Chronicle of a Riot Foretold
As the trial of former transit cop Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant rushes at breakneck speed toward its conclusion, spurred by the insistence of Judge Robert Perry and political imperative, ominous clouds of injustice begin to crowd the political horizon in anticipation of a verdict, which could come as soon as this week. But while it is this injustice that we should most fear, too many are focusing their fear and the fear of others on the possibility of a repeat of last year’s street rebellions should Mehserle be acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge.
What this view neglects is one basic fact, indeed the most basic fact regarding the Oakland rebellions: that it was only as a result of those rebellions of January 2009 and the fear that they might be repeated that Mehserle was even arrested and put on trial in the first place. Those rebellions were, in fact, the basic precondition for this limited form of “justice” to even be possible. Possible, yes, but far from guaranteed. And yet those who opposed the rebellions from the very beginning, denouncing them with delusions of “outside agitators” as irrational and desperate outbursts–in short, as “riots”–are busily trotting out the same discredited lines as always.
Different Trials, Different Verdicts
Of course, the relative brevity of the Mehserle trial should not fool us. While The People v. Johannes Mehserle has only been underway for a few short days, two other trials have been proceeding informally for 18 months now: The People v. The State and The State v. Oscar Grant.
The trial of The People v. The State was initially played out during the three evening rebellions of January 2009, rebellions sparked not by Grant’s murder, but by the patently hypocritical inaction of the state in response and its patent refusal to treat a murder of a Black youth by a white cop in the same way it would treat any other murder. These rebellions forced the state into action, however defensively, giving rise to Mehserle’s arrest, indictment, and now to his trial for murder.
Thus forced involuntarily into charging a cop with murder, the state and all of its allied institutions responded in the best way they could: by shifting gears, in Gramscian terms, from the coercive to the hegemonic, putting Oscar Grant on trial as a not-so-subtle way of justifying his murder. As a result, The State v. Oscar Grant has been played out largely through the demonization of Grant in the media, a demonization which continues today as an essential part of Mehserle’s defense strategy.
At first, it was the media that put Oscar Grant on trial, disrespecting his death and the suffering of his family by bringing up irrelevant questions about his criminal history, while equally irrelevant aspects of Mehserle’s past were displayed front-and-center, in full view for all those in doubt of where public sympathy should lie in a white supremacist society: Mehserle the murderer thus became Mehserle the “gentle giant” who could do no harm. By contrast, those elements of Grant’s history which did not fit the profile of a young thug looking for trouble were systematically erased: Oscar Grant the father, the worker, the friend, the brother and cousin.
More recently, it has been Michael Rains, Mehserle’s attorney and notorious cop lawyer (Rains successfully defended the corrupt “Oakland Riders”) who has assumed this role of smear artist. Knowing full well that racism is squarely on the side of his client, and that all he needs to do is to give the (white) public an excuse to pardon one of their own, Rains has deployed an ingenious strategy of selective leaks in violation of a prevailing gag order.
A Jury of Whose Peers?
But beyond these informal trials in the court of public opinion, if there was a single moment that, more than any other, shoved Mehserle’ brusquely toward an acquittal, it was the jury selection process, and this process, in turn, was heavily conditioned by the trial’s change of venue. Rains is no dummy, and has studied his history: you change the venue and then you stack the jury. After successfully getting the Mehserle trial moved out of Alameda County (but not successfully pushing it as far south as notoriously conservative San Diego), Rains came hard out of the gate, demanding ahead of time that, in open conflict with California law, police officers should be allowed onto the jury.
It has a certain logic to it, doesn’t it? If we are promised a “jury of our peers,” Rains was merely calling the perpetual bluff of the criminal justice system: a (white) cop should be judged by a jury of (white) cops, resulting inevitably in acquittal. But what if the opposite were also the case? What if young Black and Brown men in Oakland were suddenly granted juries of their peers, juries which understood the lose-lose situation of the postindustrial non-economy that is the underside of racist America? It would be acquittals all around and the system would come crashing down upon itself.
