In the end, it may be the cell phone that makes the difference in Oscar Grant’s death.
Without it, it’s likely that 22-year old father would have been just another anonymous black man who ended up dead after a run in with law enforcement.
Instead, as Grant lay face down on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit station, a handful of passengers pulled out their cell phones and hit record, capturing the moment that a BART officer shot him in the back, killing him.

The graphic footage made its way around the world, sparking outrage. Two weeks later, Johannes Mehserle, the former BART officer accused of killing Grant, was charged with murder, a first according to The San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper reported that the Alameda Country District Attorney representatives could not remember a previous time when an on-duty officer had been charged in a fatal shooting in the last 20 years.

This Wednesday, some six months after the shooting, a fellow BART officer had to retract his initial testimony that Grant disobeyed police orders when the video evidence clearly contradicted that claim. On Thursday, a judge ordered Mehserle to stand trial for murder.

Racial Tensions with Police

I thought about this recently as I sat in New York City with a friend who was almost numb with anger over the death of Omar J. Edwards, a black off-duty New York City Police officer shot in the back by a white officer who says he mistook Edwards for an armed criminal.

“It just doesn’t stop,” my friend said.

The relationship between police and the black community has long been tense. According to the New York Times, cases of black officers shot by their white colleagues, though rare, date back as far as 1940. But until relatively recently, that tension has simmered just beneath the nation’s consciousness.

When I was a young reporter in Bakersfield, CA some 25 years ago, an African American man with ties to the Bakersfield Police Department was stopped by police officers as he drove down the highway at night. With their guns drawn, they ordered him out of the car and down to the ground until he was able to prove his identity.
The only other African American reporter at the paper and I assured the editor that this was an entirely likely scenario. To give the editor some context, my colleague, a black man, described how he was often stopped by police as he walked home at night.

But this was years before the term “driving while black” had entered the general vocabulary and some of my colleagues didn’t think it plausible that the police would pull over a motorist and start brandishing their guns for no reason.

A few years later, an editor at another paper would tell me how, when he was coming of age, the local police officers would take him home to face his family when his actions bordered on the criminal. Having grown up learning that the police were as likely to harm you as help you, hearing this editor’s experience both enraged and amazed me.

More importantly, it also helped me understand in part why it was so difficult for some people to believe that the police they relied on to protect them could turn on others without provocation.

Rodney King Video

Less than a decade after I left Bakersfield, the world saw police officers assaulting Rodney King, thanks to the technological advances that made video cameras available to the average affluent person.

Since then, other cases have surfaced to receive national attention. Most notably Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant who was reaching for his wallet when four police, who later claimed they thought he was reaching for a gun, fired off 41 rounds, killing him. And, more recently, Sean Bell was shot and killed by New York City police officers in the early morning hours before his wedding.

In both of these cases, the officers involved were acquitted of all charges stemming from the shootings.

It’s likely this fraught history between communities of color and law enforcement played a role in the number of people who pulled out their cell phones in the early hours of New Year’s Day. According to the Oakland Tribune, many said they started recording because they thought the officers were abusing their authority.

For some, the only solace as they watch the case unfolding is that after years of frustration at the lack of police accountability in the deaths of citizens, there is finally a new weapon of choice against police brutality: the cell phone.