Video & photos by Oakland Voices contributor Sultanah Corbett
Photos by Oakland Voices contributor Sultanah Corbett
Mehserle will receive 10 months off of that sentence for time served, and he may end up spending just 70 more days in state prison.
In July, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for shooting Grant in Oakland on New Year’s Day last year.
Follow us on Twitter for coverage from the courthouse in LA and the streets of Oakland.
(Also printed in The Oakland Tribune)
By Adimu Madyun
OAKLAND, CA — On New Years Eve 2008, Jack Bryson warned his two sons and their friends to stay out of San Francisco.
“I was worried about the police,” Bryson said. “Call it a father’s intuition.”
When calls to his sons went unanswered in the early hours of 2009, Bryson knew something was wrong. At that moment, his sons, Nigel, 20, and Jackie, 23, were on the Fruitvale BART platform where they saw BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle shoot and kill their childhood friend Oscar Grant.
“I was in complete shock when I found out,” Bryson said. “My sons’ mother called me screaming that the police shot Oscar, the boys were in jail and I needed to do something. … For a long time, I didn’t believe it had happened and especially that it was filmed.”
Cell phone videos of the graphic shooting was shown on the Internet and television.
Mehserle, who was charged with murder, was convicted July 8 of involuntary manslaughter. He faces up to 14 years in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 5.
Despite the conviction, public outrage has surged because many Grant supporters felt the involuntary manslaughter conviction was too lenient. They wanted to see the 26-year-old Mehserle convicted of murder. (Second-degree murder was the highest conviction the former BART officer could have received.)
An unlikely activist
In the 18 months since the killing, Bryson has played a crucial role in the Justice for Oscar Grant Movement. He has become the voice of Grant’s family at community rallies, benefit concerts, film screenings and other functions to demand justice for the 22-year-old Hayward man.
On a sunny, warm day at Lake Merritt, far removed from the chaos of that night, Bryson reflected on what happened. First, though, he took a moment to notice children running around the park, enjoying life. The sound of an ice cream cart vendor grabbed their attention, and about a dozen kids ran to the cart. They giggled and pointed excitedly at what they wanted, and what they’d order if they had the money.
The 48-year-old Bryson was their hero this day. He walked to the cart, just as excited as the children, and bought a rainbow of ice cream flavors to pass down a line of grateful children. Parents stepped up to thank him and made sure the children did the same.
Bryson smiled, sat down on a park bench and stared at his ice cream. Children hold new meaning for him now.
He took a long pause and spoke, his soft-spoken voice filled with sorrow. He spoke about his frustration with what he considers an increase in the number of African-Americans killed by police. But it wasn’t until Grant was killed that it really hit home and moved him to get involved.
Bryson sees the Mehserle trial in the context of the larger historical racial injustice.
“In the past, you could hang a black man from a tree and nothing would happen,” he said. “Now, the same thing happened to Oscar Grant. It’s the same mentality. It hasn’t changed.”
Bryson said he feels that what happened to Grant and the trauma experienced by his sons will go unheard.
“Why is it always a white officer killing a black or brown youth with the excuse that the victim was reaching for a gun or it was an accident? I’m not speaking badly about whites or police. I’m speaking badly about this racist system that’s still in place.”
Bryson said he believes good police need to stand up so these kinds of crimes don’t reflect badly on all law enforcement.
The day after Grant was killed, Bryson attended a memorial service at the Hayward park where his sons and Grant had played Little League.
“Seeing all those people crying for Oscar, I knew something had to be done; somebody needed to represent Oscar correctly,” Bryson said. “My sons kept asking me what are you going to do? As a parent I didn’t know what to tell my sons.”
Scared and worried, Bryson took it upon himself to contact civil rights attorney John Burris to encourage him to take the Grant family’s case.
Not only did Burris take on the civil case, he encouraged Bryson to reach out and tell the community who Grant was.