But such thought experiments inevitably crash into the hard wall of white supremacy, as it is only white privilege that allows Rains to plausibly demand a jury of peers for Mehserle. Every day, thousands of Black, Brown, and poor enter the justice system without the resources or leverage, in short, without the privilege, to make such demands. While knew he would lose the battle, however, Rains and his client might yet win the war, since by demanding police on the jury they created an opening through which cop culture would infect the jury by other means. In the end, either through utter incompetence on the part of the prosecution or open bias on the part of Judge Perry, a full four members of the final jury have police among their family or friends.
As most of us now know, there is a second aspect to the game, since while Rains was pushing for police or at least their family members to be on the jury, he was pushing equally hard to exclude anyone who might have an unexplained or natural affinity for Oscar Grant’s cause. In other words: Black people. In the final stages of jury selection, Judge Perry dismissed 2 of the original 12 potential Black jurors for identified causes, before Rains summarily dismissed 3 more peremptorily, meaning that no reason was given. Stunningly, given what we have just seen, one of the reasons given for dismissing a potential Black juror was experience with racial profiling. In other words, while jurors with family and friends in the police (and who presumably have some sort of positive feeling toward the police as a result) were admitted, a juror with a single negative experience (of the kind endemic to the Black community) was removed.
In the end, the defense dismissed 3 Blacks and 4 Latinos, but only 1 potential juror who was white, and the prosecution 4 Latinos (2 with strong police ties), 2 asians, and 1 white. This left the final jury makeup as follows: majority female, with 7 whites and 5 Latinos (some question remains as to the ethnicity of one of the latter).
Rains had played his hand impeccably, and if Oakland burns, he will deserve the lion’s share of the credit, but this is credit that he won’t likely be granted: as we all know, the best way to cheat without being caught is to fix the game beforehand, so when the shit hits the fan, your hand doesn’t get covered with it.
Crocodile Tears in Court
Efforts to humanize Mehserle reached a predictable crescendo when he took the stand to defend himself. While the press feigned surprise, an understanding of the long-term defense strategy, i.e. harnessing white supremacy to garner easy sympathy points, makes Mehserle’s testimony look instead like the natural conclusion of a trial whose conclusion was in many ways predetermined.
And this because his testimony was largely a repeat of the press coverage that had immediately followed the murder. Hours were spent on nominally irrelevant aspects of his background, such as the fact that he was voted “most huggable” in high school, and that he was embarrassed by this title at the time. But to insist that such facts are irrelevant is misleading, since they reveal the most basic racist structures that have been operating in this case since day one, the ways in which the media and the white public sought to explain away Grant’s murder despite seeing it before their very eyes. As I wrote more than a year ago in these very same pages: “One side is automatically condemned; the other automatically excused.”
This sickening display continued when Mehserle returned to the stand Friday, claiming that he had not meant to shoot Grant, that it was all a tragic accident, and that as a result, he too was suffering deeply. Then, in a clearly well-practiced gesture, Mehserle broke down weeping on the stand. This might have proven effective on a jury long-primed to feel sympathy for this “most huggable” “gentle giant,” but it was certainly not convincing in the least for Grant’s friends and family sitting in the court, especially since Rains himself had laughed audibly when a friend of Grant’s who witnessed the killing similarly broke down during prior testimony.
Grant’s mother Wanda was so disturbed that she got up and left, and 24 year old Tim Killings could finally take it no longer, standing up to shout: “Maybe you should save those fucking tears, dude!” Killings was promptly arrested under suspicion of contempt and as I write this has only just been released.
Nonprofits Protect the State, Again
A growing and increasingly hysterical chorus has begun to warn of the threats faced by the City of Oakland when the verdict comes down. Perhaps sensing the increased likelihood of an acquittal, local government officials and the Oakland police have kicked into full gear, and their interventions have again appeared on both the coercive and the hegemonic levels.
An anonymous letter purportedly from a San Leandro police officer clearly seeks to stoke the flames of anxiety: warning of police preparations for massive riots, naming the “Black Bloc” as the threat, and urging readers to stay in their homes after the verdict. Such apocalyptic predictions seemed to be supported by both the publicly-announced riot-prevention training undergone by OPD and other agencies and by a message distributed by an emergency medic warning that the police are preparing for a week-long riot in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Hayward and instructing medical responders to prepare for injured civilians. In a nod toward McCarthyite snitch culture, OPD has even established a special “tip line” for the Mehserle verdict, with an audio recording encouraging that citizens report any and all “anarchist” threats in the coming days.
