I am writing from Oakland CA, the day after the Mehserle verdict. Johannes Mehserle is a Bay Area transit cop who killed Oscar Grant, a young black man, by shooting him point blank in the back as he handcuffed him. Oscar Grant was already on the ground, his hands behind his back. As he was cuffed, witnesses reported, Grant pleaded with the cop not to taser him, “I’m a dad with young kids!”
I came to Oakland for a meeting, assured that a sick juror would postpone the verdict by at least one week. But two hours after our meeting began, news reports said the verdict was imminent. The office closed. Everyone was urged to leave downtown. Back at the hotel, nervous tourists and business travelers fled in droves. We packed toothbrushes and drove to the Oakland hills, passing boarded up storefronts. A movie marquis pleaded “Oakland residents, let’s show the world we’re a peaceful city.” We finished our meeting in a friend’s gorgeous home, where we learned that Mesherle had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter. At dinnertime, we headed to a lovely restaurant in an affluent neighborhood for great food and live music.
Involuntary manslaughter, not murder. The verdict itself seemed criminal considering that the young man had been shot at point blank range while on the ground. At dinner, the lawyers in our group painted cross-examination scenarios that should have nailed the more serious murder conviction. Yet it seems the jury bought the cop’s argument that he meant to pull his taser but mistakenly grabbed his gun. At dinner we learned that this was the first time in US history that a policeman was convicted of any crime for killing a black man while on duty. We recalled that the police who infamously beat Rodney King in Los Angeles were acquitted despite the bystander’s video, played over and over again at trial, showing the police viciously kicking King.
Growing up in New York, it sometimes seemed that white cops shooting black kids on the street was part of a harrowing ritual that had to play out each summer. When news of another shooting broke, we never wondered about the race of the kid or the cops. And we never wondered what would happen to the cops: they always got off. Back then, we did not call it “driving while black,” but I did not know a single black man who had not been stopped by a cop more than once in his life. Given this pervasive pattern of charged contact between black men and white cops, tragedy is inevitable.
As a child, my parents were staunch integrationists and my father in particular refused to let us dwell on issues of racism. He told us we were people first, not black first and he did not want us walking around with a chip on our shoulders. But when my nephew and my own two sons were born, he completely changed his tune. He told me I did not understand what it was like to be a black man, that I had to teach my sons how to stop on a dime in response to authority or risk them getting shot by police. Truthfully, I could not accept either piece of his advice.
But as I sat last night watching Oscar Grant’s mother on television as she said over and over again, “my son was murdered, my son was murdered, my son was murdered my son was murdered, “ a deep fear leached up from my gut and made me cry. A black mother’s single greatest fear is this, and it happens often enough to lodge something permanently in the recesses of your core.
After Oscar’s mother, the TV showed footage of the public reaction. Shots of people standing holding pictures of Oscar Grant. Some chant his name. Most are silent. A few protestors taunt the police, “*uck the cops!” I see some being arrested. Like Oscar was, they are face-down on the pavement being handcuffed. But these people are white. I later learn that all those arrested in the protests are white. Cut back to Oscar’s family. His grandfather, indignant: “don’t you dare disgrace my grandson’s memory by tearing up his neighborhood.”
Today I walk around the downtown area. Many storefronts were boarded up in anticipation of looting and violence. Posters saying “we support justice for Oscar Grant” apparently were regarded as insurance. Many storefronts sport posters of Oscar’s round face and wide, toothy and quite beautiful smile. One photo has been cropped, leaving just a hint of a tiny baby’s head nestled against Oscar’s face. One whole side of a building has been turned into a memorial with huge posters, flowers and candles.
There has been very little violence in response to the verdict. We learn that none of the stores with Oscar’s picture were hit. A crew of workmen is removing the boards from the Sears & Roebuck storefront. They look up and see one of the windows is cracked and say, “hey, did we do that?” Over the twenty or so blocks I walk, I see only one broken window. It is next to a storefront with a poster that says, “Love not Blood for the Streets of Oakland.”
Post and photos by Dayna Cunningham.