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Ex-Officer Charged in Oakland Killing of Unarmed Black Passenger

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A former transit officer in Oakland, California has been arrested on murder charges in connection to the killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American man who was shot dead while he was lying face down on the ground on the train platform. The shooting gained international attention after cell phone videos of the killing were posted on YouTube by train passengers. The killing sparked a series of protests in what has been described by some as the Oakland rebellion. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A former transit officer in Oakland, California has been arrested on murder charges in connection to the killing of Oscar Grant. Grant is the unarmed African American man who was shot dead on an Oakland train platform on New Year’s Day.

The shooting gained international attention after cell phone videos of the killing were posted on YouTube by train passengers. The videos show the officer, Johannes Mehserle, pulling out a gun and shooting twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant in the back while he was lying face down on the ground on the train platform.

On Wednesday, Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff announced the charges against Mehserle.

    TOM ORLOFF: Murder charges were filed, because, at this point, what I feel the evidence indicates is an unlawful killing done by an intentional act, and from the evidence we have, there is nothing that would mitigate that to something lower than a murder. That doesn’t mean that evidence might develop in the future that — particularly as it develops at trial, but at this point, when you have a homicide that is intentional and there’s no mitigation, it’s more or less presumed to be a second-degree murder.

AMY GOODMAN: The former police officer, Johannes Mehserle, was arrested Tuesday in Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Mehserle resigned from the BART force after he refused to speak with criminal investigators.

Several legal experts and law enforcement officials in California say they cannot recall any other instance of a police officer in California being charged with murder for an on-duty incident.

The killing of Oscar Grant has sparked a series of protests in Oakland. On the night of January 7th, over 105 people were arrested in what’s been described by some as the Oakland rebellion, when some protesters set cars on fire and damaged over three dozen businesses. Another eighteen protesters were arrested last night on vandalism charges after another large protest in Oakland. On Wednesday, a National Day of Nonviolent Action to protest the killing of Oscar Grant was held in over a dozen other cities.

We’re joined in San Francisco by journalist and hip hop activist Davey D. He runs the popular website Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner at daveyd.com. He is the co-host of Hard Knock Radio on KPFA in Berkeley.

Davey D, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you tell us what happened, the latest news, the indictment for murder of Johannes Mehserle and where he was found?

DAVEY D: Well, he was found in Nevada on a fugitive warrant. And I think that was welcome news to many of the people that have been organizing and mobilizing around seeing justice in what is — you know, what most of us see as a straight-up execution. People are pretty clear this is the first step. It’s good that he got arrested. We still have a lot of questions as to why it took two to three weeks for that to happen. If any one of us were caught on videotape shooting a gun at an unarmed man and killing him, we would be in jail to this day.

But with that being said, the main point of contention that a lot of people have is what’s happening with the officers that were on the platform with Mehserle that haven’t been arrested. What’s the accountability for them? And I think most of us feel that they have — that they’re somehow involved with that, and there needs to be justice served with them. So that’s what’s happening in terms of that.

I think the behavior of Tom Orloff, his dismissive attitude, his unwillingness to meet with people — and we’re talking about a hundred leaders at a time — his tardiness in terms of communicating to the community, what is happening has led a lot of people to explore who will be the next district attorney in Alameda County. And I think a lot of people are taking that very seriously, as they are exploring that possibility. So, that’s two of the highlights.

And yesterday was a large protest in downtown Oakland. More than a thousand, couple of thousand people showed up. The emphasis was on peace, at the behest of the Grant family. One of the highlights of that particular demonstration was Sean Bell’s mother — Sean Bell from New York City — Valerie Bell, had sent a letter of support and condolences to Oscar Grant’s mom, and that was read to the people that were there.

After that particular demonstration was over, then we had more of what people would describe as the rebellion that took place in the streets of Oakland. This time, the city center was the target for a lot of people’s anger. Some people think it’s just people doing it gratuitously. I was out there last night, and really what I feel, Amy, is that even though it’s not my personal get-down, I just feel that there’s a lot of people that are very angry, and this sort of incident is not one that can be resolved by — it can’t be resolved just with one or two actions. Some people are so angry, I don’t think they know how to even express it. When you talk to them, you just hear stories about “The cops have killed my friend,” “The cops have abused me, I’ve been abused,” “Family has been abused.” You hear those stories over and over again. And I think this particular egregious crime has triggered something in a lot of people. Some people can express it better. They have a sense of direction. They have an idea and a plan of action that they can follow. And others are just, I think, literally traumatized.

And so, I don’t know how this will eventually play out, but right now in the city of Oakland, people are on the move in all different directions. And I think it would be for the good of the city for justice to be served and this man to be convicted and the four cops or the five cops that were on that platform to also be disciplined. Hopefully, they do jail time, as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Davey, a couple of questions about the actual incident. Number one, the cops you mentioned, since they were not actually involved in the shooting, I would assume that they were interviewed. Did they say — have any reports come out about what they claimed happened? And then, also, what was it that triggered the initial incident? In other words, how was Grant initially arrested or apprehended by the cops?

