By: Cameron Sturdevant
Not long after midnight on New Year’s Day, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was gunned down by a Bay Area Rapid Transit system police officer as he lay face down on the floor of a station platform.
In a video of the shooting, circulated widely on the Internet, Grant can be seen lying prone and motionless while police officer Johannes Mehserle, surrounded by six other officers, draws his gun and shoots Grant in the back. No one, other than the officers, had weapons.
Thousands of angry demonstrators marched in two large protests in the weeks following the killing. Shockingly, Mehserle was allowed to flee to Nevada rather than be placed under arrest. Under pressure from the protest, authorities did arrest Mehserle, though he was subsequently released on $3 million bail.
Many individuals and organizations, including the Oakland CEDP, have gotten behind this fight to demand that BART transit police be disarmed; that all of the officers on the platform be arrested and charged; and that Johannes Mehserle be vigorously prosecuted.
Our work has already confirmed what we know from many death penalty cases: the law is applied loosely and lazily for the rich and their armed servants, while it is applied strictly and vigorously for the rest of us. Further, it is clear that the police used racial profiling when deciding to stop Grant and his friends, and they are using a code of silence to impede the investigation.
Why is the Campaign to End the Death Penalty involved?
Grant’s death was an execution, plain and simple, carried out at the hands of the state. And the state, far from being horrified and seeking to immediately correct this awful event, has been resisting any kind of responsibility–from the very first moments, when police officers delayed even calling an ambulance for 30 minutes.
Instead of issuing apologies to Oscar Grant’s survivors–and the other young men on the platform who saw their friend murdered before their eyes–there has been silence and arrests. The night Grant was killed, his friends were taken to the notorious Santa Rita mega-jail and not released until the early morning hours.
As an organization opposed to all executions, the CEDP in Oakland saw an obvious connection between our long-term work and the specific case of Oscar Grant.
Many of the men and women we know on death row have told anyone who would listen of the police misconduct in their case. The videotape showing the killing of Oscar Grant–and police crackdowns on the protests that followed–confirm that police brutality and abuse does happen.
But the large protests in Oakland–where demonstrations of any kind are rare–show that ordinary people weren’t going to shrug off this incident as just another case of out-of-control police violence.
What do we mean by “Justice for Oscar Grant III?”
There is a lively debate among the organizations coming together in this case. On the one hand, there are organizations, including Critical Resistance, that stop short of calling for the imprisonment of killer cop Johannes Mehserle. Other groups, including the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, have protested in the street for the arrest, indictment and incarceration of Mehserle.
For us and many family members, a civil suit that provides money damages is not sufficient. Mehserle must be held personally accountable and serve a long term of years in prison for the death of Oscar Grant.
Does this mean that we think prisons work? Is that why we are calling for the jailing of Johannes Mehserle? In this particular case, we believe that the imprisonment of Mehserle would send a message to all police officers in California that they may be held accountable for killing civilians, even if they are on duty and in the process of arresting a person.
Sending a police officer to jail for committing murder while on duty is different from the way the laws are applied to regular people. Police are in almost every way “above the law” that they are sworn to uphold. In other words, the law is fine for everyone except the police.
In the name of enforcing the law, police officers constantly endanger innocent bystanders by speeding, driving recklessly and using their service revolver, Taser, baton, pepper spray or flashlight to brutally subdue people.
It goes without saying that the CEDP has a long history of challenging the role of prisons in our society. We called for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to pardon Stanley Tookie Williams, one of the founders of the Crips street gang, from death row in part because of his changed life. We were clear in saying that Williams changed in spite of his incarceration, and with no help whatsoever from corrections officials or the so-called correctional system. We specifically call for an end to the death penalty, while also opposing “life without the possibility of parole” as an alternative sentence.
Justice for Oscar Grant means that the police be held in check and never allowed again to kill with no thought of the consequences.