Former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for shooting the unarmed Oscar Grant. There were no blacks on the jury and Mehserle faces only four years behind bars.
The American Prospect's Adam Serwer deconstructs the "involuntary"manslaughter verdict as a lens of society's "fear" of black men. "The radioactive fear of black people, black men in particular," writes Serwer. "Has proved to have a longer half-life than any science could have discerned."
To convict on the higher charge of voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution would have had to prove that Mehserle's fear of Grant and his friends was "unreasonable." It decided the crime was involuntary. In other words, Mehserle's fear? That was reasonable.
Fear is at the core of questions of justice involving the deaths of black people at the hands of the authorities in the United States of America, dating back to when Toussaint L'Overture put the fear of G-d in slaveowners by revealing that their "property" might someday rise up against them. L'Overture still has that effect on some people. Following emancipation were the days when "justice" was meted out in the South by terrorists posing as vigilantes. Even then, when such atrocities were an accepted part of black life, people inside and outside the South found ways to sympathize with the anger and fear white Southerners felt toward their black neighbors -- The New York Times editorialized in the 1890s that no "reputable or respectable negro" had ever been lynched.
Even decades after the civil-rights era, a cop shooting an unarmed black man is barely a crime -- a 2007 ColorLines investigation of police shootings in New York City found that in 12 instances when the victim was unarmed, only one officer was found criminally liable. There hasn't been a murder conviction on a police shooting in Oakland since 1983. As Kai Wright wrote in the aftermath of the Sean Bell verdict, "American law has been sanctioning the killing of black people to mollify white fear for centuries. ... We scare the shit out of America. And that fear excuses just about any reaction it spawns." Mehserle is profoundly unlucky to be punished at all.
Times change, but the radioactive fear of black people, black men in particular, has proved to have a longer half-life than any science could have discerned. This is not a fear white people possess of black people -- it is a fear all Americans possess. It makes white cops kill black cops, it makes black cops kill black men, and it whispers in the ears of white and nonwhite jurors alike that fear of an unarmed black man lying face down in the ground is not "unreasonable."
The paranoia surrounding black mnen goes fay beyond the police. Surely any black or brown man living in the larger cities has experienced the compulsive and reactionary "involuntary" fear often manifested by whites in random social settings. Women protectively hold their purses on the street, men clutch their pockets, people lock their car doors when you're in the crowwalk ... A few days ago in Starbucks, as I walked up to the counter, two men turned around and quickly checked their back pockets. My left hand was holding a venti and my right hand was punching away on the BlakBerry. Maybe they thought I was going to use ... my tail? ... to pickpocket them.
Read Adam Serwer's full essay at TAP ...