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In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant in the back as he lay face down on the ground in front of a train car filled with people. He died several hours later. Uprisings in Oakland—including the killing of four cops by 26-year-old Lovelle Mixon—led the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to argue that while an impartial jury couldn’t be found in Oakland, one can be found in Los Angeles.
When Mehserle goes on trial this May, Los Angeles will once again be the central location for a fight involving police brutality against communities of color.
The circumstances surrounding the Oscar Grant murder trial have produced a sense of déjà vu: police are charged with using extreme violence against a person of color, and once again these violent acts were recorded and broadcast for the entire country to watch.
While the beating of Rodney King in 1992 and the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 share a number of unfortunate similarities, these acts occurred in significantly different social and political climates. And while the King trial was moved out of Los Angeles because of fear that a “radicalized” community would prevent a fair trial, the trial of Mesherle has been moved to LA in the belief that Angelenos will not be concerned about Grant's murder.
For activists to seize this moment—and prove the DA wrong—we must analyze the context around this trial and the challenges we face in organizing around police brutality.
Since the late 1960s, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in Los Angeles have been given a mandate to terrorize communities of color. This may heighten local opposition to police brutality, but it also means that the city is primed to act with force to squash any civil unrest.
The SWAT teams created by Police Chief Darrell Gates in 1965 were trained and equipped with a significant number of military officers, especially Marines. On December 8, 1969, three years after the creation of SWAT, the LAPD unleashed them—along with a battering ram, helicopters, a tank, trucks, dynamite, and 400 police officers –on a raid of three LA Black Panther Party facilities including the Central Avenue headquarters. Gates has since described that as the “first time we got to show off.”
Since then, the paramilitary function of the LAPD has only been fine-tuned as their mandate expanded. They now respond to barricade/hostage episodes, suicide intervention, as well as serve “high risk” warrants for all Department entities.
The model of specialized, militarized police units in Los Angeles not only spread across the US, it has also been extended in LA beyond the use of SWAT. The popularization of SWAT led to the development of SWAT-like police units in the LAPD that are being deployed throughout Los Angeles. Examples of this type of model include the Rampart Division and its CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit.
In the late 1990s, more than 70 police officers in the CRASH unit were implicated in offenses that included shootings and beatings, planting of evidence, framing of suspects, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and covering up evidence of these activities. This was one of the most widespread cases of documented police crimes in US history.
The LA Police Department, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, and most of the media tried to define the Rampart Scandal as a case of bad apples. But the case provided evidence of the connections between militarized police tactics and a judicial system that failed to provide justice and security for communities of color in Los Angeles. It also highlighted a system that was and continues to be an active participant in this denial of justice. Independent reviews highlighted systemic racial and class-based inequalities in the LA justice system. Public defenders interviewed after the Rampart scandal spoke of Illegal arrests and interview tactics, suppression of evidence, and police perjury; all actively ignored by judges, prosecutors, and the LAPD.
More recently, the LA District Attorney's Office has cleared a number of police officers in incidents of recorded police brutality and terrorism. In 2005, the DA’s office acquitted officers in two separate cases of murder, one involving the murder of 19-month-old Suzie Pena and the other involving the murder of 13-year-old Devin Brown.
Judge Perry, the judge presiding over the Mesherle trial, was a judge involved in cases prosecuting LAPD officers involved in the Rampart scandal, including a case where plea agreements allowed officers to receive immunity for admitted attempted murder.
The anti-police brutality movement in Los Angeles must grapple with these widespread and systemic problems. Beyond this, it also contends with a city that is geographically difficult to organize. Bridging communities is difficult because of the inadequate public transit in LA, which can make getting people out to events a challenge. Connecting the day-to-day struggles of communities of color to the immediate violence of police brutality is something that groups must do if they are going to garner the support of the community. Without addressing these issues, the prediction that LA doesn't care about Oscar Grant will come true.
Communities in LA are intimately familiar with police violence and have a long history of fighting back. The rebellion that ignited in LA in 1992 spread across the US and changed history. We have to remember that this is a city of revolt. We live and work in the shadows of revolutionaries like Geronimo Pratt, Bunchy Carter and Angela Davis; we draw on the Watts and LA Uprisings. Los Angeles has a history of struggling against police brutality, and justice for Oscar Grant must be next.
Erinn Carter is a member of Bring the Ruckus and a part of the Raider Nation Collective. She was born and raised in Los Angeles and now works on race and organizations in Los Angeles and New Orleans. Much of her activism and research focuses on Black organizations, the media, and the impact that each has on issues in the Black community.