“I have great admiration for him,” Burris said. “He has tried to do right by his kids and this whole event. He speaks from the heart.”
Burris said Bryson has become somewhat of a folk hero for his activism and that he has invited him to attend key meetings with Police Chief Anthony Batts in the aftermath of the Mehserle verdict.
“He’s trying to help his sons, and basically all young men,” Burris said. “There has been a lot of positiveness about him over the past 1½ years I have known him. He has been there everyday, more so than most.”
Bryson said he’s “meeting a lot of people getting the message out, but this is a day-by-day thing; there is no plan in place.
“You don’t just get up and say I’m an activist, you’re forced into it. I’m not a leader. I just follow the sentiments of the people — that’s where the power is.”
“It was preventable”
Before the shooting, Bryson said he had normal life. He went to his job at the Oakland Housing Authority, walked the lake, spent time with his sons and hit the gym. A self-described loner, Bryson says his life is now filled with pain.
“I hurt everyday for what happened to all the boys on the platform that night. The only rewards I have come from the people who walk up and hug me and show concern for the battle I’m fighting,” he said.
Bryson’s biggest fear as a father was that one day his sons would be victims of police abuse, that one day he might have to bury one of his sons. As a worried father, he always made it a point to meet his sons’ friends and show up at parties and games.
“Oscar knew I was a worried father. He told me one night I didn’t have to worry, all the boys would look out for each other.”
After Grant became a father, Bryson said they bonded on another level.
“I saw Oscar one night; we bumped into each other coming out of the store. His daughter had just been born. He said having his daughter made him realize why I was such a worrier,” Bryson recalled. “(Grant) smiled and told me he respected it. He loved being a father.”
Bryson said his sons have been traumatized. Pending litigation against BART prevents them from speaking publicly about the incident.
But during Mehserle’s murder trial Jackie provided emotional testimony that had the whole courtroom in tears. Jackie testified during the trial that told Mehserle, ‘you shot me!’
“My son is looking and can’t believe it. My son said, ‘don’t close your eyes Oscar.’ He started yelling for the police to call an ambulance.”
Bryson said Jackie had a panic attack on the platform watching Grant die.
“I feel angry as a parent that my son had to go through this … it was preventable.”
By Dawneka Akins
OAKLAND, CA – “I got a brick. Trust me, when it gets dark, it’s goin’ through a window,” 58-year old OG Rich said as he strolled near 13th Street and Broadway, downtown. The Oakland native said he was fed up with seeing law enforcement mistreat the city’s young people, many of whom Rich regarded as his family. “Oscar Grant could have been my nephew.”
Rich admitted he was on the scene to be a part whatever happened, good or bad. “I’m gon’ help these people tear this (expletive) up!”
As protesters paced up and down Broadway – downtown Oakland’s main drag – some said they were content that Mehserle was actually convicted rather than acquitted.
As for Rich, he was adamant in his opposition to the involuntary manslaughter verdict. He held a sign that read “The whole damn system is guilty, we need a real resolution.” Each time he hoisted the sign, Rich seemed to grow more agitated. As he began to shout, “(Expletive) the police, you sorry (expletive)!,” young people joined his chant.
OAKLAND, CA – Oakland Voices correspondents have spread throughout the city to get reactions from residents following the Johannes Mehserle verdict. The former BART police officer was found guilty today of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Oscar Grant III last year.
“This is an absurd miscarriage of justice. It was an obvious murder,” said Oakland resident Duane Deterville. “Everyone saw the shooting. Anyone who’s not a racist can see it.” Deterville also said the jury’s decision, “underlines how much hasn’t changed in regard to policing of black and brown people in this country.”
Observing the reaction of Oakland residents to the verdict, Deterville said, “People are not happy. How could you be? People are glad the shooting and the case were visible enough to make it to court. But there’s a feeling there was some game playing with the judge and the jury.”
When asked how he thought people should respond to the verdict, Deterville said, “Ah! That’s a tough one. All I have to say is, timing is everything.”
