By DeWayne Wickham
That Oscar Grant didn’t live long enough to see Barack Obama sworn in as this nation’s first black president is proof that the post-racial era that Obama’s election was supposed to usher in has not arrived.
Grant, a 22-year-old black man, was killed on New Year’s Day. He was shot in the back as he laid face down on a subway platform in Oakland. His killer was a white transit cop — one of several officers who detained Grant and several other young men for questioning in connection with a fight that occurred on a subway train.
The shooting was captured on cell phone video cameras by several onlookers. One of them shows officers forcing Grant to the ground before one of the cops stands up, pulls his gun and fires a single shot into the young man’s back. Shortly before he was supposed to be interviewed by investigators, Johannes Mehserle — the cop who shot Grant — resigned.
That same day, a demonstration in Oakland over the fatal shooting turned violent. Store windows were smashed, police cars were vandalized and some vehicles were set on fire. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested. But so far, no charges have been brought against Mehserle — and that’s not surprising.
The wheels of justice have always turned slowly — if at all — in cases in which cops have used deadly force against unarmed blacks. Nothing symbolizes America’s long-running era of racial conflict more than these kinds of killings, and the failure of the criminal justice system to do something about them.
In 1966, a Los Angeles cop shot to death Leonard Deadwyler, a black man who was rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital. The officer, who stopped Deadwyler for speeding, leaned inside the car window with his gun drawn and shot him. A coroner’s jury ruled to killing accidental.
In 1979, white off-duty policeman Larry Shockley shot 21-year-old Randy Heath in the back of his neck outside a Miami warehouse. The cop first said he caught Heath attempting to burglarize the building and shot the unarmed man after a short struggle. He later admitted there was no struggle and claimed his gun discharged accidentally. Heath’s sister said her brother had stopped at the building to urinate. A grand jury refused to indict Shockley.
And then there were the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, two unarmed black men who were killed in New York City in separate police shootings. Diallo, an African immigrant, was struck by 19 bullets fired by four white cops in 1999 while standing in the vestibule of his apartment building. The officers said they mistook a wallet in his hand for a gun. A jury acquitted them of any wrongdoing.
The unarmed Bell was killed in 2006, just hours before his wedding, when three plainclothes cops fired 50 shots at him as he tried to drive away from his bachelor’s party at a New York strip club. The cops said they thought an occupant in Bell’s car had a gun. None was found. A judge acquitted the cops of the charges brought against them.
When it comes to police shootings of unarmed black men, these are hardly isolated cases. They are core causes of the racial discontent that made the closing decades of the 20th century the best of time and the worst of times for many blacks.
Obama’s election is a major transition in the life of this country. But the police killing of Grant just three weeks before Obama takes office suggests that the intersection of unarmed black men and armed cops is still this nation’s most explosive racial problems — one that delays arrival of the post-racial era.