Friday, January 09, 2009

Some More Perspectives On Oscar Grant Tragedy...

Video: Disturbing Footage Of Oscar Grant Being Killed By BART Police


Video: News Story On Bart Shooting

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev

OAKLAND -- From the eye of a cell phone, an outraged and shocked public witnessed the shooting death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, Calif., by a police officer in the early morning hours of the first day of 2009. And now, as a result, a tragically common starting point of an American story -- young black male killed by law enforcement -- may be headed toward an uncommon ending point: justice being served.

On YouTube, and now local news stations that aired the cell phone videos, viewers watched a young Oscar Grant apparently pleading for his life, while belly-down on the ground with one officer's knee on his upper back or head, and another officer around his legs. That officer, without any obvious provocation, stands up, pulls out his gun, and shoots Grant in his back.

While local Bay Area activists and journalists rightfully point out that Grant’s death shows the need for oversight of the BART police – an agency that has no accountability mechanism such as civilian oversight or an independent auditing system – what has been evidenced by Grant's case is the changed landscape of law enforcement accountability in a Web 2.0 era.

The narratives of officer-involved shootings usually conflict with the accounts of what supporters of the deceased say occurred. Simple, straight-forward, and seemingly indefensible accounts, when scripted through law enforcement lawyers, becomes muddied with additional, subjective descriptions. "The victim was unarmed and had his back turned," (which was the case with Grant) becomes, "He looked like he was reaching for something." Objects such as cell phones seem like weapons in the heat of the moment.

By the time grand jury testimonies are delivered, clear examples of a quick-triggered officer killing an innocent civilian get re-interpreted to validate the actions of the officer.

Every city knows the story of an Oscar Grant, and the almost automatic anti-climactic ending when the case hits the courts. The officers are found innocent, they go back to work, and the family of the victim is left without a son, father or brother. A community suffers the indignity of knowing a grave injustice has been done without any reprisal.

Such was the case of Jerrold Hall, a 19-year-old who was killed by BART police in 2001. Cornelius was shot in the back of the head.

But while the basic pattern of these two cases is similar – unarmed young black men with their backs turned, posing no threat to the officer – Oscar Grant has something Cornelius did not: thousands of witnesses worldwide.

The officer who shot Oscar Grant has still, a week after the incident, refused to give his account of the shooting. And in keeping with the pattern of officer-involved shootings, that well-vetted account, when released, will be laden with all of the legal devices to vindicate his actions. He may say he saw Grant reaching for the officer's gun, or that he saw a metal flash around the young man's waistband.

The videos captured by onlookers at the BART train when Grant was killed may be the saving grace for the Grant family, which has initiated a civil suit and is pressing for criminal charges against the officer. Any re-inventions of the incident that try to paint Grant as anything other than a victim will have the sizable challenge of having to contradict actual video footage.

There has been a fundamental shift since 1992, when video evidence was not enough to convict the four police officers who beat Rodney King. It was just by chance that someone was able to catch the King beating on tape in 1991. Now, it’s a likelihood that an incident will be captured on camera. And while this won’t change the legal system, it could change the decision-making process of a law enforcement agent in that critical moment.

The video-makers and YouTube producers, Karina Vargas and other unidentified civilians, have become "copwatchers" – a term referring to the activists who monitor police practices as a way to reduce law enforcement violence.

The practice was a reaction by communities who felt a need to hold law enforcement accountable, and used by the Black Panthers in Oakland in the 1970s, the Community Alert Patrol in San Jose in the early 80s, and has taken off internationally in recent years after the resurrection of the practice in Berkeley.

But while “copwatch” was previously defined by a smaller group of dedicated activists, today it is integrated into public life as a result of technologies such as cell phones and YouTube – and the consequential social impulse to record, load and share. In a world likely unimaginable by those who started the practice, everyone on the street is now a potential copwatcher.

The impact of such a possibility means that – regardless of the how this particular case plays out – BART police officers will know that they can become a YouTube star in a heartbeat for being overly aggressive, violent or lethal. Lives may literally be saved from the communication potential of our 2.0 reality.

Fatal Police Shooting Sparks Violent Protests In California

Thursday , January 08, 2009


OAKLAND, Calif. —
In grainy cell phone videos played over and over on the Internet, police officers force an unarmed black man to the ground and hold him face-down on a crowded train platform. Suddenly one of the officers draws his gun and fatally shoots the man in the back — then looks up.

The New Year's Day death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant has led to violent street protests amid allegations from the family's attorney that some of the officers used racial slurs.

