Monday, January 12, 2009

Don't the police still work for us?

Unfortunately, last week's protest march that turned violent in downtown Oakland, California, has distracted attention from the apparent crime that inspired the demonstration. The hundreds of people who turned out for the demonstration were outraged, and rightfully so, about the fatal shooting of a young man by a transit police officer at a BART station six days earlier. The victim, Oscar Grant III, was allegedly shot on New Years Day while lying face down after being detained by officers breaking up a fight at Fruitvale Station in Oakland. BART is an acronym for Bay Area Rapid Transit, the regional transit system for the San Francisco Bay Area. Whether the police officer mistakenly pulled his pistol instead of his stun gun, making the shooting an error, as has been alleged, is hardly the point. What is more relevant is the motive for using the weapon at all. The victim was subdued -- he was lying on the ground being handcuffed, with another officer sitting on him. Yet the officer who pulled the trigger still fired at him from point-blank range. Why? Why did that officer believe he had the right to fire? Could it be that the pendulum has swung too far, with police departments now protected from collective liability and officers themselves protected from personal liability in just about every conceivable circumstance? Even elected officials in towns and cities fear to challenge their own police departments and demand accountability on officers' conduct in the field and high salaries. The accused officer has refused to answer questions and has left the BART police department, apparently to avoid an internal investigation where his right to remain silent would be limited. So, this is the context that brought demonstrators to the streets of Oakland. More than 100 people were arrested at the protest after some demonstrators march and began breaking store windows, setting fires and damaging parked vehicles, according to KTVU, an Oakland television station. Many demonstrators in predominantly black Oakland expressed anger and frustration at the conduct of BART and other police. “We live a life of fear and we want them to feel fear tonight,” an unnamed demonstrator told KTVU at the height of the violence. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums called for calm as the demonstration reeled out of control. "Even with our anger and our pain, let's still address each other with a degree of civility and calmness and not make this tragedy an excuse to engage in violence," Dellums said. "I don't want anybody hurt, I don't want anybody killed." But Dellums, like nearly everyone distracted by the violence, missed the point.

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