Friday, November 5, 2010

Is Oakland Burning?

There's a website to tell you!, in the tradition of things like and

Riots in Oakland come along every year or two for various things. Usually it's the Raiders, but there's also no shortage of police brutality, and this time it's the shooting of Oscar Grant, an apparently mellow guy who was restrained face-down on the ground, pinned by one or two other officers, when Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART, the light-rail system) cop Johannes Mehserle pulled his gun and shot him.

This probably would have gone the way of all police-violence cover-ups, except it was New Year's Eve, and a train full of people recorded the arrest and eventual shooting on their cell phones. YouTube has a bunch of videos; they're unsettling, obviously, what with the guy being shot and all, but mostly it's just baffling. It seems to come out of nowhere, and then Mehserle looks as surprised as anyone else at what he just did.

The BART transit police, while legally equivalent to real police, are a sort of under-supervised, over-armed version of real police. They've been known to go walking the trains in full paramilitary uniforms, with body armor and automatic weapons. That seems a little excessive considering they're usually dealing with violent drunks, rather than drug cartels or cult militias. But hey, the department spent all that money for the equipment, why not use it?

BART's response to the shootout was almost comically awful: first complete silence, then the inevitable support for the officer in question, denial of wrongdoing, claiming the victim had been a threat to the officers. More than anything, it looked like they were trying to buy time to come up with a credible story to get Mehserle and the department off the hook (and I'm pretty sure that's what it was). This is standard operating procedure for a police department, but while BART refused to comment on anything, all those cell phone videos spread like wildfire, and the rest of us drew our own conclusions--"He shot a restrained, motionless man in the back"--and moved on to speculating about motives. It was so smooth and fast that it looked almost like an execution, but then Mehserle was obviously upset afterward, and what kind of idiot would purposefully kill a guy under those circumstances? With several other officers and a station full of witnesses?

The other option was that he meant to go for his Taser and screwed up. This also seemed barely credible, because a Taser and a Glock are nothing alike, and the cops are theoretically well-trained to know the difference and which side of their belt they're kept on. And why was he going for his Taser when Grant was already restrained?

Well, never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity, and it turns out Mehserle was just an idiot, went for his Taser and pulled and fired the gun instead. I didn't follow the details of the trial, so I don't know why he was even going for his Taser. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. A lot of people I know were upset (or at least annoyed) by the verdict, but I don't know why: he accidentally killed the guy without meaning to. That's what the involuntary manslaughter charge is for. So he's going to jail, and his life is ruined.

Today is Mehserle's sentencing, which is why everyone's on Oakland Riot Watch. Thankfully he won't be a cop again: whatever his previous record, I, uh, don't think he's a good choice for the job.

UPDATE: He got "two years," with credit for time served, so he'll probably only do another couple of months. Bleh.

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