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Oakland's Not for Burning?
I n 1968, Amory Bradford penned a volume entitled Oakland's Not For Burning, documenting the tinderbox that the city had become, and then lamenting the inevitability with which it would explode. But the assertion contained in the book's title was hardly credible, coming as it was from a Yale-educated former Wall Street lawyer and New York Times general manager whose only business in Oakland came via the U.S. Commerce Department. Some forty years later, in the early hours of this year of ostensible hope, the reality of the persistence of racism in Oakland became devastatingly clear, sparking a powerful response the likes of which this city hasn't seen in years. But luckily, the condescending voices of moderation, like that of Bradford a generation prior, seem have little traction with those who have seen enough police murder.
A New Year's Execution
After responding to reports of "a fight" on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train, BART police detained the train at the Fruitvale station, forcibly removing several young men from the train as dozens of bystanders watched. Several of the men, all young and mostly black, were lined up, seated, along the platform. Some were cuffed, Oscar Grant was not. As he was attempting to defuse the situation, BART police decided to detain him, placing him face-down on the platform, with one officer kneeling near his neck, and another straddling his legs. For some still unexplained reason, one officer, now identified as Johannes Mehserle stood up, pulled his gun, and fired a shot directly into Oscar Grant's back.
The bullet went through Grant's back, ricocheting off the platform and puncturing his lung. There are gasps from the bystanders and shock on the face of the other officers, who clearly didn't expect the shot to be fired. Grant, who was begging not to be Tasered at the time of the shot, clearly didn't expect it either. But this surprise notwithstanding, the decision was then made to cuff the young man as he lay dying. As an added precaution, BART police then sought immediately to confiscate all videophones held by the train passengers, in an effort to cover up the murder. Luckily for everyone but the BART P.D. and Mehserle, several videos managed to make it into the public domain, where they went viral and were viewed on Youtube hundreds of thousands of times in the following days. In a rare show of journalistic integrity, local Fox affiliate KTVU aired one of the videos in its entirety.
The standard protocol—-deny, distort, cover-up—-had clearly been disrupted, and BART spokesman Linton Johnson even went so far as to criticize the leaking of the video, arguing that rather than clarifying events, public access to the video would "taint" the investigation. BART was on a back foot, and popular anger was on the offensive.
A Corporate Police Force
BART Police are a notoriously problematic organization, existing in a gray area between public and private, funded by taxpayers but operating under a corporate structure which lacks all accountability and oversight. According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian:
The structure of the BART police force is a recipe for disaster. BART's general manager (who is not an elected official and has no expertise in law enforcement) hires the BART police chief... There is no police commission, no police review board, not even a committee of the elected BART board designated to handle complaints against and issues with the BART police... There is, in other words, no civilian oversight.
And this "disaster" has been more than merely hypothetical: in 1992, a BART cop shot unarmed Jerrold Hall in the back of the head with a shotgun as he walked away, after firing a warning shot. In 2001, BART police shot a mentally ill man who was unarmed and naked. And according to Tim Redmond, writing in the same paper, "BART made a monumental effort to cover [the Hall slaying] up," and in the end, "Nothing happened... BART called the shooting justified." As of yesterday, BART hadn't yet interviewed the officer, Johannes Mehserle, who insisted on invoking Fifth Amendment rights not to speak. And just when they claim to have compelled him to do so, he abruptly resigned, thereby ending any internal affairs investigation that may have taken place. There still remains, according to BART, a criminal investigation, but if the past is any indicator, this won't get far.
But let's not fool ourselves. Even publicly-run organizations like the Oakland Police Department, which has all the ties in the world to elected power, operates with an informal shoot-to-kill policy for black teenagers. This was as clear in the 2007 murder of Gary King as it is with Oscar Grant today. And since the district attorney responsible for bringing charges against the police works closely with these same police on a daily basis and in a shared enterprise of delivering convictions, we should not be surprised that not a single police murder in recent years has even seen disciplinary action. "No one we talked with," writes the Chronicle, "from the district attorney's office to lawyers who work either side of police shootings - could remember a case in the last 20 years in which an on-duty officer had been charged in a fatal shooting in Alameda County."
Does It Matter What Really Happened?
We have all seen the video, and rumors are swirling about how to interpret its contents. The officer clearly fires a fatal shot into Oscar Grant's back while the latter is face-down on the floor. A flurry of "experts" have intervened to give their analysis. While such expert testimony usually functions to justify the police, even among these experts some are shocked and disgusted by what they see. One expert, after concluding that the gun had accidentally gone off, watched video from another angle, after which he changed his conclusion: "Looking at it, I hate to say this, it looks like an execution to me."
Others are insisting that Mehserle meant to pull out his (less fatal) Taser, but this theory has since been discredited. Firstly, a Sig-Sauer handgun weighs three times what a Taser weighs, and the shape is completely distinct, and another expert noticed in the tape that the officer had previously withdrawn his Taser, located for safety reasons on the other side of his belt. In other words, he knew he was going for the gun. Hence the claim of accidental discharge, but this too raises a serious question of plausibility: when Mehserle drew his gun, Grant couldn't see it, and so there could be no claim that it was meant to threaten the victim into passivity. In the end, if Mehserle is ever forced to give a statement, he will likely turn to the tried-and-true excuse that he "suspected" Grant had a gun in his pants.
But none of this matters, all the debate of the officer's "intention" only serves to reinforce the fact that, while white cops are allowed to have intention, this is a quantity denied to their victims. This fact of racist double-standards is not lost on those who, realizing that there will be no "justice" in this case, have taken to the streets to demonstrate their rage at the unprovoked execution.
"I'm Feeling Pretty Violent Right About Now"
While friends and family were gathered for Grant's funeral, a number of organizations called a demonstration where he was killed, at Fruitvale BART station. Circulating by internet and Facebook, the call reached many thousands, and in the end some 500-600 protestors and mourners came together to make speeches and lament this murder. At a makeshift memorial behind the BART station, candles are burning, and hand-written messages appear: "Oscar, we watched you grow up from a lil' boy down the street into a man," and "O., RIP, peaceful journey, God only pick da best."
As an indication of the contrasting sentiments that divided the crowd, where someone had scribbled "Fuck the police," another had covered the expletive with another message: "Forgive." But forgiveness wasn't on the minds of many. Several of the more radical protestors climbed onto the BART turnstiles, displaying a red, black, and green flag. One shouted:
I've got the mentality of my parents who were Black Panthers, I'm tired of talking, I'm thinking like L.A. in 1992. Y'all can have your megaphone speeches, I been through that, I'm black, I don't need more speeches. Let's take a stand today, because tomorrow ain't promised!
While some on the mic attempted to soothe the crowd, insisting that burning up the city was "too easy" and "useless," the message didn't seem to resonate much with the crowd. And why should it? We were standing in the middle of "Fruitvale Village," a corporate paradise in the middle of a historically Latino district, which clearly doesn't belong to the local residents. It was clear where the momentum was going, as the biggest cheers went up for the more radical voices who seized the mic: "I'm feelin pretty violent right now," one insisted, "I'm on some Malcolm X shit: by any means necessary. If I don't see some action, I'ma cause a ruckus myself."