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Cops are here to protect you. (#8)

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.

Government cops protect you by dragging a bunch of unarmed young Black men out of a train and lining them up against the wall — in response to an alleged fistfight — and then forcing one of them down to the ground and shooting him in the back. While he is lying prone on the ground, surrounded, and physically restrained both by the shooter and by a gang of other heavily-armed uniformed cops.

Then government cops protect you from being tainted by knowledge of the incident by rounding up everyone in the crowd that they can get their hands on and seizing the cellphones they had been using to take videos. You have only seen these videos because some dastardly criminals hopped back on the train before the cops could grab them, and then set out to taint us all with the truth.

The cop in the video is a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop named Johannes Mehserle. His victim, Oscar Grant, was either shot in the back when he was already handcuffed, or handcuffed by Officer Johannes Mehserle after he had been shot in back, depending on which witness accounts you listen to. I’m not sure which is worse. In any case, no-one has produced any reason whatsoever why Oscar Grant — who was unarmed, who was clearly showing his hands just before he was forced down and shot, who was forced down on his back, who was being searched and held down by two cops, with a third standing by and a gang of other cops standing around only a few feet away — could pose any credible physical threat to anybody at all, let alone the sort of physical threat that would justify standing up and drawing a gun on him.

We are told that (of course, of course) it’s a terrible tragedy what happened, and we should feel in our hearts for all the people who suffered so much because of this incident, but Officer Johannes Mehserle didn’t really mean to shoot Oscar Grant in the back. Maybe he pulled his gun and pointed it directly at a completely helpless victim who was clearly unarmed and under the complete physical control of the police, and then — oops — slipped and fired his gun into an unarmed man’s back by accident. Maybe he meant to pull out his taser so that he could torture a completely helpless man lying prone on the ground who clearly posed no physical threat to anybody with powerful electric shocks, but — oops — he just got so freaked out by The Situation that he couldn’t tell his hay-foot from his straw-foot and he accidentally whipped out his handgun instead, from a holster on the opposite side of his belt, even though it’s a completely different size and shape and weight, and then pulled the trigger and shot an unarmed man with a bullet instead. And, of course, none of this means a goddamned thing.

As I have said, and at the risk of controversy I will repeat: it doesn't matter if Mehserle meant to pull the trigger. He had already assumed the role of sole arbiter over the life or death of Oscar Grant. He had already decided that Grant, by virtue of his skin color and appearance, was worth less than other citizens. And rather than acquitting the officer, all of the psychological analyses and possible explanations of the shooting that have been trotted-out in the press, and all the discussion of the irrelevant elements of Grant's criminal history, have only proven this fundamental point.

If a young black or Latino male pulls a gun and someone winds up dead, intention is never the issue, and first-degree murder charges are on the agenda, as well as likely murder charges for anyone of the wrong color standing nearby. If we reverse the current situation, and the gun is in Oscar Grant's hand, then racist voices would be squealing for the death penalty regardless of intention. And yet when it's a cop pulling the trigger, all the media and public opinion resources are deployed to justify, understand, and empathize with this unconscionable act. One side is automatically condemned; the other automatically excused.

— George Ciccariello-Maher, CounterPunch (2009-01-09): Oakland’s Not For Burning?

Of course, there are two kinds of privileges: sometimes the problem is that a select class of people get consideration that everybody ought to be getting, but other people, not in the privileged class, are unjustly denied. And sometimes the problem is that a select class of people get special consideration that nobody ought to be getting, no matter their social class. Ciccariello-Maher doesn’t make it clear which kind he means, but in this case, the handwringing and We’ll never know chanting and endless excuse-making in the effort to convert manslaughter or murder into nothing more than another Oops, our bad is an example of the second kind. Given the observable facts of the case, there is nothing that could possibly have been going through Officer Johannes Mehserle’s head that could justify this execution-style shooting. If he went drawing his gun on an unarmed and prone and physically helpless man, who posed absolutely no credible threat to him or anyone else in the vicinity, and then, in the course of swinging his gun around, ended up firing it off, somehow, by accident, then he is guilty of criminally negligent homicide. If he planned to shock the hell out of someone who he had no reason to shock and ended up shooting him instead, by accident, then he is guilty of committing felony murder in the course of committing assault and battery. If he shot Oscar Grant intentionally, then, whatever may have been going on in his head about combs in Oscar Grant’s pocket or the folks in the crowd who were booing him from several feet away behind a line of other cops, or the hard, stressful life of a transit cop, then he is guilty of murder in the first.

