by William P. Muhammad
“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in writing for the Supreme Court’s majority opinion regarding Dred Scott v. Sandford,1857).
The recent verdict against a former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer, in a Los Angeles courtroom, has once again revealed the uneven application of justice concerning the killing of unarmed Black youth at the hands of White law enforcement personnel.
Found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, on New Year’s Day 2009, Johannes Mehserle claimed to have confused his .40 caliber service weapon for his “non-lethal” Taser when shooting Mr. Grant in the back. While dozens of witnesses and cell phone video confirmed the victim was no threat to himself or to others, Mehserle, who claimed to be fearful of the young man’s alleged movements, killed Mr. Grant as he laid face-down, subdued by police officers, on an Oakland train station platform.
Subsequently desiring a “fair trial” for the former officer, the State of California agreed to a change of venue from Oakland to Los Angeles, where, after a short deliberation, a slap on the wrist verdict angered many, sparking street demonstrations and calls for additional federal charges. Raising serious questions not only about the value of Black life in a so-called post-racial America, but also whether or not juries are capable of rendering fair decisions in racially charged police on civilian homicide cases, the Grant verdict nevertheless echoes the majority opinion of the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision.
Enshrined by Chief Justice Taney’s court that Blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” it appears that 153 years after that legal opinion was given, the same remains true regarding police violence against unarmed Black people. While the Scott case codified the denial of citizenship rights to both free and enslaved Blacks, what today’s Grant case has in common with the former Scott decision is a specific and callous disregard for the lives of Black people in the American legal system.
While it is interesting to note that the Scott case has never been overruled by the Supreme Court itself, the portion regarding citizenship was overturned through the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868. With questions of citizenship having then been resolved, the unresolved portions of the Dred Scott decision remain alive and well in many United States courtrooms to this very day. Prejudiced juries, police misconduct and latent racism in the criminal justice system all bear witness to this fact and, as reflected by the Oscar Grant shooting, the law is watered down for some while made stricter for others.
As the family and supporters of Oscar Grant continue to press for justice, the last hope for legal redress lies with lawsuits and perhaps charges of civil rights violations brought against the former officer in question. While these actions will never bring the life of Mr. Grant back to his loved ones, a proper expression of justice may see to it that society will never again tolerate the cold-blooded killing of unarmed and subdued civilians at the hands of law enforcement.
Nevertheless, embedded in the US legal system, from the very beginning of the American republic, the kernel of racism that poisoned the foundation of American juris prudence continues to lurk behind the façade of “equal justice under the law.” While the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 60s helped to put laws on the books to address inequality on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, these codes focused more upon public accommodations, voting rights and public access than with biases inherent to the legal system itself.
The Dred Scott decision established that the rights of Black people were subordinate to those of whites, and the Oscar Grant verdict proved that this is still the case. However, as pressure mounts for the federal government to look into what many now see as a miscarriage of justice, how many more Oscar Grants will there be in the Black community as increasingly militarized police forces continue to excuse what they call “justifiable homicide?”