Sammy is a security guard and a 25 year resident of downtown Oakland. As protesters shouted “burn this justice system down” and “we don’t got no time for talking, it’s time for violence,” Sammy said people in Oakland should “keep their heads straight” and avoid violence.
A resident named Dr. M was handing out protest literature near the corner of 14th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. About this verdict, he said, “This isn’t our party. This is the white people’s party. We had our party. Oscar Grant was already handled by Lovelle Mixon.”
Mixon was an Oakland man involved in a shootout that included four OPD officers on March 21, 2009. Mixon and the four officers died. Dr M’s view points echo the sentiments of many in the community who feel the officers’ deaths were payback for years of police abuse.
Many Oakland residents see the jury’s decision as deeply flawed. Dr. M said it points to something wrong with the way America’s legal system treats black people . “We ain’t gonna get justice in America. This is all about race. That’s all America is, is racism.”
Actor and comedian Mark Curry is an Oakland native who expressed his frustration with the trial’s outcome. “The word ‘guilty’ hasn’t been said in about 30 years involving cops.”
OAKLAND, CA – In some ways, commentary on the shooting of Oscar Grant seems simple, divided by one vast river of intent. Either Johannes Mehserle meant to draw his gun and shoot Grant, or he meant to draw his Taser to tase him. Murder in cold blood, or a grave mistake.
For the jurors, the central issue is likely far from black or white. This case flounders in possibilities – a deep, deep well of murky middle. Not just tasked with rendering their individual opinions, the Mehserle jury is faced with an onerous mission: reaching a consensus when their options are many.
Here is a breakdown of the jury’s choices.
Second Degree Murder
“Simply put, in order to convict Mehserle of second degree murder,” explains Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, “the jury must find that the prosecution has proven that Mehserle actually realized that he might kill someone, and took the risk of doing so.” Levenson says the jurors need to be convinced “that Mehserle knew he had drawn his gun.”
One type of voluntary manslaughter is a sudden killing in the heat of passion. The jury will consider whether Grant or others provoked Mehserle in a way that would move an average person to lose self-control under the influence of the heat of the moment.
Among the questions that go into considering voluntary manslaughter: was he provoked enough to make him respond violently, and with lethal force? And here’s a big one: how does society expect a reasonable person in Mehserle’s shoes to have acted?
Levenson says that voluntary manslaughter also includes cases of “imperfect self-defense.” That means the defendant honestly but unreasonably feared the victim and believed he had to act in self-defense. Were Mehserle’s actions based on a reasonable belief about his situation?
For the jury to choose involuntary manslaughter, Levenson says, it just needs to believe “that Mehserle should have know that he had drawn his gun, even if he didn’t actually realize it.” “Acting with ‘gross negligence,’” Levenson explains, “means that the defendant made a mistake that another person in his situation would not have made.” So even if Mehserle honestly thought he drew his Taser, the jury must find that that belief was not reasonable.
If Mehserle is acquitted, it will basically mean he’s been found innocent of the criminal charges against him. There are two ways that homicide can be excused: when it’s done by accident, and when there is no unlawful intent. Homicide by public officers is justifiable when it is committed necessarily and lawfully. Riots, overcoming someone who is resisting arrest, or keeping the peace are all potential scenarios for justifiable homicide.
Mehserle could be acquitted of all criminal charges. For that to happen, the jury must find that he drew his gun purely by mistake, and that the caution he used when trying to use his Taser was ordinary given the former BART officer’s training.
To reach any verdict, every one of the 12 jurors has to agree. Getting a dozen people to reach a consensus on just about anything is hard work. This is a complicated murder trial with a lot at stake. If they don’t all agree, a “hung jury” will be declared, and the case will be called a mistrial. The prosecution can send Mehserle to trial again, perhaps seeking a lesser charge.
Dre McEwen is a former Oakland Voices correspondent.