by The People’s Minister of Information JR
It has been five years since Oakland was set on fire during the Oakland Rebellions that were a result of the BART police murder of Oscar Grant on the morning of Jan. 1, 2009. Since that time, much has been said about the murder trial of Johannes Mehserle, the trigger pulling cop who murdered Grant, because of the big screen release of Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” but very little has been done in terms of studying the victories and defeats in this California anti-police terrorism campaign.
Los Angeles based journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga, who was in the courtroom for the Mehserle murder trial, is set to release her book, “No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant,” in the coming weeks. This book gives a much needed political analysis of what was at work behind the curtains of this monumental police murder case.
After the selection of Obama as president twice, many in the U.S. want to believe that we finally live in a color-blind society. After reading “No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant,” you will never make that mistake again. Check out author Thandisizwe Chimurenga in her own words …
M.O.I. JR: What made you want to turn your knowledge of the Oscar Grant murder into a book, considering that you have been a journalist for many years covering many police murders of unarmed Black people?
Thandisizwe: This was the first time I ever sat through a criminal murder trial, and I had definite thoughts about the way it was handled as well as what I witnessed in the courtroom. And, from the initial coverage of the case in the press until Johannes Mehserle walked out of the L.A. County Jail a free man, I noticed similarities between this case and the cases of other Black folks who had been murdered by the police, so I thought all of this should be documented – the trial proceedings and my analysis of the proceedings. This book looks at the phenomenon of police murders through the lens of this one particular case.
After the selection of Obama as president twice, many in the U.S. want to believe that we finally live in a color-blind society. After reading “No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant,” you will never make that mistake again.
M.O.I. JR: What made you want to cover the Johannes Mehserle murder trial originally?
Thandisizwe: When Kevin Weston brought the idea to me, I was excited. I would have an opportunity to witness history from a front row seat, up close and personal, and then report back to my community. I viewed the footage of Oscar’s murder on the internet like so many thousands of other people, and then to be presented with that opportunity, I was “all in.”
M.O.I. JR: What role did the Police Bill of Rights play in the Mehserle case?
Thandisizwe: As you know, the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights (POBRA) does not allow us access to a cop’s personnel file, so we are unable to find out if the cop has a history of brutality and murder or not. So we were unable to find out if Mehserle had documented instances of brutality in his past.
The accusations of Kenneth Carrethers [a Black man attacked and beaten by Mehserle and four other BART police officers only six weeks before the murder of Oscar Grant] remained just that – accusations. Just like the defense was able to have information about Oscar Grant’s past entered into trial and, by extension, released to the media, if we had access to Mehserle’s file, the prosecution would have been able to say to the jury, “This man has a history of brutalizing people, so the murder of Oscar Grant was simply an escalation of what he’s been doing all along.” But because of POBRA, we weren’t able to do that because we didn’t have access to his file.
M.O.I. JR: Many people, including myself, saw this case as a monumental one. Why? Can you talk about the people who left their jobs as a consequence of this case moving forward?
Thandisizwe: First, you had an obvious execution – a murder – that was recorded and distributed throughout the world showing Mehserle shoot a compliant, non-threatening Oscar Grant in his back as Oscar was face down on the pavement. Not only was it witnessed by hundreds and filmed by scores of people, but next, you had people who contacted BART, the District Attorney’s Office, family attorney John Burris, as well as news media, who heard or viewed the media’s initial reports of what happened and said, “No, that’s not what happened. I saw it all,” or, “Here’s my footage of what happened.”
Then you had such major outrage immediately after it happened, the day of Oscar’s funeral, that District Attorney Orloff had to quit pussy-footing around and put out a warrant for Mehserle’s arrest for the charge of murder – the first time that a police officer in the state of California was charged with an on-duty shooting.
And then later, Mehserle would be the first police officer in the history of California to be convicted and sentenced and serve time in an on-duty shooting. He wasn’t convicted of murder and his sentence was a slap on the wrist – which was a slap in our collective faces – but it was still historic.
As far as folks losing their jobs, you had Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, who retired. He had been around since the days of the Black Panther Party, if not before, trying to jail Panthers. BART’s Chief of Police Gary Gee, he retired after 37 years on the job. Mind you, these two weren’t fired, they didn’t resign, they retired, but the question becomes, “Why are you leaving now?” right?
Of course there was Anthony Pirone, the first BART police officer on the scene at Fruitvale Station, the one who created the situation where Oscar Grant was murdered and who should have been sitting right next to Johannes Mehserle in that L.A. courtroom. He was fired as a result of his actions that night. And there was his partner in crime, Marysol Domenici, the second BART officer on the scene that night; she also lost her job initially but I understand she unfortunately got it back.
