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Analysis

Movement secures reopening of investigation into police murder of Oscar Grant

An announcement from the Alameda County District Attorney’s office has raised hopes that some measure of justice may yet come in the infamous 2009 police murder of Oscar Grant. Prosecutors in the Northern California county that includes the city of Oakland announced yesterday that they are reopening the investigation into Grant’s killing. 

Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old Black man, was murdered by officers of the BART transit system’s police force on New Year’s Day 2009. Grant was unarmed, and BART cops had pinned him face down on the ground before one officer pulled out his gun and fatally shot Grant in the back. The incident was captured on video and caused outrage across the country and around the world.

Johannes Mehserle, who fired the shot that killed Grant, was charged around the time of the killing due to mass protests. But his partner Anthony Pirone, who assisted Mehserle and called Grant a racial slur during the confrontation, never stood trial. Wanda Johnson-Morris, Grant’s mother, said yesterday that she hopes Pirone will face charges as a consequence of the reopening of the investigation.

Progress in Grant’s case is clearly the result of this year’s nationwide uprising against racism. Alameda District Attorney Nancy O’Malley is no radical. In fact, she received over $30,000 in donations from different police associations in her most recent re-election campaign, when she was challenged by civil rights attorney Pamela Price. O’Malley was compelled to act because of the strength of the people’s movement in the streets.

2010 trial a travesty of justice

Mehserle was ultimately found guilty not of murder, but of “involuntary manslaughter.” This was the least severe conviction that was possible in the trial. The killer cop was sentenced to two years in prison, but walked free after serving only 11 months. 

As Liberation reported at the time: 

After the killing, BART officials worked feverishly to cover up the incident, calling it an “accidental weapon discharge.” They did not arrest or even detain a single officer involved in the incident for more than a week. It was only the power of mass street protests that forced the city to take action. Mehserle was arrested and charged with murder on Jan. 13, 2009—almost two weeks after the killing. He was the first cop in recent California history to be charged with murder for an on-duty killing.

From the beginning, a pro-police bias permeated media coverage of the case. It was aimed at breaking down the natural public sympathy for Grant and his family as victims of police brutality. It demonized the victim and characterized the protests against Grant’s killing as “riots.”

In a pretrial hearing, the judge expressed that the outrage of Oakland’s Black community would result in an “unfair” trial. The judge ignored the problem of the corporate media’s bias toward the BART police. As a result, the trial was moved to Los Angeles, where a jury without any Black members was chosen. The deck was stacked.

The ongoing surge in the movement for Black liberation has raised the prospect that this travesty of justice can be at least partially remedied. 

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