Most middle-class whites have no idea what it feels like to be subjected to police who are routinely suspicious, rude, belligerent, and brutal. – Benjamin Spock
A riot is the language of the unheard – Martin Luther King Jr.
The color of my skin affords me a certain level of privilege. I can take comfort in the fact that unless I put a black bandana over my face while at a protest or try to videotape something that law enforcement believe I am not supposed to be filming I will likely never experience the level of brutality, suspicion, rudeness, and belligerence that communities of color often experience at the hands of police especially in the inner city.It’s not something I wish to be proud of but rather a reality that has been created as a result of over two hundred and fifty years of systemic racism in America.
While we may not like to think we live in a systemically racist country, that’s not really a luxury we should be allowed---We should have to confront that reality time after time until we as a society get the moral fortitude and courage to erase the systemic racism in our society.
The murder of the young black male, Oscar Grant, on a BART platform in Oakland along with the trial and verdict are further examples of systemic racism. The videos clearly showed what happened: murder. Yet, the transit officer, Jonathan Mehserle, who shot Grant, was found guilty not of second-degree murder but instead involuntary manslaughter.
Communities who have come together in solidarity to support Oscar Grant rightfully note that the fact that he was found guilty of anything is a welcome precedent, something to be happy about. Such acceptance of a verdict that clearly does not fit the crime seems like the result of decades and decades of demoralization and marginalization.
The definition of involuntary manslaughter is a crime in which the victim’s death was unintended. Watch the video. Watch Mehserle pull out the gun. The gun’s trigger did not go off accidentally.
Mehserle’s defense was that he meant to pull out his taser and instead pulled out a gun. If Oscar Grant had been a white Honor Roll student, this defense would have been laughable. Obviously, as he was putting his hand on the trigger to pull the gun out he would have wondered why it didn’t feel like a taser and quickly moved his hand over to grab the weapon of choice he intended to use on Grant.
Mehserle did not use this as his defense. Instead, he claimed he had meant to grab his taser and, when he pulled out his taser, it happened to be a gun. Or so the family of Oscar Grant, his friends, and all those who have had loved ones lost in similar circumstances are supposed to believe.
That he claimed he was going to use a taser and grabbed the gun accidentally instead doesn’t let him off the hook even if you suspend logic for a moment and let that absurdity stand. Grant was laying face down on the ground when he went for his taser. Mehserle would have had to feel threatened by Grant to grab it. Since Grant is already subdued, the next possibility is that Mehserle was overcome with malicious intent and wanted to use force on Grant; he wanted to take him down like every other gangbanger he ever took down on the streets of Oakland.
What’s important to note is that when Mehserle was detaining Grant, Oscar Grant was not the Oscar Grant his family knew or the person his friends knew. He was not the person the public has read about in newspapers or heard about in eulogies given by family members. He was a gangbanger, a delinquent, a young black male—a person police officers in this country traditionally exhibit zero tolerance or concern for. In fact, the greater society usually displays a complete disdain for the wider population of young black males especially if they dress like they are “street kids” or part of a gang.
I could recount the list of recent incidents where young black males were instantaneously deemed a threat and paid for being young, male, and black. (Open Salon writer L.M. Fenton already did something like that and I encourage you to read his piece.) Instead, I will ask you to take a moment. Type the words “young” “black” and “male” into Google. Spend around ten minutes seeing what comes up. Ask yourself if there is much use in living in this society if you are a young black male.
I’ll direct your attention to this link that comes up from 2006—“Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn.” Consider the findings reported on, the future these findings indicate young black males might be in for:
- The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.
-Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.
-In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.
When a verdict comes down that is so clearly unjust, how should society respond to the injustice? If it is allowed to respond, should it have to put up with the instantaneous presence of riot police? When they respond, should they be expected to prevent the acts of a small few that take the injustice as opportunity to riot and loot? Should the police be considered partly responsible for escalating the situation into one where riots would foment? Do the jurists and judge have any responsibility for delivering a decision that is disproportionate to the crime?
More directly related to the riots, if the police are committing acts of brutality and failing to properly police a community, should they be held responsible for riots breaking out? Should there be a community organization connected to activist organizations against racism and police brutality to oppose and bring to a halt the rioting and looting activities of a few when such activity takes place? If an organization existed that could police the community during protests and diffuse conflict, would all of this have been different? Or, is this the job of the police? Could the riot police have prevented the rioting and looting from escalating into a situation where a Foot Locker is being pillaged and plundered?
I do not have the answer to many of these questions. If we look at what has transpired in the last 24 hours through the lens of law and order, undoubtedly we must conclude the riot cops had every right to clear the streets and arrest scores of people and get everyone out of the businesses.
However, the judge did make the decision. The jurists did come up with the verdict. The community did organize for justice, a verdict that would accurately designate his action as the conscious murder of Oscar Grant. And, the wider nation did look at the videos as they were passed around on the Internet horrified.
So, when someone guilty of a crime is given a charge that does not fit the crime and crime breaks out as a result of the failure to prosecute a crime properly, who is responsible for the crime and unrest that takes place on the streets? The government or the people?
In this case, it’s pretty clear the demonstrators who really cared for Oscar Grant were not damaging and looting property. Given the history of systemic racism from the top down, it’s hard to get angry at those who rise from the bottom up with anger and outrage at the dark reality that society has not rid itself of a cancer that keeps coming back no matter what people do to rid this nation of the cancer.