Mehserle would be the first police officer in the history of California to be convicted and sentenced and serve time in an on-duty shooting. He wasn’t convicted of murder and his sentence was a slap on the wrist – which was a slap in our collective faces – but it was still historic.
M.O.I. JR: Do you think that being the relative of someone who has been murdered or terrorized by the police allows them to be the leadership in the anti-police terrorism movement with the ability to overrule more seasoned activists who have been fighting this issue since before their relative was murdered?
Thandisizwe: One of the scenes in Fruitvale Station that really struck me: When Octavia Spencer, playing the role of Oscar’s mom, Wanda, is told that she cannot touch her son because his death has been ruled a homicide. The woman who carried life in her womb for nine months cannot hold her child because the state says so? It brought up for me in particular the question of “ownership.”
Certainly, no one feels the pain and loss of a death more than the person’s biological family, their loved ones. As a nation of people, the collective Black community’s heart goes out to people who have lost loved ones unjustly. They have absolutely every right to speak on behalf of the life of their loved one and as the family of a loved one.
But a social justice movement (not an organization) is an all-sided attempt to bring about change that employs a variety of strategies and tactics. It is long-term, not overnight and no one “owns” a movement. Leadership in a movement must be earned. That goes for “seasoned activists” as well.
Seasoned activists, if we do our jobs right, have a wonderful opportunity to bring not just a couple of individuals, but an entire fierce and ferocious family – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – into a movement for justice, an entire group of people who may have never, ever been politically active before, but are mad as hell. As seasoned activists, we have to be humble and respectful to the families of those murdered by the police and part of our job is to help raise their political consciousness.
But at the end of the day, their loved one wasn’t murdered because he or she was their son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother; their loved one was murdered because they were a member of the collective Black-Brown Nation and that is what the police do to Black and Brown men and women in this country. Our job is to stop it. By any means necessary.
M.O.I. JR: How did you come up with the title of your book? And how long did it take for you to write it?
Thandisizwe: The book has been with me since Johannes Mehserle’s trial in Los Angeles in 2010. I have continued to follow the case since then – his sentencing, the civil rights lawsuits, Mehserle’s early release etc. – and I would add to and go over my notes and the transcripts, while also trying to earn my living as a journalist at the same time. But once I heard that a movie was going to be made on Oscar (late 2012) I decided to get serious about writing this book and do the damn thang.
I started thinking about what I saw on that video and what I heard in that courtroom while employing my own common sense. I kept thinking about how the jury was told that if they had any doubts in their minds about Mehserle’s guilt, they could not convict him; they had to have “no doubt.”
And then I went back and looked at what the judge in the preliminary hearing in Oakland in 2009 had to say – how he had “no doubt” that Mehserle intended to pull his gun and not his taser and that’s what my spirit said to go with. The subtitle, Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report dot com gave me those words because that is exactly what happened – Oscar was murdered by Mehserle, by the media and by the court system, so it was more than one murder that went down, even though it was only one body.
M.O.I. JR: You recently did a crowd-sharing fundraising campaign to come up with the initial resources to self-publish this book. Do you think that crowd sharing is the answer to reviving progressive Black journalism, which is nearly extinct?
Thandisizwe: I think crowd-raising, crowd-funding is a necessary, wonderful shot in the arm. It shows how much support an individual, an organization, an endeavor an idea has, and it gives you a definite constituency to be accountable to. The only drawback would be, possibly, that a Black media company could possibly use the funding that comes from a crowd-raised campaign and not pay their staff their already promised, underpaid paychecks!
M.O.I. JR: Why did you opt for self-publishing?
Thandisizwe: I decided that I wanted to self-publish for several reasons: 1) I can write what I want to write in the way that I want to write it and not be censored or told I have to change it; 2) I don’t have to worry about the book being held up at the printer because the publisher didn’t like what I wrote; 3) I am in control of the production and the distribution of my book – I get to see where it goes and I am not beholden to anybody to tell me how many went here and how many sold there; 4) My Spirit Mother Ida B. Wells did more with less; I decided to follow in her footsteps.
M.O.I. JR: When will the book be available, and where can people find info about it online?
Thandisizwe: The paperback book will be off the presses in the next week or so, and there will be both an eBook and an AudioBook version available in about another month. Folks can pre-order a copy of the paperback book at www.triplemurder.com.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.