Southern California: First Cop on Trial for Murder in the History of the State Is Headed Your Way
In the words of the late great Harvey Milk*, I'm here to recruit you. The trial of Johannes Mehserle is about to head your way and the time is now for Southern California social justice and media activists to start getting ready.
In Oakland, California, in the early hours of January 1st of this year, while Bay Area Rapid Transit passenger Oscar Grant III lay face-down on a BART platform with another officer's knee on his shoulder, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle drew his service weapon and shot Oscar Grant in the back, execution-style. This type of killing of an unarmed, young African American man by police is all too common in America. L.A. police are reported to have killed 310 people in the last ten years. San Diego police have killed ninety-one people in the same time. It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of those killed by police are people of color. For instance, the Oakland police department has shot nearly fifty citizens in the last six years, killing a third of them, and not a single one of the victims of these "officer-involved shootings" was of European descent. Cops cited the usual excuses of fearing for their lives, thinking they'd seen weapons on unarmed people, and every last one of the shootings was determined by the OPD and the Alameda County District Attorney's office to have been justified.
Similarly, the BART police department started lying as soon as the news was out on New Year's Day. At first they denied that Oscar Grant was restrained on the platform when he was shot. They denied that they had video of the incident. The police chief blindly defended his officers by claiming they had acted professionally on the platform. Giving Johannes Mehserle far more leniency than even the California Police Bill of Rights calls for, he was not even questioned by superiors at BART. [BART has continued to officially blame Oscar Grant for having been shot in the back.] The District Attorney of Alameda County showed little interest in pursuing the case after the shooting.
The murder of Oscar Grant looked very much like it would be swept under the rug just as the other 1000 police killings have been in California since 1999. But, this time it was different -- he was killed in front of hundreds of witnesses on a crowded train returning home after New Year's Eve celebrations. While BART police were brutalizing Oscar Grant and his friends on the BART platform -- punching them, pulling their hair, pointing tasers in their faces -- a fair number of the witnesses on the train had the foresight, like good copwatchers, to record video of the incident on their cell phones and cameras. Sure enough, they also captured the shooting on video. A few days after the shooting, several of these videos of the shooting began to appear on the internet. It became immediately clear to anyone who watched the available video that BART had been lying and that it was completely inexcusable for Mehserle to have not even been questioned about the matter. Imagine, if you will, what would happen to any one of us if we had been caught shooting a police officer or anyone else on camera.
On January 7th, the same day funeral services were held for Oscar Grant, Johannes Mehserle resigned from BART, still not having been held to account in any way. In the afternoon, about 1,500 people attended a rally at the Fruitvale BART station where Oscar Grant had been killed exactly one week before. Dozens of people young and old took to the mic to express their sadness, their outrage, and their commitment to stopping the wanton killing of people of color by police. As dark approached that day, a group of about 300 people marched up International Boulevard heading towards downtown Oakland. It was downtown that the rally and march turned into a rebellion lasting several hours. A police car was attacked, two other cars were burned. Windows were broken throughout downtown. By the time it was over police had arrested more than 100 people, over half of them in a mass arrest late in the evening. Most of the charges have been dropped but three people are still facing bogus felony charges, one being prominent African American Bay Area media activist JR Valrey. The corporate media railed against the property destruction resulting from the rebellion, all the while attempting to rationalize the murder of Oscar Grant as some sort of accident. It was the corporate media that invented one of the defenses that Mehserle himself is now using in court to avoid culpability, that is that Mehserle intended to draw his taser when he pulled his gun instead.
The same ad hoc coalition of community activists that had organized the rally on the 7th continued to demand accountability and declared that they would hold a rally every Thursday on the weekly anniversary of the shooting until Mehserle was charged with murder. The next rally was scheduled for January 14th, to happen in front of Oakland City Hall, and it promised to be significantly larger than the first. Indeed, the second rally was up to 5,000 people strong, all committed to seeking justice for Oscar Grant. Prior to that day, however, after having broken up smaller protests downtown throughout the week, authorities clearly feared an even larger rebellion with the second rally approaching, and on January 13th, Johannes Mehserle was arrested and charged with murder. Common wisdom amongst community activists in the Bay Area since then is that riots work. As a result of community pressure when authorities were all too ready to look the other way as they almost always to when it comes to police violence, Johannes Mehserle is the now first police officer in the history of California to face a murder trial for an on-duty shooting.
