Cell Phone Video Makes the Difference in Oscar Grant case

    by Dori J. Maynard
    June 5, 2009

    In the end, it may be the cell phone that makes the difference in Oscar Grant’s death.
    Without it, it’s likely that 22-year old father would have been just another anonymous black man who ended up dead after a run in with law enforcement.
    Instead, as Grant lay face down on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit station, a handful of passengers pulled out their cell phones and hit record, capturing the moment that a BART officer shot him in the back, killing him.

    The graphic footage made its way around the world, sparking outrage. Two weeks later, Johannes Mehserle, the former BART officer accused of killing Grant, was charged with murder, a first according to The San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper reported that the Alameda Country District Attorney representatives could not remember a previous time when an on-duty officer had been charged in a fatal shooting in the last 20 years.

    This Wednesday, some six months after the shooting, a fellow BART officer had to retract his initial testimony that Grant disobeyed police orders when the video evidence clearly contradicted that claim. On Thursday, a judge ordered Mehserle to stand trial for murder.


    Racial Tensions with Police

    I thought about this recently as I sat in New York City with a friend who was almost numb with anger over the death of Omar J. Edwards, a black off-duty New York City Police officer shot in the back by a white officer who says he mistook Edwards for an armed criminal.

    “It just doesn’t stop,” my friend said.

    The relationship between police and the black community has long been tense. According to the New York Times, cases of black officers shot by their white colleagues, though rare, date back as far as 1940. But until relatively recently, that tension has simmered just beneath the nation’s consciousness.


    When I was a young reporter in Bakersfield, CA some 25 years ago, an African American man with ties to the Bakersfield Police Department was stopped by police officers as he drove down the highway at night. With their guns drawn, they ordered him out of the car and down to the ground until he was able to prove his identity.
    The only other African American reporter at the paper and I assured the editor that this was an entirely likely scenario. To give the editor some context, my colleague, a black man, described how he was often stopped by police as he walked home at night.

    But this was years before the term “driving while black” had entered the general vocabulary and some of my colleagues didn’t think it plausible that the police would pull over a motorist and start brandishing their guns for no reason.

    A few years later, an editor at another paper would tell me how, when he was coming of age, the local police officers would take him home to face his family when his actions bordered on the criminal. Having grown up learning that the police were as likely to harm you as help you, hearing this editor’s experience both enraged and amazed me.

    More importantly, it also helped me understand in part why it was so difficult for some people to believe that the police they relied on to protect them could turn on others without provocation.

    Rodney King Video

    Less than a decade after I left Bakersfield, the world saw police officers assaulting Rodney King, thanks to the technological advances that made video cameras available to the average affluent person.

    Since then, other cases have surfaced to receive national attention. Most notably Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant who was reaching for his wallet when four police, who later claimed they thought he was reaching for a gun, fired off 41 rounds, killing him. And, more recently, Sean Bell was shot and killed by New York City police officers in the early morning hours before his wedding.

    In both of these cases, the officers involved were acquitted of all charges stemming from the shootings.

    It’s likely this fraught history between communities of color and law enforcement played a role in the number of people who pulled out their cell phones in the early hours of New Year’s Day. According to the Oakland Tribune, many said they started recording because they thought the officers were abusing their authority.

    For some, the only solace as they watch the case unfolding is that after years of frustration at the lack of police accountability in the deaths of citizens, there is finally a new weapon of choice against police brutality: the cell phone.

    Tagged: cell phone cell phone journalism law oscar grant race relations

    12 responses to “Cell Phone Video Makes the Difference in Oscar Grant case”

    1. It can be hard for people to believe something without seeing it or experiencing it themselves. My father was a police officer, so I grew up knowing a lot of police. For a long time I found it hard to believe they would abuse their authority, pulling their guns on someone or beating someone just because of the person’s race. When I was a child and King’s beating was caught on tape, I remember asking my dad, “But if the police are doing it, it’s OK, right?” He corrected me and told me that police don’t always do the right thing — an idea that just hadn’t occurred to me before then. I always thought police were the good guys. I’m thankful that my dad set me straight on that. I just hope Mehserle’s trial is a sign that there will be more accountability for police in the future and that race relations will improve. Maybe people who’ve never experienced police abuse will start to believe that it does exist. This is one battle in a very long war.

    2. Erika Christensen says:

      For balance, it would have been helpful to have some cell phone videos of whatever Oscar Grant and others were up to that got the police called to the BART station. This is a tragic case for all involved.

    3. Cory Dickinson says:

      I saw this video when it first came out and was disturbed by the lack of coverage on the East coast. The only things I found were on YouTube and blogs. I agree that video and personal reporting will be the new choice of weapon not just in Police brutality but domestic violence ect. As for another posts request for ‘balance’. WTF? The guy was handcuffed, on his knees and got shot in the back.

    4. Elizabeth Meny says:

      I’m sorry, Erika, but I don’t agree that we need to see or know what Grant was doing before he was murdered by a police officer for “balance” or any other reason. Even if he had committed a heinous crime, it is not up to the police to play judge, jury and executioner and shoot a man lying face down on the ground in the back. Period.

    5. Micheline Wilcoxen says:


      Regardless of what happened at the Bart Station, it does not warrant murdering someone in cold blood.

    6. Roxana Shaffe' says:

      Erika – What could Grant have been doing that would warrant a deadly shot to the back when it is apparent in the video that he had stopped what he was doing and clearly following police orders? No matter what Grant was doing, he had stopped and it is unlikely that it should have led to his death.

    7. Lorna Dries says:

      If you watch the video, Oscar Grant was already detained by police and was shot while lying face down on the ground at close range. I think that’s all the balance you need.

    8. Jane Doe says:

      I am glad for cell phones, hopefully it will make ALL people think twice before doing something extremely stupid like ending another person’s life!!!

      On another note, growing up near Oakland, I want to say that unfortunately with gangs and all, it’s very hard NOT to be fearful of others, and unfortunately gang members have no conscious what-so-ever on who to take out, leaving *most* police officers on edge.

    9. tandee says:

      clearly erika is retarded …therefore there is no need to reply. Until brothers start following these ”cops” home and take care of business this will continue …until a mother who’s son is murdered murders a cop’s son …this will continue.

    10. Pam says:

      I’d just like to point out that the comment for which many of you are criticizing and insulting Erika was actually posted by Cory Dickinson. Talk about mob mentality…

    11. eric says:

      tandee: Of course you’re right that there’s no need to know what Grant had done to know he shouldn’t have been shot. But to suggest that revenge killings will stop anything is naive at best. Look at any society where “an eye for an eye” is accepted practice, and you will find an endless cycle of violence. As Gandhi said: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

    12. This is a charged subject, but it’s one we need to be able to talk about, particularly given our profound differences.
      So, let’s keep it civil, recognize that we’re going to have deep disagreements and stay focused on the issue, not each other.

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