LA LAW: On November 5, former Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle was handed a two-year sentence for killing Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old African-American man who was shot in the back as he lay, unarmed, on a train platform on New Year’s Day 2009. Mehserle was convicted in July of involuntary manslaughter—the lightest verdict short of an acquittal—and the paltry sentence poured salt in an open wound for Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, who cried, “He got nothing!” as she left the courtroom.
The hearing marked the end of a legal chapter that Colorlines magazine described as a “roller coaster ride.” On the one hand, that a white police officer was found guilty for the killing of an unarmed black man was historic for Los Angeles, where the trial took place. On the other, the verdict was undermined by the minimum sentence, which was almost exactly the same as the one NFL quarterback Michael Vick received for running a dogfighting ring. In addition to dismissing a “gun enhancement” charge that carried up to ten years, Judge Robert Perry gave Mehserle credit for time served, meaning he could be free by next summer.
Oakland activist Jack Bryson, whose sons were with Grant that night, says he is “stunned” by the sentence. “When a black or brown man commits murder, he gets the maximum. He should have been treated like anybody else.” The Justice Department has said it will conduct an independent review, but Bryson says the feds haven’t contacted anyone. “I hope they will.” LILIANA SEGURA
A NATIONAL CATASTROPHE: A new study from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition representing some of the country’s largest urban public school systems, exposes an achievement gap much wider than expected for young black male students in America, calling it a “national catastrophe.”
The study, “A Call for Change,” shows that the inequalities start early: infant mortality rates are much higher for blacks than for whites, and one out of three black children lived in poverty in 2007, compared with one out of ten white children. Once in school, only 12 percent of fourth-grade black male students performed at or above proficiency levels in reading, compared with 38 percent of white males; and only 12 percent of eighth-grade black males performed at or above proficiency levels in math, compared with 44 percent of their white peers. Black males make up only 5 percent of the college student population, and the unemployment rate for black men is much higher than for white men.
“Black males are caught in a vicious circle,” says Doug Harris, an education economist at the University of Wisconsin. “Some break out of it, through their own determination or their families or some dedicated teachers. But those cases are sadly rare.” And while income inequality explains some of the achievement gap, Harris points out, “a very large gap remains.”
The report urges the White House to convene a conference on the matter and encourages Congress to establish financial aid programs to close the achievement gap in public schools. KATE MURPHY
OK LAW NOT OK: When State Question 755 (SQ755) passed with the support of 70 percent of Oklahoma voters on November 2, it seemed a new era of intolerance for Muslims had begun. The “Sharia ballot” stipulated that international and Sharia law would become verboten in the state’s courts, emphasizing that state and federal law should be the only sources of judicial authority.
The initiative is largely fearmongering; proponents have been unable to find a single successful implementation of “stealth Sharia” in US courts. But it could result in discrimination against Oklahoma’s estimated 30,000 Muslims. Within two days of the vote, Muneer Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Oklahoma, filed a lawsuit challenging the measure’s constitutionality. Awad argues that the law would violate the First Amendment, which prohibits the state from “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” According to the organization, the measure would also infringe on the constitutional rights of Muslim Oklahomans to choose Islamic marriage contracts, be buried according to religious preference and implement Islamic wills.
Just four days later, District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange placed a temporary restraining order on the implementation of the law, leaving SQ755 in limbo until at least the end of November, when a preliminary hearing will take place. Miles-LaGrange could extend the suspension beyond that date, until a final decision is made on Awad’s case.
“This turns the Constitution of Oklahoma into a vehicle for condemning [Muslims’] faith and for singling out the traditions of Islam for special restrictions, as though they are especially mysterious or dangerous,” said CAIR’s Gadeir Abbas JENNIFER O’MAHONY
NBC’S DOUBLE STANDARDS: Keith Olbermann was suspended for only a few days by NBC after the network learned that the popular MSNBC host had made campaign contributions to three Democratic candidates (Raul Grijalva, Gabrielle Giffords and Jack Conway). The suspension stirred an outcry from the left; more than 300,000 activists signed a Progressive Change Campaign Committee petition demanding that Olbermann be restored to his position.
While Olbermann is back in the game, the controversy surrounding the suspension won’t die, thanks to the work of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and Senator Bernie Sanders. FAIR focused immediately on the question of why it was appropriate to suspend Olbermann when NBC’s parent company, GE, made more than $2 million in contributions in the 2010 election cycle and Comcast, the cable company that’s trying to buy NBC, has recently increased its political giving, especially to lawmakers who support the proposed merger.
Sanders picked up on the theme, noting that if the merger goes through, “The new head of that company would be Stephen B. Burke, Comcast’s chief operating officer and a ‘Bush Ranger’ who raised at least $200,000 for the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush.” Promising to do everything in his power to stop the merger, Sanders said, “There already is far too much media concentration in this country. We need more diversity. We need more local ownership. We need more viewpoints. We do not need another media giant run by a Republican supporter of George W. Bush. That is the lesson we should learn from the Keith Olbermann suspension.” JOHN NICHOLS