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Aftermath of the execution of Oscar Grant: Everything’s under control

March 17, 2009

by Junya

Thanks to cellphone videos taken by horrified onlookers, the world has watched BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, with the help of fellow officer Tony Pirone, execute Oscar Grant in cold blood. – Photo: Courtesy of John Burris
Thanks to cellphone videos taken by horrified onlookers, the world has watched BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, with the help of fellow officer Tony Pirone, execute Oscar Grant in cold blood. – Photo: Courtesy of John Burris
The stakes of the campaign that has arisen in the aftermath of the execution of Oscar Grant were made clear over 50 years ago. The international outrage and disgust at the brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi forced the Mississippi power structure to stage a mock trial, in order to fend off the threat of possible federal intervention by repairing its image with a thin veneer of Anglo law.

The prosecutors in the subsequent murder trial put on a fine show, that impressed both the white Northern and the Negro press – and that was fixed to fail. The Emmett Till murder, and the acquittal of the murderers, became a powerful unifier in the struggle against the Southern brand of white supremacy.

Taser-confusion hoax

California’s 21st century brand of police state is more sophisticated and efficient. We’ve already gotten a glimpse of the intense propaganda campaign that we can expect to see waged by the state through its media mouthpiece. Although at this stage, more than two months after the killing, the killer still has not explained his action, the void has been filled by viral dissemination of the deceptive Taser-confusion fiction.

The Taser-confusion hoax is being spread by others: The killer himself has not publicly declared that. In fact, the killer’s bail motion only implies, but never claims, that he thought he was using a Taser and not his gun:

“However, the bulk of the discovery, including witness and officer statements, seems to indicate that this young officer, who carried a taser for only a few shifts prior to this event, may have mistakenly deployed his service pistol rather than his taser, thus negating any criminal intent.”

Note the wording: “seems to indicate” and “may have mistakenly deployed his service pistol rather than his taser.” These are terms of speculation, carefully crafted by the legal team of Michael Rains (who made his bones as Mr. Fix-it for law enforcement low-lifes by springing the “Corcoran 8″ prison guards and the “Oakland Riders”) and junior partner Harry Stern (who chummed with Santa Clara county prosecutors to give the finger to the majority will of the jury and free Michael Kan, one of the two Palo Alto police thugs that tortured 60-year-old Albert Hopkins).

Yet this claim merely raises more questions: If the killer was negligent and had no criminal intent, why has he not cooperated with investigators? When police stop someone on the street for an interrogation, and the detained person invokes the right to silence, the disingenuous police response is always “If you’re innocent, then you should have nothing to hide.”

At least one of the contradictions in the claims of the bail motion was exposed by the judge. While claiming the killer intended to use the Taser, the motion also claimed the killer acted in self-defense: “I thought he was going for a gun”. But the self-defense claim implies that the killer intended to use his pistol – not the Taser.

By now the real purpose of the Taser-confusion hoax should be obvious: to restore public confidence in police. From blogs and online comments, it seems that many who viewed the video of the murder of Oscar Grant are not familiar with the data on extrajudicial executions by U.S. police.

Police killings in U.S. average one a day

In October 2007, the Justice Department reported that during the three years from 2003 through 2005 police in the U.S. killed, on average, a person every day. While the U.S. murder rate during 2003-2005 was 3.7-4.2 times higher than that of Australia and the U.K., the U.S. police killing rate was 4.1-74 times higher. In addition, the Justice Department figures are only a lower bound. The actual number of extrajudicial killings must be higher because three states, Georgia, Maryland and Montana, failed to submit data. Also, federal agencies are not required to report such deaths.

In October 2007, the Justice Department reported that during the three years from 2003 through 2005 police in the U.S. killed, on average, a person every day.

