JUSTICE DENIED: “My son was murdered!” cried Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, upon hearing that the man who killed him, former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle, had been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Anyone who saw the footage of her 22-year-old son’s death, recorded with multiple cellphones in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, would be hard-pressed to disagree. The video captured a handcuffed Grant lying facedown on a train platform, showing no sign of struggle, as he was shot in the back. He died the next morning.
Oakland residents know all too well what usually happens when an unarmed black man is shot by a white cop: nothing. Mehserle’s criminal trial—which was moved to Los Angeles because of “massive” local coverage—was in many ways remarkable for even occurring. The last time an officer was found guilty of murder or manslaughter in LA County was in 1983, in the case of a deputy who shot a pregnant woman during an illegal home raid, killing her fetus. Despite his anger and disappointment over the outcome—the most lenient verdict short of an acquittal—attorney John Burris, who represents Grant’s family, called the conviction a “small victory.”
For many, this is cold comfort. The verdict sparked violence in the streets—stoked by a breathless media and highly visible “mock riot exercises” by Oakland police in the preceding weeks. But there’s still an important lesson to draw from the case. “Mehserle was arrested, charged, given a high bail and ultimately convicted because of community activism,” one Oakland activist said. “The verdict is not justice for Oscar Grant, but we’re still moving in the right direction.” LILIANA SEGURA
FAILING THE REFORM TEST: The final fight over Wall Street reform was a partisan wrangle, with most Democrats backing a modest set of regulatory changes while most Republicans opposed them. But just as a handful of GOP senators broke with their caucus to provide the votes needed to pass the measure, several Democratic critics refused to go along with President Obama, who has argued that the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is muscular enough to prevent another financial crisis. In the House, Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, a passionate foe of bank bailouts who once urged homeowners to refuse to leave houses in foreclosure, objected that the bill “really doesn’t do anything to address the continuing mortgage foreclosure hemorrhage.” Far from cracking down on Wall Street, Kaptur griped, the measure tends to “support the very same big banks [that caused the crisis] and not the American people and the communities in which we live, in the Main Street that all of us are sworn to represent.”
In the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who opposed bank deregulation in the 1990s, was equally critical. Noting that the final version of the bill did not renew the basic regulatory structure that was eliminated when Congress overturned the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act and that it did not control against the threats posed by “too big to fail” banks, Feingold said his “test for the financial regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis. The conference committee’s proposal fails that test.” Feingold explained that while the bill did some good, “the lack of strong reforms is clear confirmation that Wall Street lobbyists and their allies in Washington continue to wield significant influence on the process.” JOHN NICHOLS
AN AMERICAN SPLENDOR: Apart from fractious visits to Late Night With David Letterman in the late ’80s, Harvey Pekar was scarcely known beyond comics fans of a certain intense type. The award-winning film American Splendor (2003) changed that, bringing Pekar—autodidact, mensch and comic art giant—the public eminence he long deserved. He died on July 12, in Cleveland, home for all seventy years of his life.
The bright, joke-telling son of lower-middle-class, left-leaning Jewish parents, Pekar dropped out of college and eventually took a job at a Veterans Administration hospital, where he worked as a file clerk for thirty-six years. Early on, he met Robert Crumb, fresh to Cleveland and greeting card art. As two introspective characters, they grew together, fast friends and allies. Crumb left town; Pekar stayed. A decade later, Pekar began American Splendor, inspired by Crumb’s comic genius as well as his own novel-reading and gift for listening, Studs Terkel–style. His specialty was the quotidian, the daily life of ordinary people.
He produced many books, never actually drawing but always scripting carefully for artists. These covered a wide span of subjects, but the real subject was always, more or less, Harvey Pekar himself. Along with Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, Alison Bechdel and a very few others, he will be remembered as changing the way people around the world look at comics. PAUL BUHLE