Former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johnannes Mehserle, who killed Oscar Grant, 22, who was unarmed, face-down and handcuffed at an Oakland, Calif., train station, was recently convicted of “involuntary” manslaughter.

Even though prosecutors argued that Mehserle had “intentionally” shot Grant after losing control while arresting him, the jury decided that he was merely negligent because he mistook a heavy gun for his lightweight yellow Taser.

In a recent American Prospect, Adam Serwer makes a distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

“To convict on the higher charge of voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution would have to prove that Mehserle’s fear of Grant and his friends was ‘unreasonable.'” Since the crime was deemed involuntary, Serwer contends that it was, therefore, considered reasonable by the members of the jury.

The inconvenient truths in this and so many other cases in America’s history is that the victim was a person of color and already under the control of an overpowering force; in this instance, the police force.

In countless eyewitness accounts, Oscar Grant was not surrounded by an uncontrollable crowd and was not resisting arrest. Indeed, he was bound and lying down when he was shot dead.

Public protest on these and other issues are probably why the convicted officer’s sentencing hearing has been postponed to November.

Around the same time Grant was murdered, unarmed Robbie Tolan, a minor league baseball player, was shot by a policeman in his driveway in Texas. While waiting for a pending investigation, a bullet remains lodged in his liver.

In 2008, 19 police officers believed that three black men were suspects in a shooting earlier that night. The men did not resist arrest and were unarmed, but were kicked and beaten while lying on the ground.

Although four of the officers were fired, three suspended, and one received a demotion, none was found guilty of wrongdoing.

In 2005, Sean Bell and two other passengers in his car were shot at an estimated 51 times in New York City by five police officers. The three black men were unarmed. Bell died, and the two survivors were critically wounded. None of the police officers was found guilty of wrongdoing.

These are but a few examples of a pervasive racially based fear that exists among many in this country.

The worst that Grant and others did on the BART train was become agitated and shout. A chaotic situation ensued and certainly this officer’s professionalism was challenged, but these are the very situations he was supposed to have been trained to deal with, using deadly force only under the most extreme circumstances.

Fear based on the color of one’s skin is the symptom, of course, of larger problems in our society.

Police brutality, in general, should be better checked, for example. And making an effort to stop reinforcing public fear should be part of our collective agenda. Perhaps, then, a compulsive need for guns and violence to abate conflict, will start to fade from our psyche.

Admirably, our president addressed problems associated with race last year. He spoke about how his white grandmother feared men whose skin color was the same as his.

I have had friends admit to me that if they didn’t know me, they might be afraid to walk down an unlit alley, or more quickly reach for their car keys, if I were approaching them, just because of my skin tone and hair texture.

If a police officer cannot perform his public duty to secure and maintain the safety of the public, including people of color, even under the most stressful of circumstances, he should be taken off the force, long before his frustration leads to murder.

Our society is entrenched in enough fear, without being afraid of the men and women we pay to protect us.

Today, we are almost possessed by fears real or not. We fear the possibility of terrorism, loss of our livelihoods, etc. Instead of believing in our collective good will, fear continues to rule our thoughts and actions, thereby allowing us to suspend our ‘belief’ in humanity.”

Fears of a person of a different color should never overcome our belief in humanity. It is inhumane to sit back idly without comment, while a man or woman on a floor is shot to death. Indeed, fear is the enemy of justice.

People who are afraid, historically, have been the easiest to control and keep silent.

They don’t speak out, even when they are direct witnesses to injustice. They are afraid of being arrested even when they are innocent. They are peaceful, law-abiding citizens who sit back and watch others being abused.


Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer and a New York Times Fellow at the International Longevity Center USA. He can be contacted at:

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