Mehserle walks free now because he was granted bail and his defense is being funded by police unions. They have successfully delayed the case and have attempted to derail it at every turn. Not surprisingly, the corporate media has done a terrible job reporting on the various hearings, generally parroting defense motions and testimony of BART cops verbatim with little to no critical analysis or reporting on evidence that refutes defense claims. To cite just one particularly egregious example, a local TV station reposted an AP piece built solely on a regurgitation of the lies told by BART officer Marysol Domenici -- only at the very end of the article did it include a sentence that read: "Deputy District Attorney David Stein, however, tried to point out inconsistencies in their testimony." The Deputy DA "tried" to point out inconsistencies?!? What actually happened that day in the Mehserle's preliminary hearing was that Domenici showed herself to be a complete liar and was blatantly exposed as such by the prosecutor. Even the judge himself repeatedly called out the obvious lies of the various BART officers who testified over the course of the preliminary hearing. But you didn't hear about that in the corporate media.
The San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center (Indybay), on the other hand, reported with great detail the actual happenings inside the preliminary hearing and other court dates. In fact, you can find actual court filings and transcripts from hearings at the site. It is not hyperbole to say that the related reports by numerous individuals at Indybay have proven invaluable for community activists to stay informed about the case.
It was expected that Mehserle's defense team would cite the abundance of Bay Area media coverage of the case and the January Oscar Grant Rebellions as reasons to move the trial out of the county in which Mehserle murdered Oscar Grant. Community activists were taken aback, though, when blatantly racist arguments were made about how African Americans could not be fair jurors and how the defense intended to grill prospective African American jurors in extraordinary ways. Additionally, in an affront to free speech, Mehserle and his defense claimed that the many reports on Indybay and the public outreach actions of community activists were cause for a venue change. Unfortunately, Judge Jacobson agreed, and so Mehserle's trial is now set to be held in either Los Angeles or San Diego County.
On the afternoon of November 19th, Judge Jacobson is set to hear defense and prosecution arguments regarding venue selection. The defense will argue for the much more conservative and police-friendly San Diego. Prosecutors will make a case for holding the trial in Los Angeles which, while not an exact match for Alameda County, represents a similarly diverse populace in terms of ethnicity and political persuasions. It is not known if the judge will make a ruling at the conclusion of the hearing, but a final decision is expected at any time afterward. Regardless of where the trial is held, the venue change offers an opportunity for activists up and down the state to forge new alliances dedicated to securing justice for Oscar Grant, a new solidarity that could push the broader movement against racist state-sanctioned violence to new levels.
Let me take the time to repeat this for the record -- Johannes Mehserle is the first police officer in the history of California to face a murder trial for an on-duty shooting. This is a hugely important case, far too important to simply trust that the corporate media and prosecutors will do the right thing on their own. They have shown repeatedly that they will not. We cannot assume that justice will be done without our direct involvement.
The time is now for Southern California activists of all stripes concerned about justice to join in solidarity with their brothers and sisters from Oakland and the Bay Area. Together let's get the truth out there. Let's hold authorities accountable for any action they take that is not in the interest of justice.
- We need media activists, experienced or not, who can attend court hearings which are held during business hours so that truthful reports can be made available to the general public and to activists everywhere concerned with justice for Oscar Grant and all victims of police violence.
- We need social justice demonstrators outside and around the courthouse to remind prosecutors that we are watching and will tolerate nothing less than their full effort towards securing a conviction for Johannes Mehserle.
- We need trusted allies to offer space in their homes for Bay Area activists who will likely want to come south to participate in related activities intermittently.
- We need to fundraise to assist the family of Oscar Grant who must soon leave their jobs and relocate to the venue county in order to attend the entire trial. At this point the trial is expected to last several months from jury selection to the final verdict and hopefully sentencing.
A good place to start now is by informing yourself and others. Remember that you can't trust the corporate media when your local television stations and newspapers begin to pick up on the story. A thorough independent media repository of information on the various fronts of the movement for justice for Oscar Grant has been compiled at http://www.indybay.org/oscargrant.
* Harvey Milk fought for gay rights and against police brutality, and, in the end, was assassinated by a former police officer turned politician.
Please, forward this widely to everyone you can -- through blogs, email, print it out, whatever -- especially if you have friends and allies in Southern California.
Judge Jacobson ruled that the trial will be held in Los Angeles in 6-12 months. It represents an injustice for it not to be held in Alameda County, but LA was preferred over San Diego by family and community activists.
Read what actually happened in court room that corporate media won't ever cover in such detail.