The verdict in the Oscar Grant trial was read yesterday: involuntary manslaughter. Sentence of four years possible, with two years likely (and possibly three to ten more for the charge of using a gun).
Let’s all take a moment to reflect on the fact that Michael Vick received a 23-month sentence for dogfighting charges.
Rather than embarrass myself trying to form the sort of cogent analysis that’s already been provided by people like Adam Serwer and the writers at Color Lines, I’ll just point in their direction. Racialicious also has a fascinating post up juxtaposing quotes and images from the aftermath of the trial, including the much-anticipated “violent protests.” Luckily, the police arrested upwards of 80 for such devastating crimes as “failure to disperse,” so we know shit’s being handled. I almost expected to hear that some unfortunate protester had been shot by an overzealous officer who’d missed the “Slingshot or Semiautomatic? Learning What the Fuck Weapons Look Like” training course, thereby bringing us full circle. Glad to be wrong about that.
Probably unsurprisingly, I agree with the afore-linked posts, and most of the other left-wing and progressive coverage of the trial, that this outcome only resembled justice in the most remote sense, and then only because it was the first conviction of its kind. In particular, I’m appalled that Mehserle’s stated defense is actually being treated as anything but nonsensical. Even if he truly were so incredibly bad at his job that he honestly mistook his gun for his Taser, both at the point of drawing it and at the point of firing it—in which case, please never issue this man any weapon more dangerous than a Super Soaker ever again—there is simply no reason for him to have pulled any weapon in that situation. Oscar Grant was lying on his stomach, handcuffed, surrounded by multiple police officers; it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which any individual could pose less of a threat, and he no more deserved to be Tased than he deserved to be shot. The weak excuse that Mehserle supposedly saw Grant reach into his pocket for a weapon doesn’t hold even a drop of water—what on earth would have been Grant’s motivation for pulling a weapon, even if he’d had one? Again: handcuffed, lying on his stomach, surrounded by police officers. He’d lived 22 years in this society as a black man. Surely he was perfectly aware of the risk to his physical safety posed by the police in any situation, let alone one that highly charged. I suppose this explanation of Mehserle’s conduct was accepted as valid by the jury (and the media) because, well, we all know that black people just aren’t very smart. Dude reached into his pocket and got shot. Why should we be so surprised? Bell curve, people. Bell fucking curve. (Do I need to make it clear that this is sarcasm? I guess it wouldn’t hurt.)
Nearly all mainstream media coverage of the trial has been terrible, if instructive, in that it’s concerned itself so much more with the supposed riots (“Riots are expected any second in Oakland!” “Riots are happening right this very second in Oakland!” “Here are some pictures of a window in Oakland that is broken right this second from the riots that totally happened just like we said they would!”) than with the actual verdict. Not surprising, and only disappointing if you expected better.
I didn’t. But there are people I did expect better from, and one of them disappointed me terribly yesterday. Silvana Naguib, who blogs at Tiger Beatdown under her full name and Bitch Ph.D. under her former pseudonym, M. LeBlanc, posted what struck me as two unbelievably wrongheaded tweets:
Once again, pretty uncomfortable with entire twitterstream bemoaning a guilty verdict. By a jury.
I am glad that everyone seems to know that mehsehrle should spend life in prison b/c they watched a video. This is why we have trials.
I want to preface this by saying that I’ve been an M. LeBlanc* fangirl for years; she’s one of my all-time favorite writers. She strikes me as one of the least-myopic big-name feminist bloggers and I’ve always admired her integrity. In fact, this post, which I linked to in a previous entry of mine, has actually done quite a lot to shape my opinion on the intersection of feminism, racism, and the justice system. And I simply can’t reconcile the person who wrote that linked post with the person tweeting that we should all sit down and be quiet and accept the Grant verdict because a trial by jury equals justice, by god, and so what if you actually watched Mehserle shoot an unarmed man in cold blood; what are you going to believe, the scales of justice, or your lying eyes? And the fact that the jury was purged of African-Americans** is irrelevant, because shut up, that’s why.
She caught a bit of heat for her tweets, including from me here, and responded to her followers at large here. I tried again here; no response. It was a surreal exchange, to say the least. To see M. LeBlanc, of all people, implying that one can’t question the outcome of a trial in which a white police officer shot a black man with no provocation and was subsequently convicted of the mildest form of manslaughter by a cherrypicked jury unless one can point to a flaw in procedure honestly left me wondering if someone had hijacked her Twitter account. Does this really need to be explained? That context matters? That racism almost certainly informed the actions of the defendant and the views of the jury? That this is likely true even if the jury doesn’t stand up and say, “We declare Mehserle innocent because we think Grant had it coming and his life really isn’t worth a damn to us anyway because he’s black”? Not every trial will have a Mark Fuhrman, and systemic racism does not always manifest itself in obvious ways that we can point to and yell “HA! RACISM!” If, as Adam Serwer wrote, every single one of those jurors agreed that Mehserle’s fear of Grant was justified because Grant was black, that may not be a procedural error, no. But it’s also not justice.
And that dig about the Youtube video? Ridiculous. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the details of the case would have raised many hackles even without recorded evidence of the murder, because we’ve been down this road before. (Sean Bell, anyone?) With that evidence, even the most obstinate have to admit that something went very, very wrong in that BART station on New Year’s Eve; that video is probably the only reason we have a conviction at all. We all saw Mehserle shoot a prone and restrained Oscar Grant in the back, and the resultant outrage was undoubtedly a driving force behind the finding of accountability. So now that outrage is mock-worthy? Now we’re just an angry mob with a “thirst for blood“? Is it even possible to be more insulting towards the people who would question the assumption that a police officer’s actions are de facto justified and that a black man’s life is worth nothing?
I do understand her intent. She’s making the point that the court of public opinion can’t be trusted to determine guilt, and that this is why we have juries and the right to a fair trial. But I’d argue that the public’s trust in that process has been undermined by these sorts of outcomes. To declare, “This outcome is a result of the proper functioning of the justice system, and therefore represents justice” begs the question of whether the system actually exists to dispense justice in the first place, particularly for those who have been deemed expendable by the state. Those of us who challenge this verdict believe it does not. If she wants to argue that it does, fine, but it seems to me that she’s arguing against both historical context and her own previous statements to the contrary. And if anything strikes me as knee-jerk, it’s her tweets ridiculing the rest of us for giving a damn.
At any rate, yes, someone was definitely wrong on the internet yesterday. But so many other people were right, and more good reading on the subject can be found here, here and here. The Department of Justice has also announced that it will be conducting its own investigation of the murder, and a civil suit is likely, so there may be other opportunities for some form of justice in this particular case. But that doesn’t address the larger context of racism and state violence which ensures a never-ending supply of Sean Bells and Oscar Grants. And I worry that we’ll forget about this until it happens again, at which point we’ll forget that it’s happened before. Unless we make the effort to remember.
*Still have a hard time thinking of her as Silvana.
**I mistakenly tweeted that Mehserle was convicted by an all-white jury; it did include people of color, but no black jurors.