Revolution #203, June 13, 2010

Murder Trial Begins for the Killer of Oscar Grant
Time to Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution

On January 1, 2009, a gang of Bay Area Rapid Transit police detained and brutalized Oscar Grant and his friends, throwing them to the ground, yelling at them, waving tasers in their faces, and hitting them—in front of a trainload of passengers returning from New Year's celebrations. A half-dozen passengers pulled out their cameras and started filming the escalating police violence. Suddenly, while passengers shouted in protest, the cops pushed Oscar Grant down on the ground, his arms behind him. One of the cops, Johannes Mehserle, pulled his gun and shot Oscar in the back. Oscar was unarmed, had been complying with police, and was face down on the pavement when he was shot. The whole horrifying assault was over in minutes: the train pulled out as Oscar lay bleeding and dying on the platform.

Mehserle goes on trial for murder this week in Los Angeles. Though at least 100 people are killed by police every year in the state,1 this is, according to San Francisco Chronicle journalists' database research and Mehserle's own attorney, the first time in California that a cop will be tried for an on-duty killing. What was different this time? The main reason there is a trial at all has everything to do with what the people did in response to this crime: how they acted, spoke out, stood up, and resisted every step of the way.

Videos of the murder hit the TV news and YouTube. The outrage grew, and at the end of a week, with the cop not even arrested, it erupted onto the streets of Oakland. More protests followed. Revolutionaries were amidst the resistance, calling out the criminal system, raising the slogan, "The whole damn system is guilty."

Since then, the system has counter-attacked. First Mehserle requested and won a change of venue out of Oakland to Los Angeles. The judge who granted the venue change gave as one of the reasons that Grant "has been personified, humanized and cast in a sympathetic light since his death." As we said at that time, "Stop and think about that. In this era of so-called 'victims' rights,' victims of at least certain kinds of crimes are routinely 'personified, humanized and cast in a sympathetic light.' Yet in this case a whole different set of rules has been invoked, so that, bizarrely, the fact that the victim of a horrible crime has been recognized as a human being is invoked as a reason why the man who killed him cannot get a fair trial in the county where the crime took place."

Prosecutors Forget How to Prosecute

Two of the BART cops, Marysol Domenici and Anthony Pirone, who initiated the brutality that night and then defended their actions in court, have now both been fired by BART for their role in the incident leading to Oscar's death. But the prosecution is not calling Domenici, who testified at the preliminary hearing that after she heard the shot and realized it was one of the youths who had been shot, her first thoughts were, "Oh, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, if I have to, I'm going to have to kill somebody." When an important part of the legal case rests on what was on the minds of the cops who were involved in this killing, whether there was "intent" to use lethal force, for the prosecution NOT to call Domenici as a witness is both outrageous and typical of how prosecutors act when they are in the very unusual position of prosecuting a killer cop.

Another cop, Tony Pirone, who brutalized Oscar and his friends before the shooting, has been subpoenaed by both sides. Pirone, who can be heard in the videos saying the "N" word to Oscar, was standing next to Mehserle, holding Oscar down, when the fatal shot was fired. (As we go to press the judge has agreed to hear a motion to exclude these racist statements on the grounds that they are prejudicial to Mehserle because he might not have heard them.)

The system is bending over backward to help the defense show "another side" to the incident. The judge in the case ruled that a defense "video expert" can testify about what he thinks the videos show that other people might not see. The judge has banned the wearing of political T-shirts or buttons in the courtroom. He ruled that the defense can discuss Oscar Grant's past record of resisting arrest, even though such a record (which one can only imagine what might have really happened) is not a legal justification for killing someone, and on top of that, the police could have had no knowledge of this on January 1. Videos show that Oscar was not resisting arrest before he was shot. Meanwhile the judge has ruled that the prosecution cannot discuss Mehserle's past record of police brutality, even though the question of whether Mehserle had a history of brutality is extremely relevant to the case. In sum, the court is giving a green light to dehumanize Oscar Grant, the victim, and to exonerate Mehserle, the killer.

Everything that has happened so far shows that justice will not be granted by the workings of the system and underscores the need for stepped up resistance outside the courtroom. Protest and resistance is crucial in not letting the system get away with crimes and grind the people down. A major protest has been called for Monday, June 14, starting at 7 am, at the LA Criminal Courthouse, 210 W. Temple Street, between Broadway and Spring. This battle is at a turning point; it is urgent that many more step forward into the battle right now.

1. According to Department of Justice statistics. [back]

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