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Curious Stance by California NAACP on Justice for Oscar Grant
The trial of the Bay Area cop who killed Oscar Grant has, in itself, created quite a stir in Los Angeles when it began last week, but not as much a furor as the fact that the white officer’s jury contains no African-Americans, and not nearly as much as the outrage expressed over the California NAACP’s position that, in effect, “that’s OK.”
Johannes Mehserle, 28, a White former police officer with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, shot and killed the Black 22-year-old Grant in the back as he lay face down, handcuffed and unarmed on a BART station platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. The killing was videotaped by bystanders and shown repeatedly on television and the Internet.
Mehserle was charged for Grant’s killing shortly thereafter, but his trial was moved from Oakland to Los Angeles because of the racial tensions the case caused in that area. The killing occurred and the trial was originally set in a community with a high concentration of African-Americans but it was moved to the more ethnically diverse Los Angeles County. Yet, when the jury was impaneled last week, it ended up being composed of five Latinas, three White women, two White men and two Latinos, with one of these jurors rumored to be a Pacific Islander — but not a single Black person. This exclusion gave Black folks pause as visions of a history of “White folks justice” replayed in their heads.
Alice Huffman, president of the California State Conference of the NAACP, issued a press release last weekend admonishing Blacks “to be calm and trust the justice system.” She called the jury “diverse,” and said it “can render a just verdict.”
“The NAACP has always depended on the justice system to render fair and just decisions in the cause of civil rights for African-American citizens,” Huffman said in her press release. “We choose to take a positive outlook on the Oscar Grant case…The Los Angeles community has been involved with and well informed regarding police brutality cases,” Huffman said.
“How can any Black person or civil rights organization trust the justice system?” asked the Rev. Eric Lee, president of SCLC. “That’s a Republican mindset! The justice system has never been about justice,” he continued. “Any time a justice system requires you to prove intent to determine guilt allows for the perpetrator to claim he made a ‘mistake.‘ Mistakes for White folks equate to acquittals, while mistakes for Black folks equate to persecution.”
Imprisoned community activist Najee Ali said: “Alice’s comments are delusional. History has shown us that whenever a Black victim has an all-White jury, Blacks never get justice — from the murders of Emmett Till and Medger Evers to the police beatings of Rodney King and Donovan Jackson. Whenever the jury is stacked with Whites, their bias against Black victims comes out. Alice needs to stop being politically correct and buck dancing for White folks.”
The Rev. Lewis Logan is co-founder of the Reach Christian Community Outreach. He has been a longtime community activist and was deeply involved in quelling the turbulent aftermath of the 2005 LAPD killing of the child, Devin Brown. Logan is questioning what state he’s in. “Is this Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia?” he asked. Logan, too, reflected on the trial of Emmett Till’s killers in Mississippi, which had no Blacks on that jury.
“If Oscar Grant, whom Mr. Mehserle is accused of killing, represents a significant BART customer base, and if African-Americans were among the actual witnesses of this tragic incident, why then is there not one person representative of Mr. Grant’s community considered a peer of Officer Mehserle on the jury? Logan asked. “Justice will never come to us freely,” Logan continued. “We can only expect to achieve in the suites what we are organized and determined to take in the streets.”
Royce Esters, president of NAEJA, who has been working with the Justice for Oscar Grant Committee in conducting courthouse protests of the trial, is urging the community not to trust the justice system in this case. “How can you trust the system in this or any other case when they’ve excluded African-Americans from the system, itself?” Esters asked.
Anthony Samad, a college professor, author, political commentator and former president of the Los Angeles NAACP, said: “The NAACP statement is peculiar in that it suggests the Black community’s distrust of the justice system is somehow illegitimate. Los Angeles is haunted by its highly racialized police abuse cases. Yes, L.A. is familiar with police abuse cases, but we are also a community that has been victimized by police abuses cases and Los Angeles isn’t a place where justice can be found against police officers.
“Huffman’s statement should have said that the NAACP is monitoring the case in the interest of justice and fairness, not be an apologist for the exclusion of Black jurors,” Samad continued. “Blacks in Los Angeles have very legitimate reasons for distrusting the justice system today. The court system today is very different from the ones in which the NAACP tried cases in 1954. Judicial temperament is much more conservative and the racial intent to subvert justice is a lot more refined.”
Samad continued: “Huffman’s position is more a ‘calm the natives‘ message that chooses to deal with fiction rather than the reality we know. This is not exactly what you would expect from a civil rights group which also knows the violation is coming and the disappointment is likely. If the NAACP wants to be optimistic, then it should advocate for the conviction, not the process.”
Refusing to be regarded as an apologist for Huffman and the NAACP, attorney Carl Douglas pointed out that the lamentable absence of a Black face among the jurors could have resulted from the dearth of Blacks in the jury pool.
“I am informed that the attorney for the defendant chose to excuse four African-American jurors who were being considered for the trial, Douglas said. “I am also informed that there were only about 12 prospective African-Americans out of the 90 potential jurors who were called for service on this case,” Douglas continued. “That small number speaks volumes about the need for African-Americans to register to vote and to honor their jury service commitments when they receive notices in the mail for jury service. Far too often, such notices are trashed or ignored by many in our community, leaving our voices muted when it comes to serving on criminal and civil juries in Los Angeles County.”
Huffman did not respond to my written memo questioning her position on this matter, nor did she return my follow-up call for an interview.