By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009 9:25 PM
In the still evolving YouTube era, videos don't just spread, they rally a community.
Consider the unrest over the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III.
At about 2:15 a.m. on New Year's Day, Grant, 22, a supermarket worker, was shot by Johannes Mehserle, 27, a transit police officer, at a subway station in Oakland, Calif. Handheld video-enabled cameras and cell phones at the ready, alert witnesses at the scene caught the shooting and the moments that preceded it from different angles. In one of their videos, an onlooker yells at a woman recording the scene: "Put it on YouTube!" Local and national television stations have aired and re-aired excepts from the raw and grainy videos, which have taken on a new life online. They're being commented on, edited and, in one disturbing, stylized, two-minute video, set to music. Uploaded on Jan. 3, that YouTube video has been viewed more than 60,000 times, and drawn nearly 450 comments.
By 7 p.m. Thursday -- more than a week since the incident -- the top-ranked story on YouTube's news page was the Oakland shooting.
One of the most watched YouTube videos is a clip that originally aired on news channel KTVU, the FOX affiliate in the San Francisco Bay Area. Viewed 179,000 times, the four-minute news segmentfeatures two videos taken by onlookers that night.
The first video was taken by 19-year-old Karina Vargas with her camera, a Christmas present. Vargas was on the same train as Grant, who was among several young men pulled from the train by officers for BART, short for the Bay Area Rapid Transit. A fight had been reported. As Vargas captures on video, three of the young men were handcuffed. Grant, who was not armed, was not. "They're all being cooperative. They're all telling the cops, 'Okay, okay, okay,' " Vargas said in an interview with KTVU. At one point in Vargas' video, you see Grant put his hands up. Then a few moments later, officers standing over him, Vargas heard a shot.
The second video was taken with a cell phone camera. It offers a more direct view of the shooting, and the witness who recorded it declined to be identified. In that video, you also see Grant put his hands up and watch as two officers move him from a seated position to lying down on the floor, his face to the ground. You can see there was a bit of struggle before Mehserle, a two-year member of the transit force, drew his gun and fired.
A single bullet went through Grant's back, hit the floor then ricocheted through his lungs. He died hours later, leaving behind a four-year-old daughter.
Though BART officials have told the San Francisco Chronicle that the videos are inconclusive -- Mehserle may have meant to reach for his Taser and not for his gun -- online viewers have mostly made up their mind. Grant is dead. Mehserle killed him. And Oakland residents who've seen the videos online and on television took to the streets Thursday, in a peaceful afternoon rally turned violent by nighttime.
"Watch the videos yourself from those different angles. It's clear what happened that night," said Zennie Abraham, who runs an online marketing company and has lived in Oakland since 1974. In a phone interview early Thursday afternoon, he likened what happened to Grant to Rodney King back in the early 1990s. "Except, with the rise of YouTube and with so many people carrying cameras around wherever they go, we're all each other's witnesses now."
Abraham has recorded four videos on his YouTube channel about the Oakland shooting. In a nearly three-minute videouploaded on Jan. 6 and seen more than 9,500 times, he said: "I encourage more people to carry video cameras because that way you can really chronicle what's happening. In the old days, something like this would have occurred, a police report would have been written that didn't reflect what actually happened and actual justice would not have been done. And now, I think, will be different."
Mehserle, the transit officer, resigned Thursday, as a memorial service was being held for Grant.
Grant's family has filed a $25 million lawsuit against BART. The family's lawyer is John Burris, who served as King's co-counsel in King's civil case against the Los Angeles Police Department.