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The Crime of Poverty - Traveling While Poor

Updated on August 15, 2011

Dire Circumstances

August 14, 2011

It doesn't take much.

Don't pay your fare, look fearsome or homeless, have a bottle (or anything else) in your hand, try to escape arrest. One "wrong" move and you could find yourself dead.

With the introduction of the TASER (Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle) by Jack Cover in 1975 there was an implied promise that police would have another tool in their arsenal that could be used to incapacitate a suspect without killing or injuring them.

This is all well and good, but without proper training a TASER can be deadly as any firearm and as you'll see from the following examples just because an officer has a TASER does not mean he or she will use it.

Lack of Training
Many police departments offer no training to their staff on how to effectively deal with drunk or mentally disturbed individuals. This is unfortunate; people with impaired mental faculties do not make the best decisions and one bad decision is all it takes to get yourself shot.

The result is one that often occurs when one party has an overwhelming advantage over the other party; death or permanent disability.

B.A.R.T. Logo
B.A.R.T. Logo | Source

Bay Area Rapid Transit

San Francisco has one of the best mass transportation systems in the United States; the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.

BART serves San Francisco and outlying areas with stations in four counties and a ridership of almost 350,000 passengers a weekday.

It is such a large system that it has it's own cellular phone towers and its own police force.

Oscar Grant III and daughter
Oscar Grant III and daughter | Source

Oscar Grant III

On January 1, 2009 BART police responded to a report of a fight on a commuter car returning to the East Bay from the Embarcadero. Reports state that the officers arriving at the scene arrested and detained a number of riders after having confirmed their identities as participants in the fight from the train's operator.

Oscar Grant III was one of those detained along with another man who remains unidentified. Both were being handcuffed; initially there was no struggle. This angered other riders, some of whom were recording the incident with their cellular phone cameras. (see video below)

Grant apparently resisted arrest by refusing to keep bare his hands and arms to arresting officers. This prevented officers from handcuffing him. During the struggle to free his hands officer Johannes Mehserle stood up, pulled his firearm and fired a single shot into Oscar Grant's back.

At the time of the shooting Mehserle had been issued a TASER on only two or three preceding shifts and was still somewhat unfamiliar with the weapon. One witness claims to have heard officer Mehserle say "Get back, I'm gonna taze him."

The .40 caliber passed through Grants back, ricocheted off of the cement beneath and passed through Grant's lung on the return trip. Grant was heard to say "You shot me! I got a four-year-old daughter!"

Immediately after the shooting Johannes Mehserle can be seen raising his hands to his face in apparent disbelief. It is not known if officer Mehserle mistook his handgun for a TASER pistol or handcuffs, but the officer appeared to be shocked by his own actions.

Grant died seven hours later at Oakland's Highland hospital.

During the police call, fellow riders on the BART car exited and began shouting at the responding police over the attempted arrests. Though there were not that many people (ten to twenty at most) the acoustics of the station made the scene chaotic and noisy. Arriving officers can be seen to be both apprehensive and nervous. Also, two handguns had been confiscated from other riders earlier in the day.

Multiple camera phones were in use during the incident. The video below is from one of them.

Warning: The scenes depicted in the video below may be disturbing. The shooting is shown in the last minute of the video.

Warning: Distubring Video

Aftermath of Oscar Grant Shooting

Johannes Mehserle was put on trial for involuntary manslaughter and was found guilty. On November 5, 2010 he was sentenced to a two year prison term rather than the eleven year term prosecutors were seeking. The sentence took into account time served while awaiting trial.

Mehserle was released on June 13, 2011 after about a year of confinement. He is currently on parole.

Protests were launched shortly after Johannes Mehserle's verdict was read. These protests resulting in rioting and the arrest of seventy-six people in Oakland.

There have been additional protests since his "early" release.

The cost to incarcerate Johannes Mehserle was roughly $71,000 for the year he was in prison. His trial cost the state approximately $144,000. Oscar Grant's family has filed a fifty million ($50,000,000.00) dollar lawsuit.

The count of ruined lives is at least two at one dead and one ruined career.

All of this the result of an officer's actions, perhaps due to insufficient training, and a bullet that cost less than a dollar.

Charles Blair Hill
Charles Blair Hill | Source

Charles Blair Hill

On July 3, 2011 BART officers responded to the report of a man drinking at the Civic Center station in San Francisco.