The officer remains free and has not been charged with any wrongdoing. And some experts have questioned whether he fired his gun deliberately or mistakenly believed he was using his stun gun instead.

At a rally Wednesday attended by hundreds of people, Shawanda Thomas held a fluorescent yellow sign that read: "Oscar Grant: Murdered! The Whole Damn System is Guilty."

Click here for photos.

Extra police were posted Thursday at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations after a group of angry demonstrators smashed storefronts late Wednesday, set fire to cars and clashed with officers equipped with riot gear and tear gas in downtown Oakland. More than 100 people were arrested and about 300 businesses were damaged.

Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums called for calm. "Even with our anger and our pain, let's still address each other with a degree of civility and calmness and not make this tragedy an excuse to engage in violence," he said. "I don't want anybody hurt. I don't want anybody killed."

At the mayor's request, the Oakland Police Department launched an investigation into the shooting Thursday. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, whose office also is investigating, said he probably would decide within two weeks whether to file charges.

Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle was initially placed on paid leave. He resigned from the BART police force Wednesday, but officials say he has refused to speak with the transit agency's investigators. He has not spoken publicly about the incident.

Mehserle's attorney, Christopher Miller, declined to comment on the investigations.

Grant's family has filed a $25 million wrongful-death claim against BART, the San Francisco Bay Area's commuter rail system, and relatives want Mehserle to be criminally charged.

"They want justice, but they don't want any more violence," said John Burris, an attorney for Grant's family. "That officer hasn't been prosecuted ... That's why people don't have confidence in the system right now."

Local African-American leaders expressed outrage Thursday at the shooting. And some Oakland residents have alleged it was racially motivated. Burris said he does not have any evidence that Grant was shot because he was black.

"There were racial slurs made by other officers to the group that Oscar Grant was with, but I have no evidence that this particular officer directed racial slurs toward Oscar Grant," Burris said.

BART officials said the agency is trying to conduct a thorough investigation, but that the public appears to be making judgments about the case based on raw video they saw online or on television.

"They see the answer before them playing out over and over on TV, but we have to follow the process and have to turn over evidence to the DA, and the DA decides what to do from there," said BART spokesman Linton Johnson.

The shooting unfolded in front of dozens of train passengers who were returning home after New Year's Eve celebrations.

Police officers arrived shortly after midnight on New Year's Day at the Fruitvale BART station following reports of young men fighting on a train. Grant was one of several who were ordered off the train, questioned and then restrained by Mehserle and other officers.

Videos shot by onlookers show Grant being pushed onto his stomach shortly before Mehserle fired his gun at Grant's back. The bullet ricocheted off pavement and pierced his lung, killing him.

The video footage has led to debate over whether the officer knowingly shot Grant, as the victim's family alleges.

Reports of police officers mistaking a handgun for a stun gun are rare, but not unheard of. In 2006, a sheriff's deputy in Washington state accidentally shot and wounded a disturbed man after mistakenly using his .40-caliber gun instead of his stun gun.

Bruce Siddle, a use-of-force expert who viewed the video clips, theorized that Mehserle was working under stress in a hostile situation and did not realize he was firing his pistol.

"I suspect he thought he was reaching for his Taser," said Siddle, founder of PPCT Management Systems, an Illinois company that trains law-enforcement officers in the use of force. "If he was under stress, he would not be able to distinguish between a Taser and his firearm. You have video footage that seems to suggest that this officer made a tragic mistake."

But George Kirkham, a professor of criminology at the Florida State University who also viewed the footage, said he finds that hard to believe because most Taser stun guns do not look or feel like pistols, and the officer fired in a manner consistent with a handgun, not a Taser.

Kirkham, who works as an expert witness in criminal cases, speculated the officer fired because he thought he saw something in Grant's waistband or pocket that appeared to be a gun or other type of weapon.

"It's not believable that any officer can mix up a Taser and a firearm," said Kirkham, who has examined almost 500 police shootings over the past 30 years. "It's like looking for your steering wheel on the right side of your car rather than the left side."

Outrage over the shooting has been fueled by raw video clips posted on YouTube and various news Web sites.

Over the past week, video of the shooting has been viewed more than 500,000 times on the Web site of KTVU-TV, which has posted exclusive clips of the incident, said Bill Murray, who manages the station's Web site. That is about twice as many video views as the site typically sees in a full month.

"Once a story gets national momentum, people want to come to it," Murray said. "There's always been a certain voyeurism to online video. I think people want to see for themselves."

Click here for more on this story from KTVU-TV in San Francisco.

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