By Fleur Bailey
In the early hours of New Year’s day, a 22-year-old man was shot by a BART police officer at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. The victim, Oscar Grant III, was detained along with several friends in the aftermath of a fight on a train. Several videos made by witnesses on the train have shown that Grant was face-down, restrained and unarmed when he was shot in the back by 27-year-old BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. Grant died hours later at Highland Hospital in Oakland.
The series of events that have unfolded after that day have created a web of controversy, speculation and outrage about the young officer’s intentions. Perhaps Mehserle panicked in a chaotic scene, confused his weapon with his taser stun gun, or maybe he did intentionally kill Grant. His death has been seen by some community leaders as symbolic because Mehserle is white and Grant is black, raising the possibility of racism.
Mehserle has remained silent and shown no sign of remorse for the killing. He resigned from the force a week after the incident and took his family to South Lake Tahoe, avoiding an investigation from police internal affairs who may have supported him in his case.
Mehserle’s resignation brought cheers and applause from many protesters who had gathered at an afternoon rally at the Fruitvale Station after Grant’s funeral, calling for the officer to be arrested and charged. The protest, which began peacefully during the daytime, grew violent after dark as groups of people smashed storefronts and set some cars, including a police car, on fire.
Though Mehserle pleaded not guilty to the charges, Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said the video footage and the fact that the former BART police officer refused to talk to investigators were contributing factors in the decision to charge him with murder.
On the day he made that split-second decision which changed his life and the lives of many others, Mehserle was wearing a uniform meant to represent trust, protection and security. Even if this was the first violent or threatening situation he encountered during his career, he was still a trained officer.
Of course people make mistakes, and clearly the young officer acted impulsively without considering the consequences. What is perhaps most disappointing is that Mehserle and his lawyers have given no real explanation for why a four-year-old girl lost her father and why a mother lost her son.