Once again another young Black man has been shot and killed, under highly questionable circumstances, by a representative of law enforcement. Also once again, African Americans and our allies fear that justice will not be served on the perpetrator. Unfortunately, this fear is neither imagined nor an overreaction; it is grounded in concrete reality.
That reality is known as the “blue line”: the protection and support that members of law enforcement extend to one another automatically, regardless of facts, truths and, ultimately, outcomes.
Even more upsetting is the fact that this line exists when clear and irrefutable evidence of racial antagonism or hostility is also present.
Seconds before Oscar Grant was shot in his back on Jan. 1, 2009, by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Officer Johannes Mehserle, the words “bitch ass ni**er” were yelled to Grant’s face – twice – by Mehserle’s mentor and “big brother,” BART Officer Tony Pirone. Mehserle and Pirone brutally restrained an already compliant Grant by kneeling on his head and neck and lower legs, before Mehserle stood over Grant and fired a bullet into his back from a Sig Sauer 9 mm pistol.
Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Grant; he was sentenced to two years in state prison and released after spending one year, doing all of his time in county jail. As of this writing, four weeks after Trayvon was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, Zimmerman has not been arrested, indicted or arraigned on any charge.
The blue line: Ways that it works
By taking a cursory look at what we hope are facts reported by the media, we can gain a glimpse of how the “blue line” works to shield law enforcement personnel from heinous crimes:
1. Slow response to arrest the perpetrator
Johannes Mehserle was arrested for the death of Oscar Grant almost two weeks after the incident and only after a rebellion erupted in the streets of Oakland the day of Grant’s funeral; George Zimmerman has not been arrested, charged or indicted for any crime in connection with Trayvon Martin’s death four weeks after the incident. An announcement has now been made that a grand jury to investigate the shooting will convene in April, now that numerous virtual and real-world protests have taken place demanding that Zimmerman be arrested.
2. The perpetrator is not deemed a threat to the (Black) public’s safety
George Zimmerman was known to authorities to be “fixated on crime and Black males” and carried a pistol on his person, yet he had a violent past that included an arrest for assault on a police officer and several incidents of domestic violence. Approximately six weeks before shooting the unarmed Oscar Grant, Johannes Mehserle violently assaulted Kenneth Carruthers, an African American man, for the latter’s criticism of the BART police force after his car was broken into at a BART station parking lot. Carruthers alleged that Mehserle and other officers “punched, kicked and eventually hogtied him” and that on the way to a hospital to treat his injuries Mehserle asked him, “Well, have you learned not to mess with police officers?”
3. Legal statute shields the perpetrator before he is ever charged with a crime
In California, the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights Act (POBRA), in conjunction with different parts of the state’s penal code – “the law of the land” – has blocked citizens from gaining access to the personnel files of police officers. Citing the officer’s right to privacy, police departments bar us from learning whether an officer has a history of shootings – warranted or not – and brutality complaints.
4. Legal requirements are either loosened, flaunted or thrown out altogether for the perpetrator
The “Offenses Section” of the police report filed on the Zimmerman shooting states that it was “an unnecessary killing to prevent an unlawful act.” It also references negligent homicide and manslaughter, but he was not arrested. The form used by the BART authority for officer involved shootings that Johannes Mehserle signed stated that it was an “intentional shooting.” This form was not allowed into court as evidence during Mehserle’s criminal trial in Los Angeles. Zimmerman was not tested for drugs or alcohol immediately after the shooting; Mehserle was tested but those results were also not allowed in court.
5. The victim may have had an unsavory background
Oscar Grant was on parole from state prison at the time of his arrest, and in the past he had run from the police and had been shocked with a Taser. This information was somewhat responsibly reported in the media but it was spread wildly by police supporters and right-wing groups. It was also officially entered into evidence in court, partly to show that Grant was “prone” to resisting arrest. Conservative groups have begun to insinuate that Trayvon Martin, who was under a five-day suspension “due to tardiness and not misbehavior” at the time he was killed, may have been suspended for more serious infractions.
6. The victim was not a victim, but an aggressor
The group that Oscar Grant was traveling with on the BART train on New Year’s Day 2009 was involved in an altercation. One witness states that Grant had been held in a headlock with a man, David Horowitch, who later testified that he had not been in a fight with Oscar Grant. Other witnesses could not identify who the person was who had been in the altercation with Horowitch. Police supporters also stated that Grant had attempted to physically assault Officer Pirone by kneeing him in the groin. Trayvon Martin was said to have been on top of George Zimmerman punching him, which is why Zimmerman was observed with wet, grass-stained clothing and a bloody nose, after chasing and confronting Martin.
