A fatal January 1 police shooting in an Oakland commuter train station has ignited violent protests in that city, and on Tuesday the involved (now former) officer was arrested on a warrant charging him with murder.
The shooting occurred at about two in the morning on New Year’s Day, when Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officers were called to the Fruitvale Station to break up a reported fight between two groups of train passengers. Part of the confrontation between the police officers and some of the men they detained was captured on videotape shot by onlookers in the station. When it was over, Oscar Grant, 22, was dead from a gunshot allegedly fired by Johannes Mehserle, 27, a two-year veteran of the BART police force.
Police officers involved in shootings are generally compelled to provide statements to investigators, but Mehserle, perhaps on advice of an attorney, avoided that compulsion by resigning from his job. On Tuesday, Mehserle was arrested in Nevada after an Alameda County, Calif., judge issued a warrant charging him with murder.
The incident raises several issues, chief among them of course the question of whether the shooting was justified. Grant was reportedly unarmed at the time, but the various videos linked above appear to show Mehserle and two other officers struggling with him. In one of the videos, Mehserle can be seen rising from his knees over Grant, drawing his weapon and firing downward. The bullet struck Grant in the back and passed through his body, then ricocheted upward and lodged in his lung. Grant was taken to a local hospital but died from his wounds.
One must always bear in mind that videos of police incidents may not tell the entire story, but if Mehserle is going to claim the shooting was somehow justified, I’ve seen little in any of the videos to suggest it. One theory circulating in the Bay Area media is that Mehserle believed he had drawn a Taser and intended to stun Grant rather than shoot him.
It’s a plausible theory, and indeed there have been incidents where officers mistakenly shot suspects they intended to shock with a Taser. And as theories go, its infinitely more plausible than the one alleging that in shooting Grant Mehserle committed “murder,” which under California law requires “malice aforethought.” In other words, for Mehserle to be convicted of murder, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he decided, in front of several of his colleagues and scores of witnesses, that he had had enough of this guy he was trying to handcuff and chose to end the struggle by killing him.
I doubt it.
Mehserle’s fate will be determined as much by politics as it is by justice, as the Grant’s death has — and not without apparent justification — aroused the mighty Bay Area grievance industry to full voice. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums encouraged the Alameda County district attorney to move expeditiously in bringing charges, and in securing a murder warrant so quickly the D.A. certainly delivered. But there was no justification for how last Wednesday’s protest at the Fruitville Station devolved into a full-scale riot, complete with smashed windows, looted stores, and torched cars. More than 100 people were arrested before order was restored.
But that raises a disturbing question: What is the definition of “order” in the city of Oakland? Judging from some of the rhetoric heard since the Grant shooting, a stranger might judge that the greatest threat to a young black man in that city is being gunned down by some racist white cop. Again, this is not to suggest that the anger over Grant’s death is unjustified, but one wonders whether some of that outrage might be summoned when, as happens with horrifying frequency, one young black man in Oakland kills another one.
The website Oakland Crimespotting paints an alarming picture. Indeed, if you view the map and move the slider so as to reveal a full month’s worth of all the various crimes reported to the Oakland Police Department, the dots are so numerous they nearly obliterate the entire city. And the picture scarcely improves if you choose to include only the most serious crimes, the overwhelming majority of which are committed by blacks against other blacks. Yet only the killing of a black man by a white cop can rouse the voices of protest.
Johannes Mehserle will have his day in court. He may well be convicted of a crime (though it almost certainly won’t be murder), but when his trial concludes and all the screaming is over, how different will that map look? Not very, and that’s something to scream about.