But explicit threats of force are but one side of OPD’s preparations for the day of the verdict. It recently emerged that Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland Police arranged meetings with representatives of various nonprofit organizations and church leaders active in Oakland in an effort to quell any rebellion in the streets before it starts. While it should not surprise us that the city might attempt to do so, what is more surprising is how easily these mediating forces fell for it, especially given the lessons of the past 18 months.
Thus many of the very same church leaders who played an instrumental role in supporting the Oakland community and organizing to demand justice for 18 months took to their congregations Sunday to insist that people remain at home, employing the “power of prayer” instead of their own power in the streets. More worrying still was the response from ostensibly “radical” nonprofits.
While the nonprofit sector played a significant role in demobilizing the rebellions of January 2009, providing, in the words of local group Advance the Struggle, a “buffer” protecting the state, never before had they come out so openly in support of the governing apparatus as would be the case in a June 23rd email from Nicole Lee of the Urban Peace Movement. Astonishingly referring to the Mayor’s office and the City of Oakland as “allies and partners” Lee (and by the looks of it, several prominent Oakland nonprofits) urges nonprofiteers to “inoculate” their bases so that “outside agitators” will not be able to lead them astray as they did in January of 2009. Evidently, “inoculation” means using revolutionary language in an effort to fool the youth, as Lee, somewhat incredibly, evokes the spirit of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and even Huey P. Newton to conceal her collaboration with the state.
There is no mention of the fact that the “outside agitator” claim, one which originated with OPD itself, was widely discredited at the time, and that those deploying it were not even themselves present on the streets. There is no recognition of the utter condescension that such a claim entails, reducing youth of color to passive followers of whatever white anarchist attracts their attention. And of course, there is no suggestion whatsoever of what strategy for demanding justice these nonprofits have to offer their “base” beyond negotiations with the enemy.
Rebellion on the Horizon?
While I don’t want to stoke hysteria about an impending riot, nor do I intent to ignore the very real and very justified rage that will greet an acquittal of Mehserle (and likely even his conviction on manslaughter charges, according to a recent communiqué published by Oakland’s Raider Nation Collective). Toward this end, ominous graffiti has begun to appear near Downtown Oakland reading “L.A. better get it right, or else,” and other considerably less pleasant phrases. Closing arguments are slated to begin any day now, and a rally has already been called to meet at 6pm on the day of the verdict at 14th and Broadway in Downtown Oakland, notably the point of origin of rebellions past.
But while recognizing the possibility of a renewed rebellion in the streets, our efforts should not be focused on preventing it, but rather at refocusing attention on the real violence at work in Grant’s murder and the Mehserle trial. The real violence is that which was suffered by Oscar Grant, his family, and his friends, and this is a violence multiplied a thousandfold across the United States as a whole. It is this violence that permeates the structures of the state, of the judicial system, of jury selection, and of sentencing, and it is this violence that has played out in the Mehserle trial as a dehumanization of Oscar Grant and a sympathetic presentation of Mehserle himself.
This is a violence far more grave than a few broken windows and a burning car or two, and it is a violence far more deeply rooted and insidious to be eliminated by putting a single cop on trial. But when that cop is on trial as a result of mass action in the streets, a transitional victory has been achieved.
Some 18 months ago, I noted the intuitive rationality of those who took to the streets in the following terms: “we have to do something, and in the face of police impunity, this is all we can do.” This rationality stood against all the claims from the nonprofit left that to do so was utterly irrational. Fortunately, we have been proven correct, and whereas before, we came with but a desperate wager, we now come with the experience of a popular victory.
In such a context, any and all calls for unconditional peace without justice, for community solidarity in collaboration with the police and the state, and for “rational” dialogue with an unreservedly irrational force must inevitably confront the single most important lesson of January 2009: that Mehserle was not arrested due to the peaceful and rational requests of the Oakland community, and nothing could be more violent and irrational than rewriting the history that we have made.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER received his Ph.D in political theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Oakland, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu