Mehserle Sentence is an Insult to the Black Community

The judge's ruling and words from the bench are a travesty that will not be forgotten by African Americans.


Johannes Mehserle killed Oscar Grant as Grant was lying on his stomach with his hands behind his back at Fruitvale BART. For this action, Superior Court Judge Robert Perry sentenced Mehserle to two years in jail with credit for time served. In words from the bench, the judge absolved Mehserle, stating that his “muscle memory” was responsible for his action and claimed that many had contributed to Grant’s death. These words and this sentence are a travesty and an insult to the African-American community of the East Bay.

Many who were outraged by the verdict have interpreted the meager sentence as a statement that the life of a young black man in this community has little value. They are right. In the world of civil litigation, it is a truism that trials establish “values.” In the civil world the values are monetary, but in the case of Oscar Grant this sentence established the punishment a white man who operates under the color of law gets for killing a black man.

If Grant were white and Mehserle black there is little doubt that the sentence would have been much more severe. I have yet to see a black man receive a minimum sentence because he acted from “muscle memory.” Consider your family; if Grant were your son or brother would you feel that justice had been served?

Many in our community, including this newspaper, have counseled calm in the wake of the trial and the sentencing. There is much to support the “Be Cool” approach. Violent reactions often hurt regular folks in the community who are struggling to make a living. And, times are tough enough for small business owners without mayhem hitting their establishments.

But those who counsel calm have a responsibility. Simply sitting in the comfort of the glow of a computer screen to call those who took to the streets in the wake of the verdict “outsiders” or “idiots” misses the core of what happened here. The outrage is real and it is here to stay.

The old movement slogan of “No Justice, No Peace,” is not a threat of crazy anarchists but a statement about the human condition. There will be no peace in our community when agents of the government who are responsible for actions like this enjoy a special kind of justice. Those who want calm must back up their salutary desires with actions that contribute to true justice. Each of us needs to find our own way, working with others, in this crucial pursuit.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story stated that Oscar Grant was shot while handcuffed. In fact, the exact state of his hands at the time of the shooting is apparently a matter under dispute.