FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.
Last night in Oakland, California, protests over the shooting of unarmed man turned violent. Demonstrators smashed store fronts and cars, set cars on fire, and blocked streets over the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III.
Early New Year's Day, Grant was traveling home on Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, the commuter train system there. Grant and a group of friends were stopped by transit police for an alleged altercation. People nearby used their cell phones to video the incident. The video shows a police officer shooting Grant as he laid face down on the ground.
Here to give us more on the case, we've got Bob Butler. He's a freelance bay area reporter for KCBS radio and the Chauncey Bailey Project. Welcome back to the show.
Mr. BOB BUTLER (Freelance Reporter): Good morning, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So when you think about this recent trend of really moving towards violent protest, what does it say about the level of emotion over this?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, I think people are very angry in the bay area about what happened to Mr. Grant. And rightfully so. I mean, as reporters, we tend to be more impartial and not wanting to excise on this. But when you see somebody - when you see the video, when you see the young man was lying there, and it didn't seem to me like he was resisting. He was lying on the ground face down with his hands restrained behind him. And for some reason, the officer reached for his weapon and shot the young man.
And so you understand why people are very unhappy and why they're very emotional about it. And this protest last night started off as a peaceful march from the Fruitvale BART Station - that's where the shooting took place - down to the BART headquarters, which is about, you know, maybe a couple of miles away. And for some reason - and I hate to say this, but a lot of times, you get a very peaceful march, and they get some people who join in, and things get out of hand, and that's what happened last night.
CHIDEYA: Let's go to the specifics of this case. Can you tell us a little bit about Oscar Grant? Just a little bit about who he was as a person?
Mr. BUTLER: As far as I know, he was a young man. He had just had a baby. By all accounts, of course, talking to family, very responsible, loving person. You know, but the family always says that.
But the reality is, he and a bunch of his friends had been out New Year's Eve celebrating, we believe in San Francisco. On the way back home, there became - there was some altercation started on the train, where you got a bunch of young men together in two different groups, and, you know, we don't know if any blows were thrown, but people were concerned enough where they notified the train operator. And the train operator called BART police, and they met the train at this Fruitvale station.
At that point, the police went on board the train and pulled the people who were identified as being involved in the altercation out and began, you know, putting them on the ground, restraining their hands behind them, in some cases handcuffing them. And that's where the shooting took place.
I mean, you know, I don't know enough about Oscar Grant to tell you that he didn't deserve this kind of thing. I don't know that. But it's pretty clear. Even if he'd been fighting somebody, you know, to be shot in the back while you're lying on the ground restrained is just unconscionable.
CHIDEYA: We're going to hear shortly from Attorney John Burris, who's filed a $25 million lawsuit on behalf of Grant's family. But what are the next legal steps from a criminal standpoint, if any, that we see ahead?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, my understanding is that the BART Police Department is trying to investigate, and they were going to have - they were going to be able to interview officer Mehserle. But yesterday, when they were supposed to have a meeting in order for him to give his side of what happened, his attorney showed up and basically handed in his letter of resignation. So he quit the force. So now, they cannot compel him to talk to BART Police investigators about what happened.
Now, Mayor Dellums, Mayor Ron Dellums of Oakland wants the Oakland Police Department to take over the investigation. And I've been talking to many officers in the department because of my other work with the Chauncey Bailey Project. And one of them mentioned to me that he would not be surprised if Oakland's homicide unit took over the case. That seems to be the next step. As far as the lawsuit, John can talk about that, but I'm pretty sure that's well on its way.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Bob, thank you.
Mr. BUTLER: Thanks, Farai. Good talking to you always.
CHIDEYA: That was Bob Butler. He's a freelance bay area reporter for KCBS radio and the Chauncey Bailey Project.
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CHIDEYA: Joining me now to continue this conversation is John Burris. He's the attorney representing Oscar Grant III's mother, Wanda Johnson, and Sophia Mesa, the mother of Grant's four-year-old daughter. Thank so much for joining us.
Mr. JOHN BURRIS (Attorney for Oscar Grant III's Family): Good to be with you.
CHIDEYA: So you filed a claim against Bay Area Rapid Transit Police on behalf of Oscar Grant's mother and the mother of his child. So can you summarize the claim, what you're asking for?
