In the aftermath of Oscar Grant and Johannes Mehserle
Dori J. Maynard
July 16, 2010
Two days after a Los Angeles jury found former BART officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, I overheard two white couples discussing the case over brunch. One of the men said it was 'inconceivable' that Mehserle knowingly shot Oscar Grant in the back as Grant lay facedown on a BART platform with his hands cuffed behind his back.
About that time, members of our Oakland Voices project were discussing the case and the ways in which 'police violence plays out in our communities.'
Many Oakland Voices participants, the majority of whom are West Oakland residents of color we are training to be citizen journalists for the Oakland Tribune, expressed little doubt that Mehserle knew what he was doing.
While I don't know the two couples discussing the case, my guess is that their contact with law enforcement has generally been orderly and fair. In fact, surveys have found a gap between the way African Americans and whites view law enforcement, with whites reporting a less fraught relationship with officers than do members of communities of color, where police have a reputation of using brutal force.
Those conflicting sentiments expressed on a Bay Area Saturday afternoon reflect very distinct, very authentic realities of life in communities across the region and the country. Those realities very likely played a role in the jury's decision and in assumptions that the verdict would provoke violence.
Unfortunately, media coverage before the verdict did little to help us understand these sentiments. Much of the media focused instead on the potential for post-verdict violence, providing little or no context about who might commit the violence and why. Because Mehserle's sentencing will no doubt result in another flurry of stories, reviewing pre-verdict coverage could offer lessons on how to provide more nuanced insights.
As former KPIX anchor Barbara Rodgers noted in an e-mail analysis of the coverage in an e-mail to me, much of it made 'it seem as though black folks riot every time things don't go their way, when that is really not the case.'
The coverage was so fevered that the entire city from Rockridge to East Oakland appeared to be on the brink. With everyone on high alert, the mere announcement that a verdict had been reached led businesses and offices to close early, creating a mass exodus from the downtown area.
Coverage that examined why city officials were bracing for a violent reaction might not have stemmed public panic but could have helped people understand why the verdict might provoke strong reactions. Very few stories noted that conviction of Mehserle on any of the three charges would mark the first time in Alameda County history that a law enforcement agent was found culpable in the death of a citizen.
For many people, a not-guilty verdict might well leave them feeling that yet again their lives or those of a close relative are considered expendable. The fact that the jury included no African Americans was noted, but this country's history of segregated juries finding against African Americans went unexplored.
What do you do when you feel as if structures in place deprive you of a sense of self-determination? How do you feel when it seems you are being told that your life is worth less than your neighbor's? On the other hand, what is it like to live in a world where police encounters, while vexing, are not perceived as life threatening. Why would it strike someone as inconceivable that Mehserle could have shot Grant intentionally?
If I know the answer to that and similar questions, it's not because I read or saw it in the media.
Instead, story after story recounted the police buildup in preparation for the verdict and referred vaguely to anarchists organizing and/or meeting in unidentified East Bay basements and bookstores to plot trouble.
If anarchists were thought to be doing that, being told more about them would have been helpful. Who are these people? Do they live in the Bay Area or just gravitate to various hot spots where they expect trouble? Most important, what are their goals?
Other opportunities to explore these questions will come. The sentencing of Mehserle is now set for November, giving the media time to examine what the trial, the verdict, the sentence and our various reactions to them tell us about the fabric of our society.
Perhaps we will hear from those who find it difficult to believe that someone hired to uphold the law may be capable of treating another human being with brutal disregard, and from those who believe they live in a world where sometimes their lives simply don't matter.
I don't know the two couples I overheard discussing the case, so I can't invite them to talk with the Oakland Voices participants. But the media could give these two groups with such different views a much-needed opportunity to hear from each other.
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