By Julianne Hing, ColorLines; June 15, 2011 - AlterNet
Johannes Mehserle, the former BART [San Francisco/Bay Area Rapid Transit] police officer who killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day in 2009, has been released from jail. He received a two-year prison sentence but was released just after midnight on Monday morning after serving 11 months behind bars since his July 8 conviction last year.
At a protest on Sunday afternoon at the Fruitvale BART station where Grant was killed, several hundred gathered to decry Mehserle’s early release and demand the Department of Justice file civil rights charges. Grant’s family and friends also gathered to remember the father and son they lost so brutally a year and a half ago.
For his family, the grief over losing Grant and anger over Mehserle’s criminal trial is still fresh.
“Sophina and Tatiana, they’re lonely,” said Grant’s sister-in-law Yolanda Mesa. Sophina Mesa was Grant’s partner and their daughter Tatiana was 5 years old when her father was killed. “It’s such a lonely feeling, and it’s still so hard. Sometimes the kids are watching cartoons and there’ll be a news flash about Oscar Grant. How do you explain that to these kids?”
“Today Tatiana handed me this [tissue] and says, ‘This is in case you want to cry,’ but I really think inside she wants to cry.”
“It’s just really pathetic that he’s getting out,” Mesa said. “Mehserle damn near executed somebody in front of the whole world and he walks in 11 months? Are you kidding me?”
“So many people have died at the hands of the police and all they have to do is say, ‘Oh, I think they were armed,’ or, ‘This looked like a handgun,’ and the police get away with it,” Mesa said. “It’s the thing for the cops to say and they know they can get off. It’s painting the message that a badge is a license to kill.”
Signs at the demonstration pointed to the case of Derrick Jones, a black man who was killed by Oakland Police last year. Oakland police said they shot him because they believed Jones was reaching for a gun; BART police officers said the same of Grant. Both Jones and Grant were unarmed.
“This will happen over and over and over again,” Rosemary Hernandez, Sophina Mesa’s mother and Tatiana Grant’s grandmother told the crowd of protesters. “It’s not just to blacks, it’s not just to Latinos. It’s everybody that’s a minority.”
“This needs to stop. You always think it won’t happen to me, and believe me I thought that. … The only way this is going to stop is if we all stick together.”
Mehserle shot Grant in the back while he lay face down on the BART platform in front of a train full of witnesses. The shooting was filmed on multiple cell phone videos and led to several nights of protest in Oakland immediately after the footage was uploaded onto YouTube. Since then, protesters have demonstrated at every key milestone in the case — when the Alameda County district attorney filed murder charges, when the trial was moved to Los Angeles, and when the verdict was returned.
Mehserle faced second-degree murder charges for killing Grant. During the trial Mehserle testified that he meant to [taser] Grant but instead pulled his gun. Last summer a Los Angeles jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter with an additional gun enhancement. Mehserle faced up to 14 years in prison. Judge Robert Perry stunned many when he handed Mehserle the most lenient sentence possible and gave him credit for time he’d already served behind bars.
“I just feel hurt inside,” said Mario Pangelina, Mesa’s brother, who was on the same train two cars behind Grant the night of the shooting. “The whole trial was a joke.”
Pangelina and Mesa’s other brother Carlos Romero remembered Grant as a proud father and a respectful, loving son.
“I remember when he found out what they were having, he put two flags up on his car that said: ‘It’s a girl. It’s a girl.’” Romero said. “He kept them on there till the wind and the rain took them down.”
“He just popped up with them on everybody, they were big pink flags like those Raider ones people put on their cars,” Pangelina said. “He was so happy, he kept pink shoes in his car.”
Grant’s daughter is 7 years old now.
“Don’t forget Oscar Grant,” said Jack Bryson, whose two sons were detained with Grant and were by his side on the train platform when he was shot, “but let’s never forget his child, right here, Tatiana.”
Tatiana stood alongside Bryson in front of the television crowds, her eyes squinting in the sunlight. She leaned on a protest sign demanding justice for her father.
“The last four or five nights, it’s hard to sleep at night,” Bryson said on Sunday. “And how do you think it will feel tomorrow morning when Johannes Mehserle is released? He’ll be happy, but as family and friends we will be grieving forever.”
Grant’s family has a $25 million civil suit pending against the six BART police officers who were on the platform that night. John Burris, the Grant family’s attorney, said that lawsuit, which was set to begin in late May, is on hold. He said he and other family members met with the Department of Justice several months ago to press for charges to be filed, but have heard no word yet on the DOJ’s pending investigation.
Burris acknowledged that criminal cases are blunt tools for demanding police accountability because convictions are so rare, but said that civil suits especially open the way for long-term reforms.
Until then, Grant’s family continues to grieve everyday. Justice has been elusive, and his death is still difficult to explain.
“When is Oscar going to come home?” Bryson said Grant’s younger cousins and nieces still occasionally wonder, a year and a half since he died. Bryson keeps a photo of Grant in his cell phone, which the kids ask him about.
“They’ve asked me: Is he going to call from heaven?”
Julianne Hing is co-editor of the ColorLines magazine blog, RaceWire, and editorial assistant of ColorLines magazine.