OAKLAND, Calif. — The online civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change Feb. 10 presented the Alameda County District Attorney’s office with over 20,000 petition signatures calling on the DA to explain why he is not pursuing charges against a second BART police officer in the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III.
The 22 year old Grant, an unarmed African American, was shot in the back by BART policeman Johannes Mehserle as he lay face down on a BART platform following reports of a scuffle on a train early New Year’s morning. Videos of the shooting circulated quickly, and after protests escalated, District Attorney Tom Orloff Jan. 14 charged Mehserle with murder. Orloff said then he was not actively pursuing charges against any other officers on the platform during the incident.
A video made public later showed BART officer Tony Pirone, apparently unprovoked, punching Grant in the head moments before the shooting.
Area legal scholars who have seen the video have called Pirone’s action a clear use of excessive force.
“Pirone appears to have committed a serious crime,” the petition says. “How can ignoring it possibly be in the interest of justice?”
At a press conference in front of the Alameda County Superior Court building, Color of Change Executive Director James Rucker told members and supporters, “There are serious questions about how Orloff’s office has dealt with this case, and given Alameda County’s terrible record of prosecuting police abuses, we can’t simply trust that the DA’s office has the will to pursue justice wherever it leads.”
Rucker said video footage clearly showing Pirone punching Grant was available to the DA while he was investigating Mehserle. “Orloff needs to bring charges against Pirone or explain why he won’t … Clearly it’s going to take continue public pressure to see that justice is served throughout this case. This is a moment to demand accountability, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Joining Rucker at the podium, Dereca Blackmon, co-founder of the Coalition against Police Executions, said the coalition has called from the start for investigation of all officers on the platform at the time of Grant’s murder. “We want justice for everyone involved,” she said, including Grant’s family, the people of the Bay Area and the country “who are watching Oakland now to see if a new era has actually come to American politics and to the American criminal justice system, an era of accountability, a time when we can expect our citizens’ lives to be valued.”
As the group presented the petition to members of Orloff’s staff, Blackmon paused to talk with a group of students visiting the office from a nearby school. “Does anyone know someone who’s been harmed by the police?” she asked. Hands shot up. “Do your research,” she advised the group. “Know who can bring charges.” Blackmon continued, “Because we did this, it will be on TV. Because we were clear and peaceful, this will be communicated around the country, and people around the country can help to bring justice.”
Among other cases Color of Change is pursuing is the mysterious death last December of a 17-year-old African American youth, Billey Joe Johnson, who allegedly killed himself in Lucedale, Miss. after a routine traffic stop. Johnson, a star athlete, had scholarship offers from more than half a dozen schools, and his family, friends and coaches could see no reason he would take his own life.
Color of Change says serious questions have been raised about the shooting, including an independent investigation showing it would have been impossible for the shot that killed Johnson to have been self-inflicted. Johnson’s family said he had dated and then broken up with a young white woman, whose family had opposed the relationship.
“In many ways,” Rucker told the World, “the situation is reminiscent of what happened with the Jena 6.” Given the local atmosphere of “fear and distrust,” he said, it is a big question whether the district attorney will pursue justice. Rucker said some 300 supporters presented the DA with over 30,000 petition signatures Feb. 9, calling for a thorough investigation.
mbechtel @ pww.org