Oakland Prepares for Johannes Mehserle’s Potential Summer Release

The former transit cop is due back in court June 1.

By Julianne Hing May 12, 2011

Johannes Mehserle, the man who killed Oscar Grant when he shot the 22-year-old unarmed black man in the back while he lay face down on a BART train platform in 2009, is due back in court on June 1. And Oakland community organizers who pressed Alameda County prosecutors to bring charges against him immediately after the killing are mobilizing again for Mehserle’s potential release from jail.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry gave Mehserle the minimum sentence of two years in November, with double credit for his time already served after a jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter last summer.

San Francisco’s ABC reported this week that according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Mehserle could be released as early as mid-June. Many expect the judge to give him additional credit for good behavior when he’s up for release. It’s too soon for Grant’s family and friends.

"How do you think families and witnesses feel when they know that a killer is about to be released into society?" said Jack Bryson, whose sons were with Grant on the train platform the night he was killed. "There are young men who have to know that this killer is out there now. It’s exactly the same."

"The only difference is that the system worked for Johannes Mehserle. The system never works for men of color."

Oscar Grant’s chilling last moments were caught on cell phone cameras and the footage of his death rocked the country after it was uploaded on YouTube. Grant and several friends were pulled off a BART train at the Fruitvale stop in Oakland for their alleged involvement in a fight on a train car. In a matter of minutes Grant and his friends were up against the wall. As officers were in the middle of handcuffing Grant, Mehserle reached into his holster, pulled out his gun and shot Grant once in the back. During his trial Mehserle testified that he meant to pull his Taser on Grant, but instead pulled out his gun. Grant was unarmed.

The irrefutable evidence of Grant’s unjustified killing, Mehserle’s light verdict and the subsequent minimal jail sentence left many, people of color especially, bitterly angry. Mass protests accompanied every major hurdle along the way, from the immediate aftermath of Grant’s death to the run-up to the trial, the verdict and his eventual sentencing. Now that Mehserle’s due back in court, organizers are planning actions for June 1 in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

A number of police accountability groups that sprung up in the aftermath have been working on keeping up pressure on the Department of Justice as it investigates possible civil rights violations surrounding Grant’s death.

"I think it’s really similar to Rodney King, where people of color, and especially black folk, where like ‘Okay, finally we have him on video. We have proof,’" said Cat Brooks, the co-chair of the Onyx Organizing Committee, which is part of the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant. "Just like then, the whole thing was such a slap in the face."

"It’s like, we saw you. We know exactly what you did. But America told us, once again, that the lives of black men in this country don’t matter."

This week a federal judge also cleared the way for a $50 million civil suit that Grant’s family is pursuing against Mehserle and other police officers that responded to the scene that night. Last week BART announced that it was going to hire an independent police monitor to help keep its police force in check.

"Every time there’s a murder by the police, they always say they’re reforming themselves," said Bryson. "The issue is in the training. That’s where reform needs to begin, to take the racism out of the police department."

"The main issue is that there is racism in America and it’s the racism that we’re avoiding."

"You can’t have anything but a guttural, visceral reaction to all this if you’re awake," Brooks said, pointing out that just days after Mehserle was sentenced, another unarmed black man named Derrick Jones was shot and killed by Oakland police. "It’s time to say enough is enough."