Johannes Mehserle was sentenced last Friday, and I've been struggling to form a coherent response ever since. Mehserle is the former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter in July for the fatal shooting of unarmed BART rider Oscar Grant III during the wee hours of New Year's Day, 2009.
(The video of the incident still lives on the Web, but if you need to see it, I trust that you can find it on your own.)
Mehserle's excuse for shooting Grant was, for many, quite literally unbelievable: he allegedly mistook his pistol for his Taser. Despite facing 14 years in prison, he received the minimum of two -- with parole eligibility in seven months -- mainly because the judge really believed that excuse. But in the three smartest takes on the sentencing that I've read since, it seems that isn't even the point.
First, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates offers his reasoning as to why he wasn't outraged over Mehserle's short sentence:
My sense is that Mehserle, in killing Oscar Grant, made an awful and sickening mistake. But I'm not sure what good comes out of sending him to jail for five or ten years...
I think another argument for sentencing Mehserle to serious time is that a message needs to be sent to other cops that the society takes their crimes seriously. But that gets its backwards. It is a society that passes laws which send SWAT teams into gambling houses that is need of a message. These are the cops that we deserve. In that sense, I am not so disturbed that Oscar Grant's killer will do little, if any, jail time. I am disturbed that this will happen again. I am disturbed that we are so fragile a people, that we know this, and that all we can do is look away.
Coates builds on Julianne Hing's reporting for ColorLines magazine, which posits that courtroom results are evidence that real justice for those like Oscar Grant can best be found in prevention of more Oscar Grants:
Prosecutions so often end in acquittal, for one -- as the painful verdicts for the cops charged with attacking Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Abner Louima and Rodney King all illustrate. But more than that, organizers say the hard work of bringing about long-term change comes only from engaging in systemic overhauls and with sustained pressure on police departments to do preventative work. For that, people must be a steady presence at their local police departments' public accountability meetings or in their local sheriff's office.
And journalist and hip-hop historian Davey D punctures holes in the narrative that African-Americans only raise holy hell when police kill African-Americans, and speaks as to why those police incidents garner more limelight:
When Judge Robert Perry went out of his way to side with the police and blame Oscar Grant for his own death, it was a cruel reminder to the family and the community at large that we don't have power especially within the system we invested in.
Bottom line is that some of the police brutality cases are much more then isolated incidents. They are major markers that indicate there's an opportunity to flip the script, dismantle or at the very least, peel away some layers from an oppressive institution. With this in mind, when you hear someone complain that our community is protesting the police but seemingly not protesting the the day to day violence, it's hard not to see this as a ploy to keep us from challenging an institution that needs to be held accountable.
(Image: Urban Habitat.)