Johannes Mehserle on Oscar Grant

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

It's worth reading. My sense is that it won't change the minds of many of the people reading it. 


My own feelings about the case are complicated. It's very difficult, given the legal standard, for me to believe that Oscar Grant was murdered. Moreover, I've long been unclear on the good of what, Sara Mayeux, in this post, calls punitive justice. I'm not simply unclear on the good of punitive justice because it tends to adversely effect people who look like me, I'm unclear on the entire principle. To make it plain, I understand the good of never allowing Johannes Mehserle to have the power of State-sanctioned lethal force. I don't understand the good of putting him in a box:

If the gun enhancement sticks, Mehserle could be facing five to 14 years in prison. In a sane world, maybe something in that range would seem like an adequate sentence for a killing that many believe was intentional in the moment, but that no one has suggested was premeditated at any great length. In the world we have, where men have been sentenced to far longer for possessing a cotton ball of heroin or a marijuana joint, any sentence Mehserle receives will seem laughably short in comparison. But the tragedy of this case is not that doctrines like manslaughter and reasonable doubt protected Mehserle; it's that we know too well they don't protect too many other defendants who never wore police uniforms. It's not that some vestige of proportionality might make it into Mehserle's sentence; it's that there are so few such vestiges left in our justice system.

Perhaps someone more enlightened than I can suggest what restorative justice, rather than retributive justice, might look like in this case. In the system we have, the most we can ask of Johannes Mehserle to atone for his crime is that he sit in a cage for some number of years. In an ideal system, what might we want to ask of him instead, or in addition? A challenge for people like myself who are uncomfortable with the kneejerk reliance on imprisonment as punishment in this country is to explain what the alternative would be. In all honesty, it's a question I'm still working through.

In the meantime, though, I can at least join in the calls by several commentators for the rest of us to work towards systemic reform, maybe not in the naïve hope of an ideal world, but simply with the practical goal of making tragedies like this not just less likely, but less possible.
This pretty much sums up my own feelings. I'm not so much disturbed by the fact that Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. I'm extremely disturbed that very few people are asking, "Did he really need the taser in the first place?"

To me, this killing is part of something more systemic. It's about a desire to tolerate everything from the death of a suspect in the custody of correctional officers, to the execution of an innocent man to save us against the terrible, but still unlikely, threat of violent crime. Putting Mehserle away for some years taps out at the cathartic. I'm much more interested in living in a country where the police don't arrest you in your own home for rudeness.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/07/johannes-mehserle-on-oscar-grant/59522/