In 1987, I was gunned down in the streets of Los Angeles by an 18 year old gang member in his attempt to rob me. I lost my entire right leg. The shooter turned himself in after the manhunt on my behalf. He was tried and convicted to 25 years to life. Oscar Grant was not afforded the same justice.
I saw Fruitvale Station this past weekend which is a film about the life and shooting of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009. Oscar was a 22 year old black man, in Oakland, California who was shot by Johannes Mehserle, a white BART policeman. Unlike the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin matter that continues to capture our national attention, the Oscar Grant shooting at the Fruitvale Station was an unlawful taking of an innocent life under the color of authority as proven by the verdict; the difference, in my opinion, is that the Grant matter irrefutably involved racial profiling, racial injustice and the out-of-control power of law enforcement. If there was ever a time for a national dialogue about racial profiling, this case should have been the spark.
I have never been more angry after a movie. I have never cried longer or harder. I have never felt so vulnerable as a black man. There is nothing more infuriating than to watch the chaotic taking of a human life by law enforcement especially where racial profiling of an unarmed innocent person was involved.
In this tragic encounter between citizen and officer, Grant and his friends were pulled off of the BART at the Fruitvale Station after being engaged in a fight. As depicted in the movie, the white combatants were not identified or pulled off the train for equal treatment by the officers. They assumed it was a “black problem.” Mehserle and another officer restrained the unarmed Grant, who was lying face down and allegedly resisting arrest. Mehserle stood and, according to witnesses said, "Get back, I'm gonna tase him." Instead, Mehserle drew his gun and shot Grant once in the back; Mehserle claimed he thought he pulled his Taser and not his gun. Grant died later that morning.
Mehserle was recently cleared of civil rights charges stemming from a similar altercation in 2008 with Kenneth Carrethers, a black man. But for the many eye witnesses who captured the Fruitvale event as it unfolded on their digital cameras which were immediately watched by millions, the case may have never received the national attention it did and may have been dismissed like in the Carrethers case.
Mehserle was charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter but was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to only 2 years. He served 11 months for killing the 22 year old Grant. This was an injustice by most objective observations.
The movie Fruitvale Station’s underlying goal was to humanize Oscar Grant specifically and black men generally in my opinion. It bent over backwards to show his relationships with his mother, girlfriend, daughter and friends. The filmmaker succeeded; we get it. Oscar was a good guy (as are most black young men) and Mehserle is a bad cop. That’s the easy part.
Now for the hard part. Officers and others are apprehensive and maybe even afraid of young black men. Recall, I was shot by a young black man. Why does this apprehension exist?
Of the nearly 770,000 violent interracial crimes committed every year involving blacks and whites, blacks commit 85 percent and whites commit 15 percent.
Blacks commit more violent crime against whites than against blacks. Forty-five percent of their victims are white, 43 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic. When whites commit violent crime, only three percent of their victims are black.
Oscar was unarmed. There can never be a justification for his murder. However, his murder should help us all look inward to ensure that we are not a part of the problem first so that we may speak truth to power to enact federal legislation that makes it more difficult to profile (anyone)(including the hotly contested NY stop-and-frisk policy) that leads to the death of the innocent no matter the color.
First, our part must be to respect law enforcement. As depicted in the film, it is never wise to be verbally combative, physically resistant, or attitudinal with law enforcement. Anytime I am pulled over, I place both hands on my steering wheel so the officer does not have to guess my motives. As a lawyer and husband, I have something to lose. It’s just the smart thing to do.
Instead, many blacks, and others, become immediately frustrated by the apparent racism that precipitated the stop but then put themselves in danger by their combative interaction with the officers. Not wise.
On the other hand, to tolerate the unchecked authority of law enforcement to arbitrarily stop anyone because of how they look is tantamount to an infringement of our civil liberty and constitutional rights as Americans. When law enforcement infringes the civil liberty of those it swears to serve and to protect, there must be deep and dire consequences. Should there be another Oscar Grant, let there be sufficient deterrent in place in every jurisdiction across the country to prevent racial profiling.
We all must participate in government if we want different results. We must elect leaders that understand this problem and then hold their feet to the fire by electing or un-electing them. Register to vote! Attend the Town Hall meetings of your elected officials and let them hear your voices. Racial profiling is illegal in some states but not all; it will not end if we remain on the sidewalks with our hands above our heads. It will only end when we apply pressure on the system to make the changes we need in our communities. That can only be done by being a part of the solution. We must get an education and become the lawyers, the judges, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the jurors who now hold our destiny in their hands.
"Racial profiling is wrong, and we will end it in America. In so doing, we will not hinder the work of our nation's brave police officers. They protect us every day -- often at great risk. But by stopping the abuses of a few, we will add to the public confidence our police officers earn and deserve," said President George W. Bush.
We must shout together-NEVER AGAIN!
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