These statistics are disturbing. But the stories behind the numbers are frightening. While national media attention was given to the 2006 cases of Sean Bell – killed just hours before his wedding, when New York City police fired nearly 50 shots at his car as he left his bachelor’s celebration – and 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston – killed in a hail of nearly 40 gunshots during an Atlanta police no-knock drug raid – most killings by police that year received local attention at most. These stories may not be as widely known, yet they are no less shocking:

New Hanover County, North Carolina

Peyton Strickland, 18-year-old community college student, was killed by a sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina.
Peyton Strickland, 18
A heavily armed unit of the New Hanover County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Office went to the home of Peyton Strickland, an 18-year-old community college student, looking for a PlayStation 3 video game machine they suspected he and a friend stole. When police hit the front door with a battering ram, Deputy Christopher Long allegedly mistook the sound for a gun blast and he fired through the door killing the unarmed student.

New Hanover County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Long killed Peyton Strickland.
New Hanover County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Long killed Peyton Strickland.
According to court records, Deputy Long carried a .45-caliber submachine gun, a .45-caliber pistol, two extra pistol magazines, two extra sub gun magazines, a gas mask, a knife and a flash bang grenade. Deputy Long told a grand jury that he expected heavily armed resistance based on a Facebook picture where Strickland’s friend posed with a collector’s guns (though Strickland was not in the photo). Deputy Long was fired, but the grand jury did not indict.

Prince George’s County, Maryland

Prince George’s County, Maryland, policeman Jordan Swonger shot dead Gregory Boggs Jr., 24, in one of the disproportionate number of cases seen as “white cop kills unarmed young Black man” that raised the ethnic issues often surrounding killings by U.S. police. Police say Swonger responded to a report of a man assaulting a woman and found Boggs standing over a woman. Swonger said he ordered Boggs away from the woman but Boggs picked her up and held her in front of him as a shield. When told to put his hands up, police said, Boggs reached toward his waistband. Police said Swonger feared Boggs was reaching for a weapon, so he shot and killed him. Police acknowledge that they later discovered Boggs was not armed.

The woman on the scene, 19-year-old Lanaya Borden, denied the police account of the incident and said her unarmed boyfriend did nothing to provoke the shooting. She countered that Boggs did not use her as a shield, and that she was standing with Boggs, not on the ground. She said that Swonger shot Boggs within 20 seconds of his arrival.

Sandy, Oregon

Fouad Kaady, 27, was killed by law enforcement officers in Oregon.
Fouad Kaady, 27
In January 2006, the Clackamas County, Oregon, Sheriff’s Office ruled that Deputy Dave Willard “acted within existing rules and regulations and according to current training” when he and Sandy police officer William Bergin killed unarmed 27-year-old Fouad Kaady, firing seven shots into him in September 2005. (Bergin was also cleared, but resigned in October 2008 amidst an investigation charging that he gave revoked driver’s licenses to an underage friend. That followed a 2007 arrest for driving while intoxicated, to terrorize his ex-girlfriend.)

The victim had stripped naked after being badly burned in a car accident. Willard told investigators: “The first thing that struck me was that this man is seriously injured; he has … burns, he’s lost a lot of blood, he’s got blood all over himself … he is, appears to be, just kinda catatonic, he’s not looking up at us he’s not doing anything he’s just sitting just like this.”

Bergin’s mugshots
Mugshots of Officer William Bergin, who, along with Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Willard, killed Fouad Kaady.
The police then ordered the burn victim to lie down on the hot pavement. When the “catatonic” burn victim did not respond, they Tasered him three times. When the shocked victim then started running away from police, then towards them, and jumped atop the police car, they shot him dead. The entire encounter was reported to have lasted just 28 seconds.

Oakland, California

People lacking such context – or personal experience – who normally accept killings by police uncritically, probably experienced “cognitive dissonance” when they witnessed the execution of Oscar Grant by police: discomfort with the discrepancy between what they believe and what they witness. The response to that discomfort carries the potential to rock the foundation of the police state. The Taser-confusion hoax serves to resolve that dissonance, by providing a reassuring narrative to that chilling video:

“You are NOT witnessing an extrajudicial execution: We all know that only happens in lands devoid of respect for human life, not the U.S. You are witnessing a freak accident, a terrible mistake. Everything is under control. Now let’s get this behind us and move forward in our post-racial society.”

It doesn’t matter how far-fetched the Taser-confusion claim is – the Internet gave it wings, and elevated it to the status of urban legend, because so many wanted to believe it.

