Why the Oscar Grant shooting still strikes a nerve

The killing of Oscar Grant was sobering. It’s not only the way he was killed, lying face down with a police officer’s gun in his back, nor the fact that thanks to modern technology the entire event was captured on cellphone cameras and subsequently made available on YouTube for all to see. It was the timing.

Grant’s 2009 death stung, maybe even moreso than the killing of Sean Bell just a few years earlier, because it came only a few short months after the historic election of President Barack Obama. So much was, and still is, being made of the idea of a “post-racial” America. The juxtaposition of Obama’s election and the cold-blooded killing of an unarmed 22 year-old at the hands of police was a reminder of just how far from a “post-racial” society we were. It was a reminder that this is still America.

And if you needed any more proof, the conviction and sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, the officer responsible for firing the fatal shot, is full of it. Acquitted of murder, Mehserle was found guilty on the much less charge of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison, the minimum, on November 5, 2010.

Click here to view a slideshow of anger unleashed by the Oscar Grant verdict

As of today, June 13, Mehserle is a free man, by the order of a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who determined Mehserle’s “mandated custody credits will be equal to or exceed the sentence imposed” and he was to be released from custody. In the time since his arrest, Mehserle has spent 365 days in jail, earning 366 days worth of good conduct credits, totaling the length of his two year minimum sentence. This is the American justice system at work.

Grant’s family, friends, the eyewitnesses, activists, and many others who have followed this case from the beginning are understandably and justifiably outraged at this gross miscarriage of justice. The message that this young man’s life was worthless in the eyes of the law has been sent unambiguously. Again and again we have seen the courts fail to provide justice in any real, tangible sense of the word when comes to prosecuting on behalf of black victims. We should all be angry.

We should also remain peaceful. Protests have taken place in Oakland and across the country over the past two years, with some taking place last night and into today to demonstrate the community’s support for Grant and displeasure with the decision to release Mehserle a little more than 11 months into his already truncated sentence. These protests have been largely peaceful, with only scattered instances of violence and/or destruction of property. Reports from those involved in the protests say that those responsible for the violence had little to do with the actual protests and were taking advantage of the scene to further their own vandalism.
It’s important that the protests are sustained but peaceful. One need look no further than the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict that led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots to show that a violent and destructive reaction to injustice from the courts does nothing. The police continue to shoot to kill with impunity and the judges continue to view the loss of black life with indifference. Violence does little to solve the problem.

Instead, those among us truly invested in seeing justice served in the future should take our cues from the Arab Spring, the explosion of non-violent protests that swept North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year and resulted in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Power concedes only in the face of power, but it would be a mistake to believe that power only exists at the end of a gun or in the swing of bat.

What the people in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere recognized is that their power lay in raising their collective voices in direct opposition to their oppression. Sustained resistance, patience, stern resolve, and sheer will focused toward a set of clear goals were able to win out in Egypt and Tunisia.

On the other side, Libya has erupted into a state of civil war, as President Muammar Gadhafi elected to use violence to suppress the uprising taking place there, with NATO forces have joined in to provide support for the rebels. There is no telling how long the conflict there will last.

People have a right to self defense, and unarmed protests may not always yield the desired results, but peaceful resistance stands as the best option in the fight against injustice. As we move forward, keeping the memory of Oscar Grant alive and working to ensure that no other young black men suffer a similar fate, we should keep the current peaceful spirit of protest running, allowing our voices be heard and our truth be spoken.