7. Because the victim was an aggressor, it was his own fault
Law enforcement supporters have stated – and continue to state – that had Oscar Grant not been “fighting,” “causing trouble” or “resisting arrest,” he would be alive today. Trayvon Martin has been criticized for not answering Zimmerman’s questions demanding to know his identify etc., once Zimmerman exited his vehicle and confronted Martin. One commentator on a conservative website even stated that the now-ubiquitous photo of a sweatshirt-hooded Martin looking into a computer camera was “menancing” (sic).
8. ‘Questionable conduct’ as ‘fellow officer sympathy and support’
9. ‘Benefit of the doubt’ gets taken to an entirely new level
A lay or regular person who used a firearm to shoot and kill someone would have been automatically detained, arrested and the case turned over to a district attorney who would then make the final decision on whether or not to file charges or drop the case against the perpetrator. George Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was sufficient to send him home with his gun for the night. Johannes Mehserle refused to speak with BART investigators about what led to his shooting of Oscar Grant and he fled the state of California and went to Nevada. His bail was set by the court at a whopping $3 million, which was paid for by a non-profit association of law enforcement officers, as was his legal defense team.
10. The ‘triers of facts’ also toe the line
Johannes Mehserle’s trial for the murder of Oscar Grant was moved to Los Angeles County where it was assigned to Judge Robert Perry, a former federal prosecutor. After the jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter and of intentionally using a gun, Perry dismissed the gun finding by saying he had erred in giving the jury proper instructions on the gun allegation, which would have automatically added 10 years to Mehserle’s sentence. Perry felt the evidence in the trial did not show that Mehserle had intended to shoot Grant and sentenced him to the lowest term possible – two years in state prison – and ordered Mehserle released from county jail (where he had been spending his jail term) after one year.
George Zimmerman has yet to go through the justice system; therefore, we have not yet seen what the “blue line” will do. However, based on history, we have a pretty good idea given that his father, Robert, is a retired magistrate judge and his mother, Gladys, was an interpreter at the Prince William County courthouse in Virginia.
11. Support remains regardless of the level of callousness and inhumanity
George Zimmerman used foul language and a racial slur in reference to Trayvon Martin; before shooting him to death, the 17-year-old Martin can be heard on the 911 tapes “wailing” for help. Oscar Grant who had also been cursed at and called a racial slur, can be seen on the videos taken by BART train riders as being on his knees, seemingly pleading with Officer Tony Pirone not to physically harm him. His head and neck would soon be pinned under the knee of the 200-plus-pound officer, and a witness said Grant told the officer “he could not breathe.”
A white supremacist boys club
George Zimmerman was initially identified in the media as being white. We have since learned that his mother is Peruvian and to many people he appears physically to be a Latino. His father, in an effort to defend him, wrote to the press that his son was “a Spanish-speaking minority” … “more like the boy he killed than people thought.”
Being a Black person in the United States does not make one immune to White supremacist ideology or acting on its behalf. America has a long history of the thin “blue line” of law enforcement being completely erased when it comes to White terrorist violence against Black people.
Although reports have begun indicating that Zimmerman was not a part of an “official” neighborhood watch and that he had designated himself as “captain,” he was still allowed to operate freely – in spite of complaints by his neighbors that he took his job “too zealously” – obviously given clearance because he was seen as being “one of the boys.”
Both history and current reality continue to prove that boys will be boys.
Thandisizwe Chimurenga, conductor of the CyberGround Railroad, “Black Los Angeles’ News and Views Source,” is a community journalist and a founder and host of Some of Us Are Brave, a Black women’s public affairs show on KPFK-Pacifica Los Angeles. She has reported for the L.A. Watts Times newspaper, KPFK Evening News and Free Speech Radio News. She covered the trial of Johannes Mehserle, who murdered Oscar Grant, for the Bay View and several other Bay Area news organizations and is the author of the forthcoming book, “No Doubt: The Murder of Oscar Grant.” She can be reached at [email protected].
Editor’s note: Events in solidarity with Trayvon Martin across the country are listed athttp://dreadtimes.com/m/news/view/17-y-o-Murdered-by-Neighborhood-Watch.