The lead defense attorney who won the acquittal for Emmett Till’s murderers summed up the case by claiming, “After the jury had been chosen, any first-year law student could have won the case.” That was one of the ways the Mississippi prosecutors fixed the case to fail. Similarly, defense attorneys for police on trial for excessive force enjoy the comfort of knowing that prosecutors’ training and experience lead them to select jurors with blind faith in police testimony. These jurors will be yearning for relief from their cognitive dissonance – or, for those simply in denial, a rationalization for that denial.

But, ultimately, the acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderers helped dismantle Jim Crow Mississippi rather than preserve it. We will see what history has taught California’s guardians of police terrorism – and what it has taught those who seek to end that terrorism.

Sources

“Fixed To Fail: The Emmett Till Murder Trial,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuHeNQeSG8I

“Plan 9 from BART police,” http://www.sfbayview.com/2009/did-bart-cop-who-killed-oscar-grant-mistake-gun-for-taser

“Motion to Set Bail,” http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2009/01/30/18566987.php

“Close To Home: Measuring U.S. Respect For The Human Right To Life,” http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/04/16/18493097.php

“28 seconds : The Killing of Fouad Kaady,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8WijDe5BhQ

“What Happened to Fouad Kaady,” http://fkaady.blogspot.com

Bay Area writer Junya can be reached at junya@idiom.com.

7 thoughts on “Aftermath of the execution of Oscar Grant: Everything’s under control

  1. junya

    I found no media that reported that the Justice Department study found that from 2003 through 2005 police in the U.S. killed, on average, a person every day. They all quoted the numbers released by the Justice Department, without doing the simple arithmetic that makes those numbers more meaningful:

    The Justice Department reported 2,002 arrest-related deaths during the three years from 2003 through 2005 (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/ardus05.pdf). Killings by police were the leading cause of such deaths during this period, reported over four times more often than any other cause of arrest-related death: 1,095 killings (55 percent). There were exactly 1,096 days in 2003-2005. The conclusion stares you in the face: that means, on average, the US police killed a person every day.

    That suggests provocative questions to ask oneself each day: who did US police kill today and why? Why are US police killing more often than their fellow plundering Anglo powers, Australia and UK?

    Reply
  2. Seattle affiliate, October 22nd Coalition

    There’s even more historical data from the DoJ regarding police killings. Below is a link to a year-by-year count (from 1976 to 2005) of what they call “justifiable homicides by police”:

    http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/justify.htm

    Their definition of “justifiable” is “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty”(?!). So if you are EVER convicted of a felon at any time in your life and you are killed by police, apparently to the DoJ it must’ve been a “justifiable” killing. One wonders what the count would be if the “unjustifiable” killings were included. As one estimate, our Stolen Lives Project (www.stolenlives.org) named over 2,000 police killing victims in the U.S. in the 1990s; of those, about 160 were from Washington State (we know of some that didn’t make the publication deadline), which has about 1/48th of the U.S. population. A simple extrapolation, assuming Washington State doesn’t have any higher a rate than other states (with only 3% of its population being African American, it likely has a LOWER rate than other states), would mean there were 160*48 = 7680 police killings in the U.S. in the 1990s. So the DoJ numbers may be a serious undercount. About the only thing unique regarding the Oscar Grant case is that it was caught on video, so the police couldn’t lie about Oscar being a “threat” like they usually do.

    Reply
  3. junya

    Thanks for the additional information.

    The October 2007 DOJ report was historic because it was the first time the US attempted a nationwide measurement of ALL types of deaths that occurred in the process of arrest – inluding all homicides (not only “justifiable”), intoxication, suicide, and other causes. This fact deserves repeating: previously, NO national measure of arrest-related deaths. Not only did the government maintain NO independent body to investigate deaths that occurred during apprehension by police or while in police custody, until recently they didn’t even require that such deaths be reported! While the UK has its “Independent Police Complaints Commission” (IPCC) to tally and investigate all deaths in custody (that’s mandated by law to be entirely independent of police), there is no comparable national body in the US.