And then we are told by self-righteous cops and their sado-fascist enablers that (of course, of course) it’s terrible what happened, and maybe Officer Johannes Mehserle overreacted, and zigged when he should have zagged, but really, we shouldn’t rush to judgment, and really, it’s not his fault, because, after all, there was a crowd of unarmed people several feet away, behind a line of other heavily-armed cops, yelling unkind words at him and making allegations as to the character of the police and watching what they were doing; maybe he became so confused and terrified by all this that, consummate professional though he may have been, he just lost all control of his rational faculties, and — oops — it just seemed like a good idea at the time to stand up and draw on an unarmed man being held down face-first on the ground in front of him. So it’s really the crowd’s fault:

We can wait for the official report on the shots fired but the earlier parts of those amatuer [sic] videos are also chilling for the hate-filled crowd reactions to what was, prior to the gunshot, a routine police encounter. We cannot long continue to police in a nation full of antagonists toward law and order. You can find it in videos all over the internet – crowds taunting, jeering, threatening, and obstructing police officers who are engaged in taming disorder.

— profshults (2009-01-07 10:04pm), comment on Tragedy [sic] at Fruitvale Station, at POLICE: The Law Enforcement Magazine

Well, great. Then let government cops quit. Please. As if anybody ever asked them to go around policing like that in this nation. When government cops go around like this, protecting the hell out of us all, then they need to be taunted, jeered, threatened and obstructed until they stop.

It's not entirely clear yet what happened during the incident, and it may never be. [Oscar Grant] was apparently not one of the initial group dragged off the train–one of the videos shows him unrestrained and standing up, trying to intercede with the police. According to witnesses, he was trying to de-escalate the situation between the cops and his friends. This is not an isolated incident, not by a long shot. This kind of thing happens all the time: out-of-control police violence in response to non-violent communication. It happens to people of color, and to queer folks too. It happened to me and Jack a little more than a year ago, along with a group of colleagues and friends, for asking the police why they were making an arrest. An officer decided to pepper spray our group, without any real provocation. We're lucky, and privileged, that it wasn't a gun.

Who knows what's going through these cops' heads? Are they freaking out, paranoid, fearful, are they untrained, do they have no idea what to do? What really matters to me is that they've been given weapons to use, and they're wiling to use them at the slightest provocation, up to and including lethal force. What matters is that any questioning of their authority, whether you're holding a camera or trying to de-escalate a situation, is seen as a challenge that has to be put down, by taking your stuff away, or crowd-controlling you, or killing you. We should all be scared. Especially if you're part of a frequently-profiled community.

. . .

I want to stress one more thing. The news is reporting that the police felt outnumbered. This is exactly the same reason they gave for pepper-spraying the crowd that Jack and I were in. But let's be clear — it doesn't have anything to do with numbers. If it had been a quiet crowd ignoring the police and just sitting on the train, the numbers wouldn't matter. They felt outnumbered because a lot of people watching were demanding to know what was going on, yelling, and refusing to just mind their own business. People who were demanding to know what was happening, because they know that abuses happen far too often and take far too many lives, and that someone has to watch the watchers.

Unfortunately, to police this makes you the enemy, especially if you're making your voice heard, yelling, demanding to know what's going on. The police, whether because of training or inculcated philosophy or temperament, see this as a potential riot, and they escalate the situation.

— Holly @ feministe (2009-01-07): Execution style

The plain fact is that what we have here is one of two things. Either we have a professionalized system of violent control which tacitly permits and encourages cops to handle any confusing or stressful situation with an attempt to dominate everyone in the vicinity by means of threats and overwhelming force, including attempts to retaliate or terrify people into submission by using violence — up to and including lethal violence — against powerless people under their physical control. Or else we have a system of government policing which has clearly demonstrated that it can do nothing effectual to prevent this from happening, over and over again. In either case, it is unfit to exist.

16 replies to Cops are here to protect you. (#8) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Neverfox

    I hope no one comes up to me talking about how Obama’s inauguration means we’ve come so far as a nation.

  2. Mike Gogulski

    I can’t even look anymore, sometimes… what was it you mentioned before, “outrage overload”, or something like that?

    In lieu of making my own blog post entitled “No Revolution”, pasting the youtubes and linking here, I’ll just make the point of that posting here:

    I watched these videos several times. Besides the shock and horror (filtered through the numbness of outrage overload), what struck me as most curious was the reaction of the onlooking crowd — or, rather, the lack of any meaningful reaction.

