After Oscar, after Trayvon…

Pub date July 23, 2013
WriterRebecca Bowe

Even before Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson picked up the phone on Feb. 27, 2012, he wasn’t having an easy day. His nephew, Oscar Grant, would have celebrated his 26th birthday on that date if he had not been killed by a gunshot wound on Jan. 1, 2009.

Grant was shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while lying face down on a train platform, an incident that was caught on film, prompted riots in Oakland, drew international scrutiny, and became the subject of the award-winning film Fruitvale Station by Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler.

In the years since Grant’s death, Johnson and his wife, Beatrice X, founded the Oscar Grant Foundation to develop a support network for families who’ve lost loved ones due to police violence. It was his involvement in this work that led Johnson to be contacted that day, and informed that a 17-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin had been gunned down in Florida one day earlier.

It wasn’t a police shooting but nevertheless, “We knew at this point that we had to go to Florida,” Johnson recalled. “What we’ve decided is that whenever a family experienced that, we would definitely try and get to them.”

Fast forward to July 13, almost exactly three years after violent protests erupted in Oakland following the news that Mehserle, who was charged with second degree murder, had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter instead. A new wave of demonstrations flared up as word spread that George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Martin, had been acquitted.

“We weren’t surprised,” Johnson, who returned to Florida last month to observe the jury selection process for Zimmerman’s trial, told the Guardian. “But it was still painful.”

The verdict in this high-profile case has brought discussions about racial profiling and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system to the forefront. Even President Barack Obama touched on the theme in comments to White House reporters on July 19, saying, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

At the national level, new findings on “implicit bias” — unconscious prejudices that research in psychology has shown can persist in individuals (including poorly trained police officers), even if they consciously reject racial stereotypes — has started to inform policy debates around racial profiling.

“Policy needs to recognize that implicit bias exists,” Maya Wiley, founder and president of the New York City-based Center for Social Inclusion, told us. “Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill last year to prohibit racial profiling in law enforcement. That bill, if made law, would collect data on stops by race, as well as provide resources for training. That is a step in the right direction.”

But things get complicated, Wiley says, because “research shows that people of color, women, the elderly, may all experience discrimination as a result of implicit bias. There is no remedy in the law for this. … I think what is important now is to fight Stand Your Ground Laws which empower people to act on their implicit biases.”

At a July 16 rally held on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, Rev. Malcolm Byrd, pastor of San Francisco’s First A.M.E. Zion Church, illustrated his point about racial profiling by donning a hoodie and sneakers at the rally.

“I wanted to come looking suspicious,” he explained. “I wanted to give you an image that America has of young black men. I look suspicious. This is my country. I love my country. Yet, I look suspicious.”

Last year, Mayor Ed Lee’s proposal to introduce a stop-and-frisk policy, which would have allowed police officers to randomly stop individuals who appeared to be suspicious in an effort to get weapons off the streets, was abandoned in the face of widespread community concern.

Officers who undergo training at the San Francisco Police Department Academy must complete 52 hours of “cultural diversity” training, according to SFPD spokesperson Sgt. Dennis Toomer, which includes a mandatory four-hour intensive geared toward preventing racial profiling. State law mandates just 16 hours for such training for law enforcement agencies, Toomer told us.

But despite supplemental police training and the efforts of grassroots organizations that carefully monitor police activity, the Bay Area has witnessed a number of fatal shootings at the hands of police since Grant’s death, and many draw a link between these cases and the broader issue of racial profiling.

When asked about the outreach efforts of the Oscar Grant Foundation, Johnson began to rattle off a long list of names — mostly young black men, from places ranging from Oakland to Vallejo to Stockton to San Leandro — who were killed by police, and whose families his organization has reached out to.

They have also been in touch with several families in New York City who lost loved ones in similar situations, Johnson said. In many cases, the individuals were killed despite being unarmed, and officers later explained their actions by saying they’d mistakenly believed the shooting victims had firearms.

After several years of taking an up-close look at the investigative and legal proceedings that unfold in the aftermath of officer-involved shootings, Johnson has reached the conclusion that from case to case, “The playbook is pretty much the same. The officer first alleges he felt threatened — it’s all about the thought process of the officer. It’s always found to be justifiable because the officer feared for his life.”

One long-term goal of the Oscar Grant Foundation is to build up a coalition that can mount a meaningful challenge to the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights, a law enacted some 30 years ago that affords special protections for law enforcement officers facing misconduct charges. Johnson and others are critical of provisions such as officers’ rights to keep confidential information out of their personnel files, which can prevent significant information from being disclosed during a criminal trial. Meanwhile, others throughout the Bay Area seem primed to push for change in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. “On Sunday, every black church in the nation was talking about what? Trayvon Martin, and what we need to do,” Andrea Shorter, a member of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, said during the July 16 rally. “Two weeks ago, and we were all standing here as San Franciscans to rejoice … because we knew that LGBT people could be treated as first class citizens. The job is not done.” San Francisco NAACP President Rev. Amos Brown, who organized the rally, vowed that his organization “will push for a civil suit to bring this Zimmerman gentlemen to justice.” The national NAACP is petitioning U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Sups. London Breed, Malia Cohen, Jane Kim, and David Campos also delivered speeches at the rally. “For the first time in my life, after growing up and going to funeral after funeral after funeral after funeral, of all boys and black men throughout my life, I see people in this audience who are not African American, who are just as hurt as I am, who are just as sick of this as I am,” Breed said. “And we are all in this together. We have got to work together if we want to change it.”