OAKLAND "” As the hour approaches for a jury to decide the fate of former BART police officer
Johannes Mehserle, thousands of Oaklanders hope to experience what seemed so unlikely to
them 19 months ago: Justice for Oscar Grant.
But what is justice? What constitutes a just response to the killing of the 22-year-old grocery
store worker, a man memorialized in hip-hop songs and murals, discussed in barbershops and
living rooms as an iconic victim of police brutality that some say happens all too often?
Grant was among a group of revelers returning from San Francisco on New Year"s night 2009
who police say were involved in a fight on a BART train. Grant and his group were pulled off the
train at Oakland"s Fruitvale station, and a scuffle ensued. Grant was on his stomach when
Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot him in the back.
A jury in Los Angeles returns to court Tuesday to deliberate whether Mehserle, 28, should be
sent to prison. The former officer was charged with first-degree murder in the killing, but a
judge took that off the table last week and ruled the jury could consider second-degree
murder, lesser manslaughter charges or no guilty conviction at all.
Is a murder conviction justice? Is a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter conviction justice? If
Mehserle, who says he intended to stun Grant with a Taser and accidentally shot him instead, is
acquitted, can there still be a sense of justice for those who have come to
view this case as a symbol for long-simmering tension between minorities and law
"It impacts the whole community. Little kids are talking about it. Old people are talking about it,"
said Bishop J.E. Watkins of the Jack London Square Chapel. "Everybody is for justice. Now, the
degree of justice is a different story. There"s a lot of opinions out there."
There is no one answer, no monolithic voice of Oakland or its African-American community or
people of color that knows for sure what verdict is just and what is not, but there are
thousands of people for whom this case is more than another courtroom drama.
"Justice, for me, is first-degree murder," said La La Mann, 19, a member of Youth UpRising, a
youth empowerment organization based in East Oakland.
But Mann said she"s almost certain Mehserle will be acquitted. He was a white cop, Grant was a
young, black man, and the jury doesn"t include a single black member. She and other
Oaklanders "” particularly, young, African-American youth "” know how the system works, she
said. Many have seen or experienced rough treatment by police that went unpunished and
unnoticed. They interpret the change-of-venue to Los Angeles and the judge"s dropping of the
first-degree murder charge as equally predictable products of that system.
The verdict, she said, will confirm those beliefs or it will challenge them.
"African-American young men, that"s who will be affected the most," Mann said. If Mehserle is
acquitted, she said, "It"ll make it look like it"s OK for him to do what he did."
The decision to charge Mehserle with murder was hailed as a victory by many African-
Americans who have long felt mistrust of law enforcement. Finally, it seemed, a police officer
would be held to answer for his actions. But the variety of legal choices in this case "”
voluntary or involuntary manslaughter charges against Mehserle, or second-degree murder "”
left many observers perplexed about what is the truest form of justice.
West Oakland security guard Willie Thomas said Mehserle "needs to get the death penalty. It
was no accident."
The death penalty, however, is not an option in this trial "” the most severe possible sentence
is 40 years.
A fellow West Oakland resident, Karry Boyd, believes "people should be satisfied with him
doing some time."
Evelyn Holloway, a mother from the Melrose district in East Oakland who said she has known
too many youths killed by police, wants a murder conviction.
"Being charged with manslaughter isn"t enough. He took that man"s life for no reason. (Police
officers) should know when to pull a weapon," Holloway said. "For him to serve two to four
years, that is not enough."
Everyone, she said, needs to be treated equally by the justice system, and police officers often
get lenient treatment.
"This is too common in our community. It"s about our kids getting killed," she said. "Oscar
Grant has been the light for us to wake up."
East Oakland teenager Tasha Moore views the case through the prism of her family"s negative
encounters with law enforcement.
"He needs to be charged with first degree murder. He shouldn"t have killed him," Moore said.
—... It is not fair that these things keep happening and nothing is done."
Lourdes Sanchez, a West Oakland resident who works at a fast-food restaurant, was more
"I think that a manslaughter verdict is enough to bring justice," Sanchez said. "He made a
mistake. We all make mistakes."
Brandon Robbins, 19, was also conflicted.
"I"m torn. I look at the children. (Mehserle) has a kid," said Robbins, who grew up without a
father in his household. Most of all, Robbins hoped the Grant killing would inspire a multiracial
movement to stop such injustices from happening again.
Mayor Ron Dellums said the Grant killing is important to so many Oaklanders because of
reasons that go far beyond the trial itself "” sentiments that are historical, cultural, racial and
"It resonates because Oscar Grant was a young man, and we have a young community, a young
community of color," Dellums said. "And young people say, "This could have been me.—‰"
Their parents, he said, are equally invested: This could have been their son.
"This was a life taken by a public official," Dellums said. "When a public official takes a life, they"
re, in a sense, taking a life in the name of community."
Anticipating what some officials fear could be a violent response to an unfavorable verdict,
Dellums joined other local officials and students who called for peace at a conference Friday
"The journey to justice does not have to end here," he told the crowd.
But could this be a step?
"People sitting in different vantage points will have different takes on what"s a just
conclusion," said Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks, who traveled to Los Angeles last
month to witness some of the trial. "I would say a lot of people are looking at this to see
whether a police officer gets treated in the same way (they would)."
One victory is that the trial made it this far, Brooks said, and it might not have if video
recordings of the killing did not show the world what happened and if activists had not
pressured authorities to prosecute. She could not remember another case in which a local
police officer was convicted of killing an Oakland resident.
"For some people, simply a conviction would be a victory, since it hasn"t happened in
decades," Brooks said. "It has been, if ever, a very, very long time. For some people, a lifetime."
Laney College student Michael Turner, 20, met Grant, a friend of a friend, in December 2008,
about two weeks before Grant was killed New Year"s Day 2009 inside the Fruitvale BART station.
"It hurt me so much because he was around my age, working, he had kids," Turner said. "It
could have been any of us."
Turner is one of many youths who said they are striving to convince friends to respond
peacefully when the verdict comes out, no matter what happens.
"I just feel like if he walks, as much as we want to keep the community together, they"re going
to be torn up," Turner said. "It"s not fair. It"s not fair."
Izeal Brumfield, 45, debated the case with friends before a pickup basketball game at
Mosswood Park in North Oakland. He said many people he knows share a deep distrust of
police and a belief they can act with impunity.
Still, Brumfield saw this case as something unique, not like any local incident he can remember,
and he was not sure about what he would consider a fair outcome.
"I think it was just somebody who didn"t know his Taser from his gun, but at the same time I
don"t think he should get off," Brumfield said. "You"ve got a lot of angry people in Oakland
right now. There was a life taken unnecessarily."
Sikander Iqbal, peacemaking program manager for Youth UpRising, said if Mehserle is
convicted, it could be a powerful moment.
"I feel like all eyes are on Oakland," he said. "If the community feels some kind of victory, and
they feel like justice was served, you start to build up a community confidence."
Staff writer Liz Gonzalez contributed to this story.
As Oakland awaits justice for Oscar Grant III, will a
manslaughter conviction be enough?
By Matt O'Brien and Katy Murphy
Contra Costa Times