    Incidents like this are the sort of things revolutions have begun in response to. And it’s a sad commentary that dozens of people just stood around, filming and booing and screaming, while letting the murderer and his accomplices walk away. Even faced with the most brutal, the most obvious, the most bare-faced abuse of government power right in their faces, nobody did a goddamned thing.

    Tragedy upon tragedy.

  3. jrlcat

    “Incidents like this are the sort of things revolutions have begun in response to. And it’s a sad commentary that dozens of people just stood around, filming and booing and screaming, while letting the murderer and his accomplices walk away. Even faced with the most brutal, the most obvious, the most bare-faced abuse of government power right in their faces, nobody did a goddamned thing.”

    I was thinking something similar at the protests at the Israeli embassy in London last Saturday. Depending on which estimates you believe, some 12-20 thousand people showed up–probably enough people to take over the embassy, and maybe even enough to shut down the city–yet nothing more defiant happened than chanting slogans and throwing signs and shoes at the police blockading the embassy. I’m sorry to say that I can’t fault anyone for not taking more risky action; it can be hard to even conceptualize how to take power back from representatives of a criminal state.

  4. Rad Geek


    I think the post of mine you were thinking of is GT 2004-06-12: Outrage Fatigue.

    I do have trouble finding fault with the people on the BART platform. While I would like to see people become more confrontational, and more radical about, checking the violence of government cops, it’s hard to fault people for not rushing the gangsters in blue when there are a fair number of them in a good tactical position and one of them has already demonstrated the fact that he’s ready and willing to kill a fellow remorselessly and in cold blood.

  5. Marja Erwin

    I have seen the police torture people more times than I can count.

    I don’t know how to stop it. I have been tortured myself, and know I’d be lucky to only face one round of torture if I interfered. For political reasons, I’d probably face terrorism penalties. For medical reasons, I’d more likely than not face “frequent” rape; the studies don’t bother to track merely occasional rape.

    That’s how the system is set up. It depends on a range of fates worse than death, or at least more frightening than death.

  6. Hindmost

    Heathen: at Kent State the unarmed kids advanced on fully-equipped army soldiers.

    I dunno, this whole thing just makes me sick.

  7. Mike Gogulski

    @jrlcat and Rad Geek: No argument. I don’t see any sort of moral imperative for the spectators to intervene, at great risk to themselves, either. Would that some had, though.

  8. jrlcat

    The BART cop was arrested for murder yesterday:

    OAKLAND – Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man early New Year’s Day, was arrested on a murder charge in Nevada today, officials confirmed.

    Mehserle was being held in Douglas County, Nev., on a no-bail warrant, a law-enforcement official said.

    Hopefully something at least partially resembling the right thing will happen for once. I wonder if the outcome would have been any different if he hadn’t quit his job first.

  9. Rad Geek


    Right, and keep in mind what they got for their trouble.

    Like I said, I find it hard to blame people for not repeating the experiment.


    Hopefully something at least partially resembling the right thing will happen for once.

    I’m not holding my breath. But we’ll see. It is likely that the street riots have put an unusual amount of pressure on the local government, so a lot will probably turn — as the prosecutions for the Rodney King beating, for example, did — on whether or not the cop gets a change of venue.

  10. Monkt

    I don’t get it. When Rodney King was beaten with flashlights by police people rioted and burned down LA. But when a unarmed man is forced to the ground, handcuffed, and shot; nothing but peaceful protests.

  11. Brad

    That was disturbing. All of the comments above bring up many points about where our society is headed. Not good.

  12. Seth

    Mike’s first comment reminded me of this classic Onion news story about Outrage Fatigue

· March 2009 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-03-28 – It doesn’t take much imagination.:

    […] Imagine that every now and then they made mistakes or acted on bad information and accidentally killed or terrorized innocent Americans, including women and children, most of the time with little to no […]

· June 2009 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-06-02 – The Police Beat:

    […] of which, in Oakland, Officer Johannes Mehserle is now on trial for murder in the execution-style shooting of Oscar Grant. Here’s some recent testimony from the […]

  2. Discussed at realitysbitch.com

    BeatDown CrackUp – Reality’s bitch:

    […] of which, in Oakland, Officer Johannes Mehserle is now on trial for murder in the execution-style shooting of Oscar Grant. Here’s some recent testimony from the trial: (05-27) 17:00 PDT OAKLAND — A colleague of the […]

— 2010 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-06-22 – The Police Beat:

    […] GT 2009-01-12: Cops are here to protect you. (#8) […]

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