JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
On Wednesday, vigils marked the fifth-year anniversary of the killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American man who was fatally shot by a police officer at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station on January 1, 2009.
Video captured the incident. A warning for our viewers: it is very, very graphic.
Johannes Mehserle, the police officer who was charged with shooting Grant, only served a total of 12 months in prison after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The killing of Grant, failure of prosecutors to convict Mehserle of murder, and his early release sparked protests in Oakland and around the country. The incident has helped bring the issue of police brutality in the African-American community to the forefront.
The feature film Fruitvale Station was released in 2013 and detailed the incident.
Now joining us to discuss this is Thandisizwe Chimurenga. She’s an award-winning journalist. Her upcoming book is called No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant.
Thank you so much for joining us.
THANDISIZWE CHIMURENGA, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: So the officer that was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, a lot of people in this country would argue that justice was served, he had his moment in court, and that we should all be happy with that, we should all accept it. What is your response to such arguments?
CHIMURENGA: My response to an argument such as that is he was not charged with first degree murder, first of all. He was neither convicted of first degree or second degree murder. He was given time off on his sentence.
So just because a person goes through the justice system, does that mean that justice has been served? Yes, he had his day in court. But what is the life of a young black man worth? He spent less time in jail than Michael Vick did for conviction of running a dog-fighting ring. Michael Vick was not convicted of killing dogs. He was convicted of running an illegal gambling ring. Plaxico Burress shot himself and spent more time in jail.
So when you have the power of the state behind you as a law enforcement officer and you commit a violation as clearly egregious as this was and you’re sentenced to two years in jail, and then you only spend one year in jail because of good-behavior credits, where is the justice in that?
NOOR: And so police brutality is nothing new in Oakland. It’s been happening long before the killing of Oscar Grant. But talk about why this was such a pivotal moment in the communities there that came together and formed this broad movement that was able to bring about concrete changes in Oakland, in law enforcement there.
CHIMURENGA: I think it had to do, again, with the egregiousness of this offense. It was witnessed by hundreds if not thousands of people at one time. It was recorded by scores of people on both cell phones and digital cameras. Testimony in the courtroom showed that people were hearing the press’s accounts of what happened the day after and began contacting BART. They began contacting Bay Area media outlets. They began contacting John Burris’s office, the civil rights attorney in Oakland, saying no, that’s not what I saw, this is what I saw, or here’s my footage, here, you can look at it from my angle. So there were so many witnesses to this occurrence—it was, again, videotaped and went viral, thanks to the wonders of YouTube and the internet. And then when you add to it the insistence of the defense to push for such a vile and heinous lie, that Mehserle was attempting to go for his Taser but accidentally pulled his gun and shot Oscar Grant, I think those are some of the main reasons why it created—it struck such a chord in people.
NOOR: And when communities are organizing against issues like police brutality, especially in California, one of the institutions that they come up against, very powerful institutions, are the law enforcement unions. Talk about what role they played in opposing the movement that was demanding justice for Oscar Grant.
CHIMURENGA: Well, in the Oscar Grant case and in several other cases, when you’re talking about the issue of police terrorism (that’s the phrase that I prefer, as opposed to brutality), you have the police officers’ bill of rights, which is a law passed in California which basically shields police officers from public scrutiny. If I’m a journalist and I have a history of writing horrible articles, you can go and look that up. If there is a teacher who’s got a history of abusing students, you’ll be able to find that out. The same with doctors. But in terms of police officers, if a police officer has a history of abusing people, of shooting, of seeing guns where there are no guns, we can’t find that out because of the shield of the police officers’ bill of rights.
And so organizations such as the California Peace Officers Research Council and these police unions—in Los Angeles, we have the Los Angeles Police Protective League—all of these various organized entities on behalf of law enforcement ensure that there is a shield, based upon law, that protects their officers from public scrutiny.
NOOR: And talk about the concrete things that were won as a result of this movement that sprung from Oscar Grant’s killing.
CHIMURENGA: Well, my understanding is that the Justice for Oscar Grant movement claimed several victories. Now, the victories that they’re claiming, I don’t know if those individuals will admit to it, I don’t know if Tom Orloff will admit that he retired because he was forced to by the Justice for Oscar Grant movement, but he did indeed retire after being forced to issue a warrant for the arrest of Johannes Mehserle for the crime of murder. The police chief of BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Association, resigned. And incidentally, since that time, a new report has come out saying that BART has greatly improved its training and policies and performance since Oscar’s murder.
We have—again, Johannes Mehserle was the first on-duty police officer in the history of California to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting. He was the first police officer to be convicted. It was involuntary manslaughter, not murder, but it was still a conviction based upon the outrage and the organizing abilities of people across various stripes, across ethnicities, across cultures, who came together in the wake of this tragedy.
NOOR: And finally, your soon-to-be-released book is called No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant. Talk about the work that remains for this movement in Oakland and around the country.
CHIMURENGA: Well, in Oakland and around the country—well, in California in particular, the police officers’ bill of rights either needs to be abolished or amended. We need to be able to know who are those officers who consistently violate the human rights of people in various communities. It either needs to be abolished or severely curtailed. Police power in general needs to be severely curtailed.
What we found with the case of Johannes Mehserle is that police officers are given an automatic get out of jail free card. There is an automatic belief in the officers’ innocence in spite of eyewitness testimony, in spite of what may be incidents of terrorism and brutality that we’ve been able to glean from that officer’s past. When jury members go into a courtroom, if we’re able to get a conviction, if we’re able to—excuse me—if we are able to even get charges filed so that police officers can go through the criminal justice system, they are automatically given the benefit of the doubt.
And that type of support has to be eroded. It goes from the everyday police terrorism that happens in black and brown communities all the way up to what we’re seeing now in terms of the militarization of police departments and the increased surveillance and spying powers of police departments across the country. If the blanket support for the police is eroded, there’s no way they’re going to be able to utilize drones or anything else under the guise of public safety. So that’s something that’s got to be seriously looked into, this blanket support that the police have when they have obvious records of abuse of their authority.
NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.
CHIMURENGA: Thank you.
NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.
Thank you so much for joining us.