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Riots Without Cause

eye on the news

Riots Without Cause

Protesting a fair and open trial in Oakland July 9, 2010
California
Public safety
Politics and law
Cities

Rioters in Oakland have new tennis shoes today, as well as printer cartridges, jewelry, and cosmetic products—loot stolen from small businesses last night following the conviction for involuntary manslaughter of a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer who shot an unarmed black man in 2009. Within hours of that verdict, the United States Department of Justice issued an anodyne statement declaring that it was investigating the case “to determine whether the evidence warrants federal prosecution” on civil rights grounds.

Such DOJ declarations are undoubtedly all but routine in police shooting cases—even when, as here, there is not a shred of evidence that the trial was anything other than fair and vigorously prosecuted. But the implication that Officer Johannes Mehserle’s involuntary-manslaughter conviction poses even a possibility of justice miscarried is nonetheless absurd—and not only because due process, which should be the only standard for Justice Department review, was scrupulously observed. The verdict, which could send Mehserle to prison for 14 years, is, in fact, serious for an officer who was acting in good faith, as several witnesses confirmed. Transit officers had been called to Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station at 2 AM in response to a fight on a train among New Year’s celebrants; police had already found guns on BART thoroughfares that night. Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old parolee with a gun conviction, was among a group of subway riders allegedly resisting arrest. Mehserle testified that he thought Grant was reaching for a gun as Mehserle tried to handcuff him and that he intended to use his Taser to subdue Grant. Instead, Mehserle grabbed and shot off his pistol, tragically killing Grant as he lay facedown on the ground. The prosecutor, arguing that Mehserle (who has no history of gun use) deliberately killed Grant in anger, sought a first-degree murder charge. The judge instead allowed charges of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter to go to the jury; the defense argued for acquittal on all counts.

The Justice Department should conclude its “investigation” rapidly, since there is nothing to investigate in this fully transparent, patently fair trial. Nor is there plausible evidence that Mehserle willfully used excessive force against Grant—the standard for a federal civil rights violation. But now that the Oakland rioters have fulfilled the worst expectations of Bay Area police forces—which have been virtually paralyzed for weeks by the prospect of post-verdict riots—perhaps the DOJ could also announce that it is a miscarriage of justice to destroy the livelihoods of business owners who had nothing to do with the incident. And in the meantime, the deliberate bloodbath among Oakland’s gangbangers—which has become routine over several decades—will undoubtedly continue, with nary a peep of protest from the looters and vandals.

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