Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, the French say: the more things change, the more they stay essentially the same. The United States has been the enduring proof of that saying, better and worse. Its too-painful application in the national life was borne out again on Jan. 1, New Year’s Day.
Nineteen days from the election of its first African American president — what may be its most transformative event — the past returned (as if the past had really left the present). As the nation prepares to punch through to a new sense of itself, Oakland, California is smoldering again. A city with a history of police violence against its citizens has lurched tragically into the past.
Early in the morning of Jan. 1, Oscar Grant III was returning to his home in Hayward, about 15 miles from Oakland, riding on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train after celebrating the new year in San Francisco. After an altercation among other passengers on the train, Grant was accosted by BART police officers at the Fruitvale BART station. At least one cell-phone video of the incident shows that Grant was held face down on the station platform floor by two BART officers. One of them, Johannes Mehserle, responding to a struggle real or perceived, then shot Grant in the back. The bullet ricocheted against the platform floor, piercing one of Grant’s lungs. He died about four hours later at a nearby hospital.
The father of a 4-year-old daughter was 22 years young.
Within days of the incident, part of Oakland’s downtown was in flames. Police fought pitched battles with demonstrators, who set small fires and rocked police cruisers as they responded to the unrest. About 120 people were arrested Jan. 7 on charges of rioting, looting, assault and arson.
For Oakland residents of any long standing, the shooting and the aftermath summoned memories of the infamously volatile relationship between Oakland police and the city’s black citizens.
In the 1960’s Oakland cops were notorious for criminalizing young black men, brutally victimizing many of them, and laying the emotional groundwork for what would become the Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton, in response to police brutality, in Oakland in 1966.
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Grant’s family has retained John Burris, a highly regarded civil rights attorney, to build a legal case against the BART agency. On Jan. 4, Burris held a press conference to announce plans to file a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against BART.
At the news conference, Burris called the Grant killing “without a doubt the most unconscionable shooting I have seen, ever … This is the most egregious shooting I have ever seen. A price has to be paid, accountability has to occur … when you lose the life of a 22-year-old who by all accounts — and look at all the people here — was a wonderful, decent young man.”
There is talk of pursuing murder charges against Johannes Mehserle, the officer identified in BART police reports and eyewitness accounts as the man who killed Oscar Grant. There’s been speculation that Mehserle actually intended to use his Taser stun gun on Grant, but may have drawn his service weapon by mistake. That may be conjecture for a while: Mehserle resigned from the BART force shortly after the shooting, and to this point hasn’t made a comment one way or the other about anything.
But the BART leadership has already made at least two concessions to the anguished plaintiffs. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Jan. 8 that BART Director Lynette Sweet said her agency "has not handled this [situation] correctly.” The same day, the BART board of directors formally apologized for the incident. One board member, having seen a videotape of the slaying, said he saw no reason for Grant being shot.
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The state’s legal machinery has swung into action. Jerry Brown — formerly California governor and mayor of Oakland, and now the state attorney general — announced on Saturday of his plans to send a monitor to the office of the Alameda County DA, to make sure the investigation moves to a speedy conclusion.
"The wheels of justice cannot grind so slowly that it appears that justice is not being served," Brown said at a news conference. He had previously huddled with the local NAACP leaders, who understandably want the inquiry fast-tracked.
Some of this is the boilerplate dimension at work, after the fact: the reflexive defensive crouch of officialdom as it reacts to unnecessary tragedy of its own making; the claims and counterclaims of the lawyers; and, eventually, sure as night follows day, the attempt to subvert reality itself: turning the victim into the assailant, transforming the shooter into the victim.
But the damage has been done: to a family and a city, and to a country desperately hoping to move away from this poisonous aspect of its past. Never mind the historic inauguration we’re waiting for; America’s bright dream of a different tomorrow is tarnished already. A young man with everything to live for, in a nation with everything to hope for, is suddenly, agonizingly, needlessly gone.
“So we’re told, ‘this is the Golden Age,’ ” goes the U2 song. “ … But nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”
Image credits: Oscar Grant III: Grant family members, via the GOOD Magazine Web site (www.good.is). Protest image: Still from YouTube video. Burris: Still from YouTube video of news conference.