COLUMN: Cellphones help fight against police brutality
On Jan. 1, 2009, officer Johannes Mehserle shot to death Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, as Grant lay defenseless at Mehserle’s feet. Now, less than three years later, Mehserle walks free.
The incident occurred in Oakland, Calif., when police responded to reports of a disturbance on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train. Police removed several people, including Grant, from the train and forcibly subdued them. Onlookers used mobile phones and digital cameras to record what happened next.
An officer knelt on Grant’s neck, pinning Grant on his stomach, and told Grant he was under arrest, according to videos filmed by onlookers. Mehserle then drew his gun and fired directly into Grant’s back.
“You shot me! I got a 4-year-old daughter!” Grant said.
Afterward, officers hurried to confiscate witnesses’ mobile phones and cameras. However, several videos of the incident later appeared on YouTube.
Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and given the minimum sentence of two years with double credit for time already served, according to a report by the BBC News. He was released June 13 on parole.
If Grant, a working-class black man, had murdered Mehserle, a police officer, would Grant have received a two-year sentence? Moreover, if Grant had been a wealthy, white businessman or politician, would he ever have found himself pinned with a cop’s knee on his throat?
Grant’s death and his killer’s light sentence expose the racism and classism that appear in our justice system.
It also demonstrates how valuable the proliferation of mobile recording devices has been for opponents of police brutality. If not for the videos of Grant’s shooting circulating online, there might have been no way to conclusively disprove the Bay Area Rapid Transit authorities’ claim that Mehserle killed Grant in self-defense.
The first and most iconic incident of this type was when a bystander used his camcorder to record the savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991.
It was sheer luck anyone present at King’s assault had a camcorder, but today millions of Americans own camera phones. This has led to the publicizing of many instances of police brutality that in previous decades would have been swept under the rug.
But as civilians have achieved a measure of self-defense against police harassment, police have fought back, arresting civilians who attempt to film their crimes.
In 2007, attorney Simon Glik used his mobile phone to film what he believed was an excessively forceful arrest, according to a report on Boston.com. He was arrested for “illegal electronic surveillance.”
On May 30 in Miami, Narces Benoit used his mobile phone to record an incident in which a dozen cops shot a man to death in his car, wounding four bystanders.
An officer turned his gun on Benoit, who fled to his car, where police confiscated his phone at gunpoint. Then, Benoit states, officers ordered him out of the car, threw him to the ground and smashed his phone.
However, Benoit had had the presence of mind to remove his phone’s memory card and conceal it in his mouth. Benoit uploaded video of the incident to YouTube, where it stands as a testament both to the power of personal recording devices to expose police excesses and the determination of police to avoid accountability.
It is vital that civilians refuse to be intimidated when recording police officers. As the Grant incident demonstrates, the judiciary cannot be trusted to bring criminals in the police force to justice. Civilians play a vital role in exposing abuses by police officers, and that role must be defended.
As police powers are expanded, it may be that our phones are our greatest defense against police brutality.
— Zac Smith, journalism junior