Saturday, January 03, 2009

BART Police cover-up in shooting death? Looks like it, so far

The first high-profile case of police brutality in 2009 is about to explode.

In Oakland, CA, in the early morning hours on January 1, a donnybrook broke out aboard a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train as it was approaching the Fruitvale station. BART police officers met the train as it arrived and detained several participants, most of whom were bound with plastic pull-tie handcuffs. Among those detained but not bound was 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was killed when a BART cop's weapon discharged.

What happened? BART spokesmouths called it a "tragedy," but said it was most likely an accident. Well, what about the surveillance video from the cameras at the Fruitvale station? Uhhh, there isn't any videotape, BART said. There are some cameras hooked up to recorders, and the others are just monitored. Then, the next day, a BART rep said there was some video of the incident, but it didn't reveal anything about what happened with the shooting of Grant. Needless to say, BART's official stories don't pass the smell test.

Fortunately, there IS video of most of the incident. It was taken by Karina Vargas, a young woman returning to the East Bay on the same train from a San Francisco New Year's Day fireworks show. She had just gotten a new Fuji camera as a Christmas gift, and when things started happening, she put it on video mode and start recording. Here's a link to her video and raw footage of her interview on KPIX-TV, most of it unaired on the nightly newscast.

Vargas, 19, says that she saw with her own eyes that Grant was face down with his hands behind his back, calmly cooperating with police. She also said that she resisted attempts by the police to confiscate her camera. Vargas laughed at the idea that she could sell the video, saying "A boy lost his life. I'm not going to ask for money for that." John Burris, a high-profile attorney who is to the Bay Area what Johnnie Cochran and Mark Geragos are to Los Angeles, is representing the family of Oscar Grant.

It is always my first instinct to give police the benefit of the doubt when they are accused of brutality, and especially when there is video of a repeat offender resisting arrest (remember that the three passengers in Rodney King's car did not resist, and were not beaten). This, however is different -- at least that's the way it appears now.

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