Southern CA Perspective on Mehserle Sentencing, Bay Youth Speak

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LOS ANGELES -- The shooting of Oscar Grant by former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle Jan. 1, 2009, was captured on video and shown widely throughout the United States and abroad. Tensions surrounding the case have not abated to this today; indeed, they may have been worsened by the subsequent trial, verdict and sentencing.

Headquartered in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area, the movement for justice for Oscar Grant has spread virally and through good old-fashioned community organizing. In Los Angeles, however, where the trial was moved due to pre-trial publicity, many of the activists involved in the justice for Oscar Grant movement feel that a “media whiteout” severely hampered their efforts to generate the same amount of knowledge and concern about the case as the Bay Area had.

The work in Los Angeles to secure justice for Grant continued, but not on the same scale as in Northern California. Media coverage would have helpful in that more people would have been aware of the case taking place across the street from Los Angeles City Hall. On the other hand, much of the work was made easy: the “City of Angeles” and surrounding areas are by no means strangers to police violence.

Sheena Chou – a young Chinese American – came to the Oscar Grant movement by way of seeking justice for her friend Mike Cho. Cho was shot and killed by two La Habra police officers on Dec. 31, 2007, after they say he lunged at them with a tire iron. The 25-year-old Korean American who taught art to blind and disabled children, suffered from a disability himself, and friends and family members maintain that Cho could not walk properly, let alone lunge at or attack two police officers. The unarmed Cho was shot several times in a span of 41 seconds.

“Prior to Mike being killed, I was kinda under a rock,” Chou said. “Sh-- got hella real hella quick. The Oscar Grant case was all over the news, and we had connected with O22 (the October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality) and that’s how my involvement began.”

Chou said she was tired of the lack of accountability and responsibility on the part of police and that she didn’t want something like the Grant case to go unchallenged. The police officers that killed Cho faced no criminal charges and the family settled a civil suit out of court.

Chou said that her sense of humanity compelled her to get involved in the justice for Oscar Grant movement.

“I saw a man, a human being shot and killed and I’m not alright with that,” she said. “I don’t want to just go to sleep and pretend that didn’t happen. I want to live in a world where no one is above the law like that.”

Muneera Gardezi said the victimization of people of color by the police “spoke to my core as a Pakistani Muslim woman who believes in intersectionality ... I felt it necessary to create the linkage between Oscar Grant’s murder and the ways in which the Muslim community is policed, harassed and brutally treated.”

Gardezi was moved to the point of writing an essay about those issues after Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter this summer.

“Muslims are not immune to this pandemic,” she wrote. “Usman Chaudhry, a 21-year-old autistic Pakistani-American male was shot multiple times by the police [Mar. 25, 2008], for allegedly carrying a knife in his pocket. More commonly, Muslims continue to be targeted by the FBI and CIA by similar coercive tactics that are aimed to censor, detain and eventually deport Muslims.”

Gardezi said she received mixed responses from the article, “Policing the Innocent Domestically and Abroad,” ranging from fear on the part of her family to near dismissal by others.

“My family was terrified and even though it seems like paranoia, their fears are grounded,” she said. “As immigrants from Pakistan, they believe that our lives are constantly monitored and in a state of danger. While I did nothing close to courageous, I still validate and understand their fears.

“Many of my coworkers and friends expressed that the connection between the Muslim community and Oscar Grant’s murder, which was highlighted in the article, spoke to them,” Gardezi continued. “Others, on the blogs that these articles were posted on, called me an anarchist and stated that my belief that police are bad was too black/white for them. They would have preferred a more moderate stance, where I could pose possible solutions to working with the police on these issues. Unfortunately, I don't think that is possible and that is not something I am invested in changing within my beliefs.”

La Opinión, headquartered in Los Angeles, is said to be the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the United States. Staff reporter Eileen Truax said that although they have had to downsize like others in the industry, which has taken its toll on the numbers and kinds of stories it can cover, “We decided the story [Oscar Grant] was worthy because every week we receive at least one story from people – mostly Latinos – who have been discriminated, abused or victimized in some way from authorities … this is a story that many of our readers can relate with.”

According to Truax, the case of Oscar Grant is something that “… unfortunately we have seen several times among our community.” The most recent case is that of Manuel Jamines, a day laborer from Guatemala, shot by LAPD officers Sep. 5, for allegedly wielding a knife. Witnesses maintain that Jamines was unarmed with his hands raised at the time.

“I think the Grant case is important because the groups that worked on it keep talking about it even several weeks after the verdict. Our Latino community sometimes is not that strong,” Truax said.

Mehserle has been held in the Los Angeles County Jail since July 8. Although the sentence of Mehserle by Judge Robert Perry to one year in state prison has been roundly condemned as unjust, Perry, who agreed with the defense’s argument that Mehserle was fit for probation, stated that he felt prison time was necessary since a young man lost his life.

While many people agree with that last statement, Gardezi said she thinks that it really won’t matter.

“I don't think it will truly hold him accountable even if he serves time in the prison industrial complex,” Gardezi said. “So I feel like true justice will not be served.”

In spite of Gardezi’s feelings, the existence of the movement for justice for Oscar Grant can be said to have many silver linings. For Chou, being involved in the movement has aided in her healing.

“When Mike was killed it kinda drove me crazy because the cops got away with murder, and one of them was even promoted, and I just thought the world was upside down,” she said. “Nobody gave a sh--, there was no more humanity left. But when I saw all these people fighting against police terrorism it help[ed] me heal. It restore[d] my faith in humanity.”