Mr. BURRIS: Yes. I filed this claim, which is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit. And what I'm saying in that lawsuit is that he was the victim of excessive force. It's an intentional, wrongful death. I'm seeking claim, money damages in the amount of $25 million. It is our position that the officer without justification fired a bullet into the lower back of Mr. Grant while he was sprawl-eagled face down on the ground. It was unconscionable and never should have happened.
CHIDEYA: Does it help or hurt your claim that so much of this has been recorded in this very post-modern way by people who were just watching from nearby?
Mr. BURRIS: I think it helps. It helps immensely because a video and taping of it is better than the eye because memories fade, and people see things from different perspectives. But the video cameras, all the ones that have been taken all give a clear - not clear, but give certainly an indication, a reflection of what happened.
So from my point of view, the cameras themselves are the best evidence of what happened that night. We do have testimony from other individuals who testified who gave statements that corroborate what's on the tapes. But, you know, over time, memories can fade, and the video tapes never fade.
CHIDEYA: Are you concerned that the officer in the case has not been asked to make a formal statement yet or pressed to make a formal statement by his supervisors? And do you know why he hasn't been questioned?
Mr. BURRIS: Well, I'm concerned, number one. But number two, he resigned yesterday. And he resigned because he didn't want to make a statement. An officer is obligated to make a statement if requested. But if he doesn't make that statement, then he has to resign. So the officer chose to resign instead of giving a statement.
And he did that because he didn't want to waive his 5th Amendment rights. That is, he didn't want to have a statement that he has made that can be used against him in a criminal case. So it was strategic on his part not to give a statement.
It's actually unconscionable on the part of BART Police not to have demanded that he declare that he wasn't going to give a statement at the very outset, as opposed to waiting a week later because I think what happened is, he saw all the video tapes. He saw what people - heard what people had to say, and he basically concluded that he could not come out with a story that would make him free of his acts.
CHIDEYA: The claim specifies that Grant was handled by a Latino officer. Now, do you think that race was a part of this?
Mr. BURRIS: Well, I don't think that race was a factor in terms of the shooting of this - of Mr. Grant. There was racial aspects to me in terms of how they were approached and manhandled at the very outset. And so the initial grabbing and handcuffing, to me, and how they were treated, that was more racially motivated, in a large measure because people used racial slurs.
The N word was directed at one more of them. They told them what they were going to do, and they did it and couched it with racial and derogatory terms. So it's hard to deny that race wasn't on the mindset of the officers involved. I can't say that he shot the person because he was black. But certainly, the initial conduct directed in the manner which they were manhandled, I certainly thought it was racially motivated.
CHIDEYA: So BART authorities have 45 days to respond to the lawsuit. What happens next?
Mr. BURRIS: Well, what happens next is that there's a lot of activity going on. We're pressing the charges we filed against him. I made a request to the district attorney's office for that to occur. There's a lot of public discourse taking place here with various rallies that are occurring. There's a meeting with the BART board this morning. So politically and socially, there's a lot of activity taking place.
From a legal point of view, I'm just continuingly grabbing witnesses. I've had more witnesses come forward in the last couple of days, people who were outraged by this. People who were not even living in this country who were on the train that night have called me and expressed their outrage. So from a legal point of view, that process is going forward.
We hope now that the district attorney's office will, in fact, prosecute and issue a warrant for this person's arrest because if they do not do so immediately, the person is a flight risk. He could, in fact, leave the area, leave the state, leave the country. And there's nothing anyone can do about it until an arrest warrant is issued.
CHIDEYA: Well, thank you so much.
Mr. BURRIS: Thank you. Good to be with you.
CHIDEYA: That was attorney John Burris. He's filed a claim on behalf Oscar Grant's family. Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer early New Years Day. We also reached out to the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority for a response. Representatives were unable to comment on the show, but sent us a written statement by BART police chief Gary Gee.
He wrote, I want to assure Mr. Grant's family and the public that we are taking this investigation very seriously, and we're committed to complete an unbiased and thorough investigation into what happened on the morning of New Year's Day. In addition to our investigation, we are fully cooperating with the Alameda County District Attorney's office, which is conducting a parallel and independent investigation. We are providing all of the evidence of our investigation to the district attorney. As frustrating as it is, I want to stress that we cannot and will not jeopardize this case by discussing details before the investigation is complete. That was Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority police chief Gary Gee.
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