Oscar Grant, BART, and Oakland

I have been struggling with trying to say something useful about Oscar Grant since the verdict, but I can’t. To maintain my liberal credentials, I am meant to be outraged by the jury’s manslaughter verdict. It would be easier to feel that way than the way I do. I was outraged by the Rodney King verdict. Unfortunately, the cases don’t strike me as parallel past a certain point. Rodney King’s case was a screaming, obvious example of police brutality. Oscar Grant was a victim, but of what, I am not sure, even watching the videos time and again. The victim of a man who was criminally negligent–so criminally negligent because in his mind, apprehending a black man didn’t require him to take care? I can understand that interpretation.

But I am also old. And being old means you that you have experienced how one mistake, one lapse of attention, can have tragic results. Yes, the officer was in one of those positions where anything less than 100 percent competence is unforgivable. But we all know, at least we do by my age, that 100 percent doesn’t happen. Even good people make terrible, unintentional, and deadly mistakes, looking right when you should have looked left, letting go when you should have held on, holding on when you should have let go, etc. Life doesn’t run according to neat rules of karma and intent. It is ruled, instead, by accidents and missteps, some happy and some horrendous, and most so unbelievably stupid and random that they defy explanation. I can understand how a jury would decide as it did here.

If there is a generalizable lesson here, it has to do less, unfortunately, with Mr. Grant and his family’s terrible tragedy and more to do with the history of overpolicing the black community in Oakland. Had Mr. Grant shot Mr Mehserle by accident, the tumble of events would have been entirely different, with no grace given. In cases like this, the anger directed at Mr. Mehserle and the police doesn’t just contain a community’s grief for an individual incident, but is instead pushed forward by the weight of anger for every time people have been harassed and bullied. I do not know how to heal those types of wounds, but I am pretty sure that nothing here would have: making Mehserle the whipping boy for the police wouldn’t have, and neither does the lighter verdict. The past of systematic injustices skews the landscape of the present, making case-by-case justice impossible.

How I wish this hadn’t happened at all, let alone on BART.

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