Jury deliberations are expected to begin this week in Los Angeles in the trial of former BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer, Johannes Mehserle, who shot and killed 22 year-old Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 as the victim lay face down on a subway platform in Oakland.
As many of you know –or have seen the Youtube videos taken by camera phones of this brutal and unnecessary shooting– Grant was face down on the ground and in a totally compromised position when Mehserle clearly looks at his gun –not the bright yellow Taser he said he meant to employ—before unlatching the revolver and firing point blank into Grant’s back.
The now resigned officer, who is white and had previous complaints against him for aggression, doesn’t deny shooting the African American Grant but contends it was “an accident.”
This is yet another tragic example of the challenging relationship the African American community has with those sworn to uphold the law. For when it comes to our community, these two words –the law—have many different connotations attached to them and provoke a variety of emotions, both good and bad.
On one side, the laws of our land have served to oppress us as a people, as was the case with slavery and Jim Crow.
On the other hand, however, the law has also been the tool of choice for providing a framework for ending our enslavement, stopping segregation, and securing our civil rights.
So it’s a pretty unique and mixed relationship… black folks and the law.
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Unfortunately, the enforcement of the law has too often been less than equitable when it comes to our community. And there are a number of disturbing issues about the Grant case, even prior to the verdict. The case was moved from Oakland to Los Angeles allegedly because of “pretrial publicity” in the Bay Area, a move that pretty much ensured there would be no African Americans on the 12 member jury which, in fact, turned out to be the case.
And things could get ugly. The media is comparing this to the Rodney King beating because of the blatant aggression of the officer, the sizable protests around the court, and the looming potential for violence and disruption in the event of an unfavorable verdict. Oakland area businesses and authorities are preparing for the worst in case the verdict doesn’t go the way the community believes it should.
But what’s already ugly is that a young man, a son, and a father of a young child is dead, and is not coming back ever again.
As a lawyer, I certainly know that the law should ideally be about facts and evidence and not emotion; that defendants should be innocent until proven guilty; that the rule of law needs to be respected for the sake of order; and that, whatever the verdict, it should be accepted, or at least appealed through the legal process.
That said, I sure hope the law gets this one right.
Because the rule of law commonly runs into trouble if it ceases to be a two-way street.
By all means, we –as a community– certainly need to respect the law.
But the law should respect us as well.
Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Visit her online at www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com