    Looking at the numbers for “justifiable homicides by police” in the 1990s, we see:

    1990 385
    1991 367
    1992 418
    1993 455
    1994 462
    1995 389
    1996 356
    1997 369
    1998 367
    1999 308

    That totals to 3876 “justifiable homicides by police” during the 90’s – close to double the 2000 killings documented by the Stolen Lives Project during that period. That also averages to 387.6 killings per year – slightly over one police killing each day.

    Furthermore, to see this in the proper global perspective, according to US State Dept 2006 Country Reports, that year 48 of 191 countries (about 25%) had NO deaths following police contact – confirmed, alleged, or suspected. This group included not only US allies Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Germany, and Canada, but also a favorite US Bad Guy – Cuba.

    So why are US police killing lives every day?

    Reply
  4. s Murph

    Do not believe your lying eyes and the BIG SPIN Job

    Sooo lets review; The police that were at the scene and directly involved in the events that took place on the platform at the Fruitvale BART station are accessories to a crime and should be charged and prosecuted as such (if it were anybody else that is exactly what would have happened). How can the Alameda County DA say he is not going to bring charges against any of the other officer involved in the assault/murder of Oscar Grant? They were there they were involved and one office Mr. Pirone did strike Mr. Grant. Then the same office Mr. Pirone put his knee on Mr. Grant’s neck to hold him down while officer Mehserle shot and killed Mr. Grant. In spite of all the video clips of this event BART, the City of Oakland and the county DA seem to be saying DO NOT BELIEVE YOUR LYING EYES. The silence surrounding this matter from the agencies and individuals who are supposed to adjudicate this crime is overwhelming. Officer Pirone clearly hits Mr. Grant for no reason at all. Officer Mehserle clearly shoots and kills Mr. Grant for no reason at all. How much plainer do you want it?

    Now that one of the officers involved in the Oscar Grant shooting has been charged. We have moved form the DO NOT BELIEVE YOUR LYING EYES spin to the I WAS SCARED FOR MY LIFE spin. The defense is seemly going to take the defense that officer Mehserle mistakenly pulled his service revolver INSTEAD of his Taser. Still can not explain why the other officer is not being charged for hitting Mr. Grant for any good reason.

    For those who do not know this is what a taser gun used by BART looks like follow this link.

    http://carlosmiller.com/2009/01/11/was-bart-police-officer-johannes-mehserle-even-carrying-a-taser-gun/

    For those of you who do not know what a Sig Sauer .40 cal (BART service revolver) looks like follow this link.

    http://www.remtek.com/arms/sig/model/229/229.htm

    These two weapons look different feel different handle differently and weigh different. The taser gun carried by BART Officers weighs 175 grams (0.45 pounds / 7 ounces). The Sig Sauer 40 cal. weighs 27.5 oz. That is 20 oz heavier than a Taser. The grips are different I do not see how you could mistake a Taser for a service revolver (I guess this is where fearing for his life comes into play) PLEASE!!! I do not see how that defense can stand up under any scrutiny

    Lets recap this, Officer is standing OVER suspect the suspect who is clearly subdued and he HAS to draw his service revolver and shoot him???? The major problem I have with this is WHY the officers did not search him for weapons once the suspect was in custody and he was in custody Oh by the way. The suspect is on his stomach, and apparently incapable of making any movement that TWO arresting officers could not control Ya think. Sooo What Happened??? There is also something called trigger discipline that should come into play when someone who is really experienced in using a weapon. I do not believe the officer involved showed ANY of That.

    There was a range of procedural misconduct at the scene that lead up to the tragic end that transpired that should be unacceptable. Did the officers have any idea who the potential suspects were (with all the surveillance on BART trains and platforms there is no reason that the officers should not have known WHO they were looking for). If BART has spent all that money to put in place a surveillance system that does work when situation like the one on new years eve happen they have spent a lot of money for NOTHING and the public is paying for it with their LIVES!!! No search for weapons once in custody is absolutely ridiculous (that alone would have removed the fear factor). No call for medical help after shots were fired (if medical help had been called the man might have lived). Yea the officers involved probably were scared for their life (scared that they broke a host of procedural rules and then shot a man with no apparent justification). So let the spinning begin.

