Revolution #216, November 14, 2010

Token Sentence for Oscar Grant's Killer

Anger in the Streets of Oakland

Johannes Mehserle, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop, shot and killed Oscar Grant while Oscar lay face down on the BART platform on New Year's Day, 2009. After a series of determined protests in the Bay Area and beyond, Mehserle was charged, and later convicted—but only for "involuntary manslaughter."

On Friday, November 5, Mehserle was sentenced in Los Angeles. He was given two years in prison with credit for time served, the lightest possible sentence he could have received. The judge overturned the jury's decision to convict Mehserle on a separate charge of intentionally firing a gun, which meant he could give Mehserle the minimum punishment. First, after the people were told to trust the courts to get justice for Oscar Grant, Mehserle was convicted only for involuntary manslaughter rather than second-degree murder. Then on top of that, one of the only two charges that Mehserle was convicted on has been tossed out! The immediate reaction by many was shock, but not necessarily surprise. This verdict showed again that there is great injustice built into this system.

As the word of the slap-on-the-wrist sentence meted out to Mehserle circulated among people in downtown Oakland, a crowd started forming for an Oscar Grant memorial where an altar to his memory was being created by young activists and artists.

This was not a gathering to mourn, but to voice outrage against the sentence, and with determination to continue to resist. People came together at the spot of the powerful January 2009 rebellion of thousands of youth that, along with other protests, forced the system to arrest Mehserle in the first place. And now, nearly two years later, the sentence—two years minus 290 days already served—is yet another reminder that the system is set up to protect the police and those they serve, not the people. In the face of hundreds of Oakland police, and massive reinforcements from Alameda County and other cities, the rally grew from a couple hundred youth to over 500 people, streaming in from all over Oakland and adjacent cities. Four hours later nearly 200 took the streets, marching toward the Fruitvale BART station where Oscar was killed. When the march entered a proletarian section of the city, the police brought in a huge force to encircle the march, would not let anyone leave, and made mass arrests.

As we go to press, news media are reporting 152 people were arrested. People on the scene say this included media, observers, and marchers.

Some people on the street seemed surprised or dismayed by the light sentence. When asked what she thought, one young white woman said, "We live in a very unjust world." But the rally seethed with outrage. A Black woman from Sacramento said, "They run roughshod over people, they bully you, they disrespect women, they call them ‘bitches,' they take people's lives. It's not surprising to any people in Oakland. Definitely not to a Black person, I'm sure. But when something happens to a police officer, the world stops. So justice needs to be demanded."

A 55-year-old Black veteran said, "I mean it's so unfair, so fucking unfair. They got it on videotape. You can't even justify what that fucker did. You know the difference between a taser and a damn pistol. (Mehserle's defense included the absurd claim that he shot Oscar Grant with a gun but thought he was reaching for a taser.) The weight is different. I was in the service. Don't give me that bullshit. It was all set up to let him go." He added, "I'm really angry, man. That's why I come down here. I'm tired of all this injustice in this nation. If it keep going the way it's going, they're gonna have a civil war right here, they're gonna be fighting us in a minute."

Revolutionaries on the scene showed him the Message and Call from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA—"The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have," and read the part which says, "yes, it is true—now is not yet the time, in this country, to go all-out to seize the power away from those who rule over us and to bring a new power, serving our interests, into being. But now IS the time to be WORKING FOR REVOLUTION—to be stepping up resistance while building a movement for revolution—to prepare for the time when it WILL be possible to go all out to seize the power." He took some copies of the Message and Call to get out. Later he was overheard telling a reporter, "I think this system can't be fixed. We need a revolution, a whole different system!"

Black youth lined up at a microphone to speak out against the verdict, against the brutality they face every day, and against the racism that puts every Black and brown life at risk. Since the murder of Oscar, the Revolution Club in the Bay Area has popularized the slogan, "Justice for Oscar Grant! The Whole Damn System is Guilty." And in this rally, it was clear that some people have taken it up. Speaker after speaker spoke out against "the system," and for "revolution." For some this meant a system where cops can no longer murder Black youth and get away with it. For others it meant seeing the police as a system, particularly as they relate to and oppress Black people.

Different ideas of what kind of change is needed were debated, and were reflected in contradictory things said even by the same person. One activist said, "It's the whole damn system that we're fighting, but we've got to keep fighting for a BART police review board. We've got to get something out of this struggle." An older Black woman said (in response to a speaker who said the system is broken, we have to fix it), "It is the system. It ain't broken. That's the way it's set up." But then she went on to say that we have to learn from Martin Luther King and to fight to change the laws.

An Iraq war veteran, a rapper, said he is no stranger to police brutality. His uncle was killed by the L.A. police. He talked about the similarity of kicking down doors and murdering people in Iraq and what goes on here. All around the world "Fuck the Police." This got a powerful response from the crowd.

A speaker representing the Revolution Club spoke to the verdict being illegitimate and the whole damn system being illegitimate. She spoke to the kind of revolution we need and that we are building—for socialism and communism, not only for the outrages heaped upon the people of this country but the outrages this system is bringing to the whole world. She read a passage from the Message and Call and invited everyone to read the statement. "Make today the day you get serious about what it's actually going to take to change this. Make this the day you get serious about making revolution." She was greeted with broad applause, and many people were seen digging into the statement.

Letting off a cop who murdered a young Black man in cold blood, in front of hundreds of witnesses, with a token sentence is a crime. Demanding justice for Oscar Grant is not! All those arrested at the November 5 protest in Oakland should be released immediately without charges.

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