*The trial of ex-Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Authority Officer, Johannes Mehserle, started last week after the use of the controversial venue change tactic that shifted the case from Alameda County 300 miles down to Los Angeles County. Mehserle is on trial for murder after alleging shooting BART passenger, Oscar Grant, in the back on a train platform.
Grant and several passengers were pulled off a BART train after reports of fighting caused BART police to be called. Mehserle and his partner showed up. Grant was handcuffed and taken of the train. Grant was laid down on the ground. Moments later, Grant was dead from shots in his back by Mehserle’s gun. Witnesses taped the event on their cell phones.
The city of Oakland, one that is a historically majority African American population, was outraged. Racial tensions surfaced that have been present in this community for fifty years. Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, born out of a community response to protect themselves against police abuse and misconduct.
Community/police tension is always just beneath a surface of community harmony. Grant was black. Mehserle is white. Mehserle’s attorneys felt that their defendant would not be able to receive a fair trial in Oakland. So, the trial was moved to L.A. Now the question becomes, is this about fairness in justice or about trickery in the court system. We in L.A. have seen it before.
The bigger issue here is one that plagues black communities nationwide when suspicious officer involved shootings take place; the convoluted stories, the cover-ups, the justifications (imagined or real), the non-justifications, but most critically, the presence or absence of justice. Justice has become such a relative engagement. Everybody wants justice, but nobody ever seems to get it to their satisfaction. In police shootings, the relativity of “who gets justice” is even more magnified. The community often feels victimized and demands justice. But, police unions now advocate justice for police officers and demand the opportunity for the “fairest trial” possible. So trials are moved under the guise of highly publicized cases tainting the local jury pools where suspects on trial purportedly cannot receive fair trials because of the heightened publicity. What also has become a factor in venue change cases involving police officers is that demography of communities come into play as largely white communities have a greater compassion for police than communities of color (Black and Latino) that tend to have experienced generations of abuse from police. What does that translate to? All white juries that tend to convict or exonerate based on the race of the defendant. What was once a rarely used tactic on requesting venue changes, has now become a common tactic. Particularly for police and celebrities. L.A.’s most famous venue change was in 1992 when the trial of four police officers who beat Rodney King with videotaped footage was shifted from downtown Los Angeles to the suburban community of Simi Valley. When the four officers were exonerated (found not guilty—but two were later convicted on federal civil rights charges), Los Angeles experienced the nation’s most costly civil disturbance in the history of the nation. White people called it a riot. Black people called it a revolt against injustice. Now L.A. is in the middle of Oakland’s most controversial shooting in years, though it’s still healing from wounds of officer involved shootings. Including ones since Rodney King (namely the Devon Brown killing). There were a lot of counties that could’ve heard this case between Oakland and L.A. But few could have provided the spotlight on the justice system that L.A. could and provide the diversity in jury pool selection that Los Angeles could. Well, guess what?
Despite fighting its own “police demons,” a Los Angeles court is now hearing the Oscar Brown case admit hardly any news coverage from the mainstream press. And in the first week of the case, all five black juror prospects were dismissed in the jury selection process. A rocky start to a case that’s likely to rock Oakland should an unjust outcome result. And one is anticipated as the state president of the California NAACP recently sent out a letter asking communities to “trust the courts.” A highly peculiar request, given many of these communities have no real reason to do so. This is not a case the community should sleep under any circumstance and should watch closed.
Los Angeles has been put in the eye of Oakland’s brewing storm.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com