Category Archives: Anti-Racist

Police Brutality Killed Oscar Grant: Johannes Mehserle Should Have Been Guilty of Murder

By Kieran K. Meadows

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr: NeitherFanboy)

Americans anxiously awaited a decision Thursday involving a young African American man. Some thought an entire community would erupt in riots based on the outcome. You might think I’m referring to star basketball player LeBron James choosing to “take his talents” to South Beach. I’m not.

While TV media hyped “The Decision” for hours and millions seemed more concerned about a rich guy’s job situation than they did about their own, another decision came down in a Los Angeles courtroom with far more serious implications.

I heard about the verdict and shook my head in disgust. A jury found an Oakland transit officer, Johannes Mehserle, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting death of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant III. I was relieved Mehserle was convicted at all, which is rare in fatal police shootings. In the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, remember, officers were acquitted of all charges.

However, Mehserle was acquitted of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. His sentence could see him serving less jail time than a non-violent drug offender.

How could Grant’s death not be murder? Videos show Mehserle shooting Grant in the back as he lay subdued and facedown on the ground. Mehserle claimed he meant to reach for his Taser and instead grabbed his gun. As an astute reader on MotherJones.com commented: The “argument boiled down to: ‘I was attempting to abuse a suspect already in safe custody but I was too incompetent to even do that right and killed him by accident.’ ”

If the jury believed Mehserle’s testimony, then a key follow-up was ignored: Was Mehserle justified in using his Taser, let alone any weapon? The Taser has been implicated in playing a role in suspects’ deaths. And there have been cases in which a gun wasn’t even involved—see Anthony Baez. Therefore the issue is not the gun; it’s police brutality. The choice to use excessive force murdered Oscar Grant. Johannes Mehserle made that choice.

So was Mehserle justified in using a Taser? Police had been investigating reports of fighting on the train and had gathered a handful of young men thought to be involved. Accounts differ on Grant’s actions: the police say he was resisting arrest; witnesses say he was attempting to diffuse the fight. What’s obvious is just before the shooting, Grant lay prone on the platform with another officer pinning him down.

Afterwards, the usual story played out: the authorities’ “official” account characterized the suspects as thugs. But in the YouTube era, almost everyone in that BART station had a cell phone camera. Multiple videos immediately surfaced. For me, the loud pop is the most chilling moment—out of proportion to what we’re seeing. After all, officers were responding to reports of a fistfight.

If Mehserle decided to use his Taser only because he saw Grant as a threat, simply because he was young and black, then on a different night in a different place, the victim could have been LeBron James, or any black male, or anyone, period. Until we confront police brutality—by punishing officers who murder unarmed citizens—we will continue to see the same pattern of abuse, no accountability, and tragic loss of life.

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Felony Disenfranchisement

(This post is similar to the one that I originally wrote for this Web site)

Yesterday my colleague Amy Wysowski began an interesting and relevant conversation about this issue especially as we rapidly approach this year’s Election Day. Also, another colleague, Jackie Linge, drawing on her prior legal experience, added fascinating insight (as well as the human side of the story).

After reading the comments from Amy’s post, I thought maybe this issue needed its own post for ongoing discussion.

First, if you are interested in knowing what New York State felonies are, this site provides a list by offense level. Did you know there are A1 and A2 level felonies, B violent felonies, B non-violent felonies, C violent felonies, C non-violent felonies, D violent felonies, D non-violent felonies, and E felonies? Have a look at the lists. You may be surprised by what you see — and let’s not forget the broad discretion prosecutors have in deciding what charges should be brought in cases.

In New York State if you are convicted of any of the above, you will lose your right to vote (until you are on probation). It is also very hard to get a job (much less a good one) after a felony conviction.

FairVote2020 has some neat interactive charts and maps with loads of good information about felony disenfranchisement across the U.S. by state.

Dan Filler, blogging at the Faculty Lounge, writes:

Felon disenfranchisement has an intuitive appeal – we deny the right to vote to those who breach the fundamental social contract and violate the law.  But these laws have deeply racist roots and a dramatically disparate racial impact today.  There is also a deep democratic problem with the policy; as we criminalize and prosecute more and more conduct, we passively strip more and more citizens of voting rights.

Most states added felon disenfranchisement laws in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is no coincidence that more people gained the right to vote at that exact moment (at least in writing on the Federal level, via the 13th, 14th, 15th, and later the 19th amendments). Only two states allow everyone to vote (including those who are incarcerated): Vermont and Maine. Those two states are each almost 97% white (the highest white populations by state).

For more information and the latest news, see the Right To Vote Campaign, a collaboration between the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and The Sentencing Project. The Right To Vote Campaign has led on this issue, but its own Web site has been down recently for some reason.

Late Update: See this New York Times article from Sunday’s edition, “States Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts, but Issue Remains Politically Sensitive” and accompanying multimedia map from The Sentencing Project.

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Message in the Music

The United Nations’ 2001 World Conference Against Racism official report declares (on page 10) that (bold my emphasis):

13.    We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences;

The declaration that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity was a historic victory for the reparations movement — unfortunately, the tragic 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. came just a few days after the conference concluded in Durban, South Africa. The news from the conference was effectively buried.

Last week, a group of musicians, artists, and activists from the U.S. Virgin Islands released a roots reggae single that is sure to draw attention back to the issue of reparations in the months to come. The single, simply titled, “We Want Reparations,” will be the new anthem for the St. Croix based African-Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA). You can listen to the song here.

There are musicians and artists who just like making good music. Then there are musicians and artists who know that once they’ve been given the spotlight and the microphone, they have the responsibility to speak out on issues (and give their audiences information) that affect our communities and societies. This combination of music and activism is more powerful when the music (including the songs, rhythms, melodies, and vocals) and the activism (in lyrics, content, and activities outside of music) show that the musicians/artists are seeking true perfection in what they release to the public. Bottom line, the music has to be good, and the activism sincere. Put them together and you got something special.

These VI roots reggae artists fall into this latter group. Batch, Niyorah, & Danny I provide the lyrics. The music is a collaborative production of the “Zion I Kings”: a collective made up of Laurent “Tippy” Alfred of I Grade Records, “Jah David” Goldfine of Zion High Productions, and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions. Excellent hornlines were provided by Celebrity Horns. Some choice lyrics:

“Look how dem profit from free African labor (African labor)/ Who built up dem cities and dem towns, laid down foundation without compensation (without compensation)/ Never giving nothing to the offsprings of the younger generation”

and:

“They make payment to the Jews, make payment to the Japanese/ Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet, and the Chinese/ Yet you don’t want to give what is due to we/ Haffi protest, petition constantly”

ACRRA says the song offers a unique merging of culture, information, and consciousness purposed to result in international awareness, community education, and activism in the territory.  ACRRA’s president, Shelley Moorhead (who is currently on a hunger strike and sit-in on the steps of St. Croix’s Government House seeking support on the issue) puts it best when he says:

“I am uncertain how many people in the world will pay a fee to come and hear me or any other leaders in the territory speak on a given subject. These young, talented local artists and musicians have crafted a ‘word + sound=power equation’ that regularly commands crowds of 10, 20, and 30,000 people in Europe, the United States, South America and the Caribbean who pay upwards of $20 USD to hear what Virgin Islanders are saying about the world’s issues. We are happy to now have them as ambassadors of the Virgin Islands Reparations Movement.”

Late Update: After two weeks, the Governor of U.S.V.I. asks Mr. Moorhead to end his protest on the steps of the Government House. Mr. Moorhead says he is not moving.

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