Oscar Grant and the Role of Citizen Video


By Tony Kontzer

Sometimes, we all have to step outside our comfort zones when a topic warrants it, and this post is just such an occasion. I live and work a few short miles from Oakland, CA, which, as many of you around the nation may be unaware, has been ground zero for a brewing storm defined by racial divides. To bring you up to speed: On Thursday, July 8, 2010, 350 miles to the south, in a courthouse in Los Angeles, a jury found Jonannes Mehserle, a Caucasian former Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of an African American BART passenger named Oscar Grant on New Year's Eve 2009.

Grant had been detained after a fracas broke out on a BART train. When Mehserle arrived at the scene, he was asked by another officer to handcuff Grant. That is when Mehserle's gun suddenly fired, killing Grant. Mehserle has maintained that he meant to fire his Taser, not his gun, and the jury's verdict indicates that they believed him.

The verdict is unleashing a torrent of racial tension. Grant's death spurred widespread rioting and civil disruption throughout Oakland in the days that followed, and violence reared its ugly head again Thursday night following the announcement of the verdict. Taking their cue from Grant's disgruntled family, who had hoped for a second-degree murder conviction, protestors took to the streets of downtown Oakland, looting and pillaging well into the night, resulting in frequent clashes with police in riot gear and numerous arrests. Thankfully, no deaths or serious injuries were reported, but that doesn't mask the disturbing underbelly of this case.

This, in the same state that erupted in rioting 18 years ago, after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of motorist Rodney King. It's alarming that so much time seems to have yielded so little healing. There's a palpable sense of déjà vu in the air here. The King case announced the arrival of amateur video as compelling evidence. Likewise, in the Grant case, again, there is compelling video evidence that a young African American man was brutalized by Caucasian police officers and, again, the African American community finds itself outraged over what it believes to be a lack of justice.

If there's a technological angle to this story, it revolves around video and mobile devices. In 1991, one lone videographer happened to be shooting footage from a nearby building during the King incident. Eighteen years later, while Oscar Grant was meeting his end, countless passengers were recording cell-phone video of the events on the Oakland BART platform. These various citizen views were quickly uploaded to the Web and watched by millions, eventually becoming compelling evidence. Yet, these live videos were apparently not compelling enough to convince a jury to find Mehserle guilty of second-degree murder, or even voluntary manslaughter.

I can't pretend to understand the events on that BART platform. I can't fathom what Grant's family has gone through, or presume what Mehserle's intentions were. But I do know two things:

  1. Racial tension is as high in California as it's ever been, and that is shameful given how far we should have come on this issue by now; and
  2. The ubiquity of video-capable mobile devices is completely changing the way we, as a society, experience that tension. Maybe, someday, the presence of such compelling video evidence will truly come back to haunt the accused -- deservedly or not.

In the meantime, the images of Oscar Grant's last moments, still viewable on YouTube and other sites, remain a powerful symbol of America's continued racial divide. Let's hope we learn something this time.


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