Shot in the back while handcuffed on the ground
“We won’t rest until we have honoured Oscar Grant by winning justice for his family and ending police brutality in Oakland.” Those were the words of Dereca Blackmon, one of the principal organizers of a rally and march of nearly 1,000 people on 7th January 2009, to protest the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant early on New Year’s Day by police on an Oakland transit station platform.
To many, Grant’s death is the latest in a series of incidents, from a deadly shootout with the Black Panthers in the 1960s to the fatal shooting of another armed man in July, that have fuelled mistrust of the police.
“Oakland, unfortunately, has had a history of treating the African-American community unfairly,” said George Holland Sr., an attorney who heads the Oakland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “The community has a great distrust for police because they feel they can’t be punished.”
Friction between law enforcement and Oakland’s black community has persisted for decades. In 1968, Black Panther Bobby Hutton, 17, was killed by police during a shoot-out. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral.
Harry Williams, an Oakland minister, said; “People are just fed up, and Oscar Grant is the match that lit up the dynamite,” Many residents perceive the police as “keepers of the gate instead of servants of the people,” he added.
The New Year’s Day shooting death of Oscar Grant on an Oakland Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) platform was electronically re-enacted hundreds of thousands of times as videos of the incident were broadcast on television and spread over the Internet.
Law enforcement officials urged patience while they investigated details surrounding the fatal New Year’s Day shooting of a 22-year-old man by a transit agency police officer.
Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Chief Gary Gee said on Sunday that the agency is “committed to completing an unbiased, thorough and detailed investigation” of the shooting death of Oscar Grant. “This case is not even four days cold. We’re in the early stages of the investigation and we will do a very thorough job,” he said.
BART officer Johannes Mehserle fired a bullet into Grant’s back as the father of a 4-year-old girl lay on his stomach, his hands cuffed, according to a lawyer for the Grant family. The bullet went through Grant’s body, ricocheted off the concrete station platform, and punctured his lungs.
Police tried to confiscate cell phone videos taken by horrified riders who witnessed the shooting, and initially claimed that the station’s security cameras didn’t record the incident. But within days videos of the killing had spread on the Internet, leaving no doubt that Grant was lying motionless when he was shot in the back. Police, meanwhile, had to admit (contrary to their earlier statements) that security cameras did capture the assault.
A few hours before the protest, Mehserle resigned from the force rather than show up to an interview with police internal affairs investigators. In a packed public meeting attended by more than 200 people, BART board members apologised for the death of Oscar to his family, friends and community members. “I think what the community needs to hear is that we apologise to his family,” Bob Franklin, a BART board member from Oakland, said after hearing 60 public speakers over six hours denounce the shooting. “As a board member, I apologise.”
Other directors agreed, saying that they are distraught over Grant’s death and feel sorry even if they have been reluctant to comment on details of the investigation into the shooting. “That young man did nothing wrong that should have caused him to lose his life that morning,” said BART board member Joel Keller of Antioch. “I’m sorry.”
The board agreed to convene a special meeting to look at the creation of a new public safety committee to look into police issues such as officer training and hiring. BART board member Tom Radulovich of San Francisco proposed that the new board committee look into creating a civilian police review board to monitor police activities.
The board members’ statements came after many public speakers expressed outrage about the shooting. Several speakers demanded the immediate arrest of the officer involved. “Seek out and arrest that man so you can bring charges on him,” said Keith Muhammad, a local minister for the Nation of Islam. “He must not be given the chance to get away.”