In 1968, Amory Bradford penned a volume entitled Oakland’s Not For Burning, documenting the tinderbox that the city had become, and the 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.”
While some remained to hear additional speakers, including hyphy hip-hopper Mistah FAB and the recently-founded Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), several hundred set out on a militant and rapidly-moving march north on International Boulevard. The police response was initially hands-off, despite the tenor of the chants: “No Justice, No Peace: Fuck the Police,” and “La Migra, La Policia: La Misma Porqueria.” If those in the passing cars and stuck in traffic were of any indication, the local population knew exactly what was going on, why we were protesting, and were largely sympathetic.
As the march wound around Lake Merritt, it turned sharply to the left, a shortcut to BART headquarters. This seems to have thrown off the police, who were clearly unprepared for what came next. A single police car, parked sideways at 8th and Madison to prevent access to the BART headquarters, became the target of the crowd’s increasing fury. Sensing the tone of the crowd, a cop reached in and grabbed her helmet before scurrying away. Within moments, the police car was destroyed and nearly flipped over, and a nearby dumpster was burning.
A few seconds later, the air was thick with teargas. Evidently, seeing their own property destroyed was too much for the police to stomach. (Note: there is no truth to the CNN report that tear gas was deployed to protect a surrounded officer). I get a noseful of teargas, and a protestor near me is shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet, and needs to be helped off, as the crowd quickly sprints north toward downtown. Passing through Chinatown, dumpsters full of fresh produce are emptied into the street to slow the march of a line of riot police. When the crowd reaches Broadway, there is momentary confusion, with some continuing straight to Old Oakland, some pushing left toward Jack London Square, and others urging a move rightward toward the city center.
The police took advantage of this momentary indecision, with a full line charge that send many of the furious demonstrators sprinting and left many arrested. When the crowd regrouped, it was promptly encircled at 14th and Broadway, and a standoff ensued. Either by design or by a predictable quirk of the police organization, nearly every riot cop in the street was white, some sneering defiantly. And if the crowd of demonstrators was largely multiethnic, it was clear by this point that the functional vanguard was composed largely of the young, black teenagers most acutely aware of their relationship to the police. There were chants of “We are all Oscar Grant!” and several protestors lay in the middle of the street with their hands behind their backs, mimicking the position in which Grant was executed.
Some small fires were set, and the police moved in again, pushing the crowd down 14th toward Lake Merritt. The spearhead of the demonstrators rushed forward to shouts of “We the police today!” smashing and torching vehicles, and while this was done out of anger it was far from irrational, as the press will certainly present it. Rather, it was the result of a very clear line of reasoning that goes something like this: we have to do something, and in the face of police impunity, this is all we can do. Nothing would be more irrational than a blind faith that the police will do the right thing, given all the historical evidence to the contrary. While the press is doing its best to find bystanders to decry the “vandalism” involved, it couldn’t ignore the testimony Oakland Post reporter Ken Epstein, who was writing an article on the killing when he looked out his office window to see his Honda CRV in flames: “I’m sorry my car was burned,” Epstein admitted, “but the issue is very upsetting.”
The crisp wintry air swirled and the lights twinkled along the surface of Lake Merritt as demonstrators demolished a local McDonalds, at which point a line had clearly been crossed: a police armored personnel carrier came tearing down the street at 45 miles per hour, firing rubber bullets and sending the crowd scattering. The scene was surreal, with padded riot cops leaping off the vehicle in an effort to win an impossible footrace with younger and fitter demonstrators.
Dellums Steps In, Steps Out
From the early moments of the demonstration, the position of the mayor, Ron Dellums, was at issue. Here was a mayor with a great deal of popular respect, with longstanding civil rights credentials, but who had done little to slow the pace of police killing, among the other ongoing ills plaguing postindustrial Oakland. With tear gas swirling and the APCs circling, the mayor decided to make his appearance at around 9pm, walking the few blocks from City Hall down to 14th and Jackson to address the angry crowd himself. Several times he attempted to scurry away under hard questions that he could not answer, with the standard responses: we should all take it down a notch; there will be an investigation.
I don’t remember what it was exactly that I yelled at the mayor, but it certainly got to him. As he was leaving the crowd, he turned and walked directly up to me, putting his face a mere inches from my own.
Dellums: What I want people to do now is calm down. I’ve told the police to stand down, and I hope you all can do the same. Both sides need to be peaceful right now so we can find out exactly what happened.
Me: But we know what happened! We’ve all seen the video: A cop pulled his gun and shot an unarmed black man in the back. And you know there are reasons that certain people have guns pulled on them and others don’t.
Dellums: There are two processes currently underway…
Me: The process is if I shoot someone, I’m arrested. But if a cop shoots someone, he gets put on paid administrative leave until everyone forgets about it.
Dellums: I’m asking both sides to be peaceful…
Me: Both sides? I haven’t killed anybody, this crowd hasn’t killed anybody. The police have killed somebody, and you’re in charge of the police! Who runs this city? When will the prisoners be released?
Dellums then returned to City Hall, surveying the damage. But as he entered, the angry crowd booed thunderously. And despite his claim that the police had been ordered to stand down, clashes broke out immediately on the same block, more fires broke out, and more teargas was deployed. The mayor’s intervention could do little to calm Oakland’s frazzled nerves. His claim that the people have lost faith in the police rings empty for people who never had such faith in the first place, people who have seen vicious police murder after police murder without so much as an indictment.
The demonstrators continued to express their pent-up rage, engaging in running battles until nearly 11pm, when a mass arrest seems to have quelled the resistance for the moment. All in all, official numbers show 105 arrests (including 21 juveniles), more than 80 of which occurred after Dellums claims to have told OPD to stand down. Who knows if his promise of a speedy release means anything at all. Support and solidarity demonstrations are scheduled this week for the prisoners’ arraignments, and with another mass mobilization scheduled for next Wednesday, this is far from over.
Intention as Privilege
As I have said, and at the risk of controversy I will repeat: it doesn’t matter if Mehserle meant to pull the trigger. He had already assumed the role of sole arbiter over the life or death of Oscar Grant. He had already decided that Grant, by virtue of his skin color and appearance, was worth less than other citizens. And rather than acquitting the officer, all of the psychological analyses and possible explanations of the shooting that have been trotted-out in the press, and all the discussion of the irrelevant elements of Grant’s criminal history, have only proven this fundamental point.
If a young black or Latino male pulls a gun and someone winds up dead, intention is never the issue, and first-degree murder charges are on the agenda, as well as likely murder charges for anyone of the wrong color standing nearby. If we reverse the current situation, and the gun is in Oscar Grant’s hand, then racist voices would be squealing for the death penalty regardless of intention. And yet when it’s a cop pulling the trigger, all the media and public opinion resources are deployed to justify, understand, and empathize with this unconscionable act. One side is automatically condemned; the other automatically excused.
For now, the fires are out. But despite the soothing words of Barack Obama and Ron Dellums, there is no lack of fuel and no lack of spark in Oakland.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He lives in Oakland, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.