DAVEY D: Well, let me answer your last question first. From my understanding, there was an altercation on the BART train on New Year’s Eve, and somehow, when the cops arrived at the Fruitvale station, they went and saw this group of men, and they pulled them off the train and handcuffed them. And to this day, it’s not really clear if they were actually involved in an altercation. You hear all types of rumors and stories going around. Just from my experience of being on the BART train when there’s been fights, I’ve seen fights on Raider games and other sports, you know, sports days, when lots of people have been on the train. I don’t think it could have been anything really crazy, like somebody pulling a weapon and shooting or doing anything in the train that would have required the type of force that you saw applied to these gentlemen, especially with the killing of Grant.

We all know the story about him pleading for his life. We all heard the stories about him trying to talk to the officers and calm everybody down. We also heard the stories that they had tasers pointed at the other men that were on the platform, and maybe even Grant himself. You have to talk to their lawyer, John Burris, to get all the details, but whatever the case, all we know is that there was an unarmed man whose hands were behind his back, he was on the face — was face down on a platform with another officer having his knee on his neck, and this gentleman was shot in front of plain view of hundreds of people. And I don’t think people can really appreciate how traumatic that is. I mean, we saw an execution, a modern-day lynching, take place before our very eyes. And we haven’t seen the type of urgency and the type of immediate redress that I think people would like to see happen, considering, you know, what took place.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the Mayor of Oakland is Ron Dellums. What has been the Mayor’s response to all of this?

DAVEY D: Well, he’s been responding now. I mean, yesterday, they announced that he’s going to help set up some healing centers. But as far as I’m concerned, he was very slow. If you have something like this happen — you’re the mayor of the city — it’s up to you to assure the people that something is going to be done. I mean, Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg, you know, they pretty quickly addressed New York City after Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo. Whether or not I agreed with their position on it, it doesn’t matter, as at least they talked to people. In other cities, when you’ve seen these types of things happen, the leadership has stepped out and said something. Here, it was six or seven days, and only after people were protesting and lobbying and having conversations and meeting. And it, in my opinion, is when the city started to catch on fire and people were jumping on cop cars that all of a sudden you had all this movement. I’m sure it was going to happen sooner or later, but, I mean, six days after seeing an execution on your watch, and to me, is inexcusable. You should have been out there day one, the minute it happened.

I mean, for us, just for us, like we were on vacation, our show. We had already pre-recorded our things, and we were gone. We came off vacation just to follow the story and be a part of that, because we knew the way that media would look at this. The first thing they would do is not look at a young man who was shot, unarmed and in execution-style. We knew that they were going to try and flip it and find out what his past was and maybe imply that maybe he deserved it, did he have a criminal record, all these types of things. And some of those outlets did do that. So it was important that we came up there and reminded people that this was an unarmed man who got killed in the presence of four or five officers who were able to restrain him. And from what we could see from the videotapes, he wasn’t fighting or resisting anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Davey D, Oakland is certainly in contrast to its neighbors not far away, San Jose and San Francisco: 400,000 people, about, in Oakland, high unemployment, high poverty. What is being called for right now? Bay Area legislators, like Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and State Senator Leland Yee, have introduced bills to establish a civilian review board for the transit system’s police. Is that adequate, do you feel? And what is being called for?

DAVEY D: Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s adequate, unless that civilian review board really has teeth. We’ve had how many civilian review boards since the days of the Panthers? You know, there was always a push to have some sort of accountability. You have a committee. People study it. You set things up. And then, somehow, you still have killings that go on. Remember, we’re talking about Oscar Grant this time, but you have like, what, six or seven that took place in Oakland last year alone. And I remember the Gary King killing that took place when everybody was marching in Jena, Louisiana for the Jena Six. You had a guy, Gary King in North Oakland, who was shot in the back by an officer who had already shot two or three people over the past year or so, including somebody who I understand was handicap and in a wheelchair. So, you never have the sort of punishment and discipline that I think many of us feel should be meted out to officers who are abusive.

And keep in mind, right now, it makes news when we talk about people being killed. What we don’t talk about all the time is all the disrespect, the people that find themselves on the receiving end of some sort of abuse, having to witness a parent maybe being abused by the police, or a mother or father or cousin. When we’ve been out there and covering these stories, you hear this over and over and over and over and over again, people crying and will tell you a story about what they witnessed or what they have experienced. And I don’t think people who are removed from that or who never experienced some sort of brutality from the police can really appreciate that. They think it’s like, “OK, well, you know, he got arrested, and that’s it, and we should move on, and let’s turn and find out what else is going on in the news.” No, this is very traumatic. It’s — in my opinion, it’s like a terrorist act.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Davey D, I want to thank you very much for being with us. The history of Oakland is very interesting, Black Panthers founded there in 1966. Bobby Hutton, who was seventeen years old, was killed there. We will continue to follow this story. Davey D, hip hop journalist and activist, runs the popular website Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner and daveyd.com, co-host of Hard Knock Radio on our sister station KPFA in Berkeley.

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