ministry class entitled “Refuge in the City” with Bishop Yvette Flunder. Earlier that month, January 1st in fact, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22 year-old African American man, was shot in the back by a transit officer on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. Video capturing the shooting showed Grant subdued by numerous officers, lying facedown on the platform, when he was shot by the officer above him.
Public outrage, protests, and rioting occurred in Oakland in the aftermath of the released cell phone footage captured by at least one passenger on board of a stopped train as the incident played itself out the nearby platform.
Was this lethal use of force a tragic accident or a brutal abuse of police power? The question still lingers.
The way it comes across in the video it’s pretty hard to image a justifiable circumstance for shooting this young man. However, footage can be deceiving, especially grainy, cell phone footage. The officer, Johannes Mehserle, claimed that Grant was struggling and reaching into his pocket so he fired his .40 caliber pistol which he mistook for his stungun. BART transit officers carry two firearm shaped weapons: the pistol on the right side of their body and a X26 Taser on the left side. Defense for officer Mehserle claimed that he never received adequate training with the taser while the prosecution highlighted how different the actions of pulling the gun versus pulling the taser would have been.
When I talked to friends back home no one had heard of the shooting. I was shocked at the lack of coverage in the national news, especially in the face of substantial riots in Oakland. Flash forward to this July. The transit officer has just been convicted of involuntary manslaughter – not murder. The outrage in Oakland is back and so is the lack of coverage… and when the media does cover the story they focus on the symptoms of rioting and looting rather than the injustice which caused them.
While it is shameful to use justifiable outrage and protests as an excuse for rioting and looting, it is just as shameful to use the rioting as a smoke screen for a frank and honest civic discussion of this incident and the verdict. Something was horribly wrong about this story back in January of 2009 and something is still horribly wrong in August of 2010.
If the media remains committed to its usual subterfuge and avoidance of critical engagement with vital issues of our day, something must be done. Is there another forum we can foster where this public discourse can happen? I suggest that we both hold our media accountable to its vocation as a source of news, dialogue, and thoughtful discernment as well as begin work to create our own forums and open spaces for these lifebloods of democracy. Democracy itself might just be in the balance.
Here is a New America Media article wrestling with the taser vs. pistol defense and a brief write-up (and link to the aforementioned video) from Mother Jones that doesn’t seem interested in mincing words when one of the words is murder.
Also, here is a podcast that discusses the incident and repercussions in depth and addresses the racial undertow that makes these set of events possible. The podcast is hosted by a wonderful and fiery author, cultural analyst, poet, essayist, and activist Ewuare Osayande.