Gary King Jr. memorial at 54th and Martin Luther King Jr. in Oakland
Oscar Grant was executed for being a Black man in Oakland.
This isn’t some sort of paranoid fear of the police or over-hyped conspiracy theory. This is the truth as I see it, and I suspect as a great many of Oakland residents see it as well.
In the fall of 2007, a young man named Gary King, Jr. was shot in the back while fleeing from Oakland Police. This happened three blocks from my home. The police officer who shot King, Sgt. Pat Gonzales, later claimed he believed King was “reaching for a gun.” While police say that a gun was found in King’s possession, it remains unclear whether at the time he was shot he was actually reaching for it and whether Gonzales even knew he had one in the first place.
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve of this past year. After being savagely struck across the face by a BART police officer, Oscar Grant was restrained on the ground and shot in the back by a second BART Police officer, Johannes Mehserle, and killed. The first police officer later claimed that Grant provoked him by attempting to knee him in the groin, and Mehserle later made contradictory claims that he intended to use his Taser and not a gun on Grant and that he believed Grant was “reaching for a gun.”
What keeps me awake at night now is wondering whether these police officers think King and Grant got what they deserved.
There is a kind of retroactive justification emerging in the media – that somehow King and Grant were shot because in their lives they were somehow possibly maybe entangled with gangs, or may have had prior convictions and that it’s OK to meet them with the maximum level of violence available. But neither police officer knew anything about Grant or King’s personal histories when they shot their guns.
If this isn’t substantial enough for you, here’s something else to think about: ColorLines magazine and The Chicago Reporter published an investigative story in December 2007, “Killed by the Cops.” You can read the full report online, but the short of it is that in the 10 largest cities nationwide, New York, San Diego and Las Vegas had the most killings of Blacks.
So when I hear a police officer claim that the person they shot in the back was “reaching for a gun,” what I hear is a blanket disclaimer that this person somehow doesn’t deserve the respect and presumption of innocence that a police officer is supposed to grant them. It plays to a set of racist assumptions about the lives, motivations and intentions of Black men— that every Black man at heart is actually a criminal, and as criminals they are not entitled to any protection from excessive force and due process. And this is why I wonder at night if this narrative was playing in the heads of officers Gonzales and Mehserle, because if it was, then they ceased to be trained police officers and simply became trained killers.