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“…how does one ‘balance’ a story about a lynching?”
-David Mindich, media critic
Every April 6th, I recall the memory of Bobby Hutton. Hutton was the first Black Panther member to be killed by police. The murder occurred during a confrontation between Oakland Police and two members of the Party—Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver. As in all killings by police, the initial reports of the murder blamed the victims and exonerated the police. However, given the growing popularity of the Party, the fact that Hutton’s death took place two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee made some of those in power question the police narrative. Dozens of the nation’s African-American neighborhoods were in open rebellion, with the military patrolling streets in tanks and other armored vehicles. To this day, the exact circumstances of the murder remain unclear.
Such is not the case, however, in another police murder of a young Black man in Oakland. That young man’s name was Oscar Grant, Jr. Thanks in part to the advent of technology that gives any individual with a cellphone the ability to record live video, Grant’s murder by BART police at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station on his way home from celebrating New Year’s in the early hours of 2009 was captured on such video. The killer was charged with manslaughter? Of course, there could have been a million videos of the murder and no police officer would have been charged if it had not been for those who protested the attempted cover-up by the judicial system. It was their public presence and radical insistence on some kind of justice that actually forced the District Attorney to bring charges against the police officer who pulled the trigger, Johann Mehserle.
This is the story told by journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga in her 2014 book No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant. Utilizing the premise that Grant was murdered once by the police and then again by the media and Mehserle’s defense team, Chimurenga dissects the police killing and the trial of the accused in a blistering and informed attack on the entire charade. As a journalist covering the trial, Chimurenga was witness to almost every piece of evidence and argument presented. Like the trials of too many subsequent murderers of young Blacks, the trial of Grant’s murderer was turned into a trial of Grant himself. His character was attacked and his police record brought up, as if the fact that he was a victim of a racist justice system that targets individuals in his demographic somehow justified his murder. At the same time, previous instances of Mehserle’s brutality against suspects were either minimized or not mentioned at all, as if they were not relevant to the manner in which he and his fellow officers treated Grant that New Year’s Eve.
Portions of the trial are transcribed for the reader, with commentary from the author questioning the testimony’s veracity and pointing out its contradictions. The decision by a local television station KTVU to air an interview of the accused killer is discussed in the light of the intensification of negative publicity concerning the murdered victim. Like the trial of the vigilante George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin some three years later, the expressed fears of the killer that they were going to be attacked by humans described as superhuman thugs was considered in their defense, despite the obvious racism of such a portrayal, not to mention its untruth. In Grant’s and most other cases, any potential threat by the victim was invalidated by the guns of the murderers.
Since the murder of Oscar Grant, hundreds of civilians (mostly non-white) have been killed by police in the United States. Most of the killers have not been charged and many have not even lost their jobs. When those that have had to pay for their murderous brutality were charged or dismissed, it was because of street protests (that were often violently attacked by the police). Indeed, the only reason Mehserle was charged in Oscar Grant’s murder was because of such protests. Unfortunately, as the numbers show, neither the protests nor Mehserle’s conviction made much difference in the way police interact with African-American and other non-white residents of the United States.
Thandisizwe Chimurenga quotes the media critic David Mindich who asked the question in his book Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism, “…how does one ‘balance’ a story about a lynching?” After all, that is exactly what Oscar Grant’s murder was—a lynching. That is what so many murders of African-Americans by police are. In a system birthed in and maintained by the philosophy of control known as white supremacy, how can they be anything else? Even if the killers in uniform happen to be considered non-white themselves, their roles as police are fundamentally roles that cast them as enforcers of that system. This is the basis of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant. It was also the basis of the Black Panther Party’s program. Ultimately, it is also why both Bobby Hutton and Oscar Grant were murdered by the police.