    Peace

    S Murph

    Reply
  5. Julia

    What the officer’s did to Kaady was terrible and wrong, and I am not writing this in an effort to defend them. This website does not have to twist the truth to present the story of Kaady in a sympathetic light, his story is sympathetic enough. He was not involved in a simple car accident, he hit two vehicles and left the scene. He left his car and assaulted a man who saw he was injured and tried to help him. He later threatened to kill the officers involved. All of this does not mean that he deserved to die, and people opposed to police brutality should not shy away from the facts.

    Reply
  6. junya

    Thanks Julia for your feedback, which provides an opportunity to elaborate on the Kaady story.

    You suggest there was an intent to “twist the truth”, yet the only support given for that suggestion is the article’s omission of some facts that do not alter the conclusion a reader is likely to draw (as you’ve conceded). I omitted those facts for brevity and focus – not to “shy away from the facts”. The focus of the article is not the Kaady story, but on the prevalence and acceptance of horrifying killings by police in the US – that provides the context for the horrifying killing of Oscar Grant by police (as the title suggests). For readers seeking more details on the Kaady story, I included links to two reports containing the omitted facts.

    When those facts are seen in the context of the many other missing facts, the horror is likely increased not diminished. If you are suggesting that the officers’ knowlege of the details of the car accident, and of Mr. Kaady’s confused response to that accident, factored into the decision to kill Mr. Kaady, then you are suggesting justifications that Willard did not claim himself. Here’s an excerpt from his interview with investigators:

    Q: And in responding to this car you had heard that there had been one accident that he had fled from and then did you hear of another accident?

    A: I did not initially. I had heard just of the one, that he had fled from and that his vehicle was on fire when he left.

    Willard’s initial account of the killing made no mention of an alleged assault: he had to be reminded of that by his lawyer. He corrects the lawyer by pointing out that his knowledge was secondhand hearsay, and clearly assigned little real weight to that.

    In the interview, Willard unambiguously revealed the state of his mind at the point he and Bergin encountered Mr. Kaady:

    A: …at that point I, I assessed it without getting out of the car. I said, “Okay, I don’t, I don’t see any weapons do you?: And he [Bergin] said, “No” that the man we were directing our attention at was completely nude…The first thing that struck me was that this man is seriously injured…he is, appears to be, just kinda catatonic…”

    The term “catatonic” is used to mean “in stupor”, i.e. unresponsive. Yet Willard immediately started giving orders. And when this man that they’d determined was completely nude, seriously injured, and “kinda catonic” did not respond to those orders, Bergin Tasered him! In a Jan. 30 hearing, a U.S. Magistrate Judge ruled that Bergin should have known he wasn’t allowed to use a Taser against someone who doesn’t pose an immediate threat but has simply failed to comply with commands.

    Worse, Willard essentially confessed that the Tasering was pointless:

    A: …I’m still looking at him and assessing him and I start thinking, “I don’t want this guy anywhere near me” and I’m thinking, “If he’ll, if he complies what am I gonna do?” Well I’m gonna wait until other officers get here before we do anything.

    According to Willard, after they’d Tasered Mr. Kaady three times, he first ran away from them, then towards them screaming “I’m gonna kill you”. Willard then shot him – not from fear of that hollow threat, but because:

    A:…I didn’t want to touch this man, I felt there was a real risk to my safety and to the officer that was there if we weren’t protected before we came in physical contact with this man…probably my first and foremost concern was Hepatitis. And then secondly the potential for the AIDS virus being also transmitted through the blood…I actually even had a little opening on the tip of one of my fingers at the time that I was concerned about.

    And that’s why he had to kill Fouad Kaady. Tragic ignorance of a reckless rookie? No. Willard had over 23 years of law enforcement experience, certified in CPR, and as he told investigators:

    A: …a member of our Crisis Hostage Negotiation Team and have been for, well, a number of years. And then I’m also a member of the Crisis Intervention Team trained to deal with drug-affected and mentally ill people…We learned intervention techniques primarily how to assess and communicate with people who are either mentally ill, or affected by some sort of drugs and, and to do so in the most advantageous manner to protect them as well as us.

    Obviously, eliminating individual abusive and incompetent police is not enough. Emphasizing improved training is not enough. As long as police are confident that society places so little value on the lives they take, then we can expect the horror to continue.

    Reply

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