Last Friday, transit officer Johannes Mehserle, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in July for the killing of Oscar Grant, was sentenced to two years in prison — the minimum sentence, which is expected to carry little more that a few more weeks of incarceration, with time served.
The sentence has opened old wounds, causing many to question the extent to which the justice system values the lives of African-American males, or whether it is predisposed to validate the perception that black men’s lives are disposable.
As the family continues to pursue its options with the Department of Justice, our broader community should recognize this moment as a critical opportunity to reflect on the top five lessons we can learn from the Oscar Grant case.
Lesson 1: Justice is not now, nor has it ever been, colorblind.
After Mehserle’s sentencing was delivered, Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson openly declared that the criminal justice system was “racist.” While the family has voiced concerns about the extent to which key judicial decisions may have influenced the outcomes of the case, the truth is that they — and others like them — are haunted by a legacy of perceived and real violations of African-Americans’ human and civil rights in the criminal justice system.
“The US Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to proceed in a way that results in more executions of those who kill whites than those who murder black people,” said Eva Paterson, President of the Equal Justice Society. “The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in liberal San Francisco recently held that despite the fact that disenfranchising ex-felons disproportionately excludes brown and black people from voting, it still would not eliminate the racial bias from the criminal justice system. The jury and the judge in the Oscar Grant case perpetuated this blatant bias. It’s business as usual. Post-racial? Not really.”
Lesson 2: A local killing is never just local.
Oscar Grant’s fatal shooting in Oakland. Mark Anthony Barmore’s fatal shooting in Rockford, Illinois. Sean Bell fatal shooting in New York. Seven-year old Aiyana Stanley fatal shooting in Detroit. While these cases tend to be treated as isolated incidents, they are actually symptomatic of a larger trend of excessive force that undermines the legitimacy of law enforcement in many communities of color.
“These isolated incidents rarely receive national attention, and it is not until the trial or sentencing that the general public becomes aware of what’s happened,” said Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, based in Washington, DC. “There’s no connectivity seen nationwide, so it becomes a story of one cop or one police department. No one sees that this is a pattern of police misconduct that occurs often, with African-American men as targets. It’s one of the reasons there hasn’t been a prioritization of these issues in the proper context or the development of a coherent action plan by activist organizations and leaders nationwide.”
Lesson 3: Images Matter.
Research on implicit bias shows that as people who live in a racially stratified society, we unconsciously harbor biases that sometimes we’re not even aware of — and they inform our decisions, ideas, and actions. These negative stereotypes, often reinforced through media and entertainment, have a terrible impact on the outcomes of African-Americans in the criminal justice system.
However, multimedia can also be a powerful advocacy tool, if used appropriately. When the video of Oscar Grant’s killing went viral, it became a force for collective mobilization, ultimately providing the grounds for a murder charge against the officer, and sparking local legislative changes, investigations, and trainings that we all hope will prevent something like this from happening again.
We must continue to record our stories and tell our truths so that we are armed with information — both empirical and anecdotal — when demanding justice. It can be a game changer.
Lesson 4: Systemic change is needed — and we need it now.
While decades have passed since scholar activists such as Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois first challenged the justice system to uphold a higher standard that is void of racial bias, there is still a need to ensure that we administer justice with fairness and integrity.
“The lesson learned is simple,” said Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. “If we fail to muster the courage and the will to do what is necessary, there will be more funerals for men like Oscar Grant — many more. Meanwhile, millions more poor people of color will cycle in and out of our prison system, locked up, locked, out, and discarded, just as they have for decades.”
Lesson 5: We can heal—but not with a beer summit.
In the distant memory of the American public, a prominent professor is still sitting on the lawn, sipping beer with the President of the United States and a local police officer, discussing racial profiling and excessive force in ways that will never truly be digestible to those who struggle to heal from the victimization caused by excessive force in their communities.
“The recent sentencing of Johannes Mehserle is yet another example of how our communities are re-traumatized by the very institutions that should protect the public good,” said Dr. Shawn Ginwright, Associate Professor of Education at San Francisco State University and author of Black Youth Rising: Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America. “The sentencing sends the simple yet familiar message that a black man’s life is somehow less important than others. While we may not articulate the psychic pain this message causes, the symptoms are seen everywhere. Most evident is our loss of hope, unresolved rage, and most importantly, political apathy.”
However miserably we have collectively failed to stimulate action against police misconduct in the past, the fact remains that we can heal from this type of victimization — and we must.
This is a call to action.