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Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 26, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: Oscar Grant

[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On what has changed, and what hasn’t, in the age of digital and social media.
On New Year’s Day, 2009, 22 year-old Oakland resident Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer while detained (along with many others) at the city’s Fruitvale Station train stop. Grant was returning from New Year’s Eve partying in San Francisco, and was unarmed; Johannes Mehserle, the officer who killed Grant, claimed he had intended to use his Taser to subdue the allegedly combative young man, who was lying face down at the time. Mehserle was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter; he served roughly seven months in the Los Angeles County Jail before being released in June 2011. This dark and tragic history has recently returned to the public eye thanks to the acclaimed independent film Fruitvale Station (2013), which uses the final day in Grant’s life to chronicle the young man’s shortcomings, possibilities, and killing.
The shooting, which was not at all unlike numerous other incidents over the last decade, received the attention and response that it did thanks in large part to digital and social media. Multiple cell phone videos of the incident were recorded at the time and have since surfaced; each is of course as partial and haphazard as any such video would be, but collectively they provided a far fuller picture of the moment than would have been otherwise possible. Similarly, the spread of those videos, as well as details of protests and collective action, on social media brought the case to a significantly wider swath of the American public (at least those under a certain age) than would have ever learned about it from the Bay Area media coverage. In short, what differentiated Grant from those many other unarmed African American victims was simply and solely the ways in which new media captured and highlighted his death—it’s fair to say that whatever justice was achieved in the subsequent trial would not have been possible without this digital and social coverage; and certainly there would not be a film, and perhaps not the Oscar Grant Foundation which that film is supporting, without it.
Yet it’s far from clear, to this AmericanStudier at least, that the tangible results of the case—the conviction of and sentence for Mehserle, the financial aftermath for Grant’s family, and so on—are the slightest bit different from (for example) those in the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting or the 1992 Rodney King beating (which itself received attention in large part because of the home video taken by a bystander). There’s certainly something to be said for changing the narratives, the conversation, the way in which we engage with and understand such dark histories and the issues to which they connect, and clearly digital and social media have done that. But absent other changes—and from King to Diallo, Grant to Trayvon Martin, it’s hard to feel that much has changed—the fundamental question becomes that age-old professorial one: So what?
Next case tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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