Within a minute of their arrival, one of the the two BART officers responding to the call had shot the man three times in the chest. One of the bullets passed through Hill's heart killing him.

The officers reported that the man, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and Army fatigue pants, had threatened the officers with a bottle and knife. The man was identified eight days later as Charles Blair Hill, apparently homeless and drunk at the time.

This less than a month after Johannes Mehserle's release from prison.

On July 11, 2011 a group of two hundred protestors gathered at Civic Center station to protest against BART police and the shooting. The protest was organized electronically, via Facebook and text messages.

The BART police got word of the protest by the same means and had officers in force at the Civic Center station to try to control the protest. This protest disrupted traffic patterns for BART as it came during the evening rush where commuters are attempting to return to their homes.

On August 4, 2011 another protest was planned. Once again BART officials learned of the planned protest in advance. To prevent a repeat of the disruption of July 11, BART officials cut power to the cellular transmission towers in four stations near Civic Center station between four and seven o'clock in the evening.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said of the move by BART officials that "BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with Hosni Mubarak."

Video Release
The video clip released by BART can be seen immediately below. Note that it does not show Charles Blair Hill, but does show the responding officers, the start of the shooting incident and the total time the entire episode took place.

Analysis of the video shows that the firing officer began shooting less than a minute after spotting Charles Hill. It also shows that an object was thrown in the officer's direction at about the same time the officer fired.

It is hard to determine what the object was, but BART officials claim it was a knife and the general size and shape of the object is consistent with a folding four inch bladed knife.

Issues with the Response

The firing officer's face is obscured as is his partners. BART has not released the names of the officers invovled in the shooting. They are both back on duty after having been put on a three day administrative leave.

If the object thrown was indeed a knife it's was thrown and the first shot by the officer was fired nearly simultaneous. The object thrown missed the officer by a wide margin, bounced off of one of the cars, and is seen spinning on the floor behind the officer. A second shot can be seen being fired almost immediately after.

On arrival the firing officer does not initially see Hill; he is looking in a different direction. Within three seconds of spotting Hill the officer has fired his first shot. The second shot is fired within two seconds of the first shot being fired.

The entire incident, between the time the officer spots Hill and shoots him dead takes no more than thirty seconds. This hardly seems time to properly confront the offender and attempt to defuse the situation.

Worse, there were multiple passengers disembarking from the transit cars at the time of the shooting, many within a few feet of the responding officer. Any one of them could have been killed or wounded by ricocheting gunfire.

There is no way from the video to determine how far away Hill was from the officers; Hill himself is never seen in the video.

The two officers stated that Hill had a second knife and a broken vodka bottle. None of these items have been displayed to the public or press.

Finally, one of the responding officers had a TASER; it was not used.

Ire and Fear

With the "early" release of Mehserle followed less than a month later by another deadly shooting, BART officials and police officers are facing increasing anger and fear from poorer riders on the system.

Naturally, that fear is founded in the possibility of one of them being on the wrong end of a BART police-person's weapon.

Ongoing Protests

On July 11, 2011 about two hundred people showed up at the Civic Center station disrupting the evening commute. BART officers and dog squads were in attendance.

On August 11, 2011 an attempt was made to stage another protest at the Civic Center station. BART officials shut down cellular service there and at three other stations. The ACLU and EFF both issued statements of protest against these acts curbing the freedom of speech and assembly.

August 15, 2011 A group known as Anonymous published the names of 2,000 employees of the BART system on a BART promotional site. They also attempted to hack the Fullerton California Police site. Anonymous apologized to fellow citizens for publishing the data, but suggested that anger be directed at BART since the data, Anonymous claimed, was easy enough for an eight year old with a computer to access.

How To Avoid Being Shot by the Police

There are a number of things you can do to avoid being shot by the police:

  • Avoid the BART system altogether
  • Shower and wear clean serviceable clothes
  • If male do not sport more than a three day old growth of beard
  • Don't drink and go out in public
  • Don't brandish anything at the police; not even your empty hands
  • Do what the police tell you even if it seems unreasonable
  • Don't "trash talk" the police
  • Try not to be black or Hispanic
  • Try not to be white and grungy
  • Try not to be mentally impared


The author was not compensated in any way, either monetarily, with discounts, or freebies by any of the companies mentioned.

Though the author does make a small profit for the word count of this article none of that comes directly from the manufacturers mentioned. The author also stands to make a small profit from advertising attached to this article.

The author has no control over either the advertising or the contents of those ads.


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