I was out in Oakland, CA. this past weekend for a friend’s birthday. Naturally, I visited Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley–my old stomping grounds–while I was there. Things have changed there while remaining the same. The area is certainly much more ethnically diverse. Gentrification has slithered in, but its presence is quite minimal when compared to other sections of Berkeley, Oakland or San Francisco.
Peoples Park looks better than it has in years, with its native plant life dominating the east and west ends of that small piece of turf where so many battles have been fought. Doorways that used to shelter street people have been blocked off and some benches have been removed from areas where those same folks used to relax.
In short, the presence of corporate America was greater than it used to be some thirty years ago, but the character of those few blocks that was carved during the 1960s and 1970s remains as its essence despite numerous attempts by city and university officials and businessmen and women to convert the strip into just another pedestrian mall.
The politics expressed on t-shirts for sale and in posters pasted on fences and shop windows were less radical then I remember. Indeed, the overwhelming number of Obama images was a bit of a surprise to me, especially when compared to the very small number of posters reacting to the ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza and massacre of Palestinian children.
Yet, the most interesting juxtaposition of political imagery appeared in a shop window that featured a poster of Obama and several leaflets calling for protests against the murder of a young black man by the BART transit police.
For those of you who don’t know, the facts of this case are these. Early New Year’s morning an argument on a BART train erupted into a fight. Several passengers involved in the fight were removed from he train at Oakland’ Fruitvale station. Several transit police took those involved off the train, cuffed some of them and forced them all to squat near a wall in the station.
One young man, named Oscar Grant, was lying face down on the station floor with his hands behind is back when a police officer took out his gun and shot him. He died several hours later.
This is my interpretation of the events derived from viewing at least two cellphone videos taken by other passengers and posted on the internet. It is an interpretation shared by thousands of other (if not millions) viewers. In fact, it is the opinion apparently held by the prosecutor involved in the case, as the officer was indicted for murder and turned himself in January 14th, 2009.
The reaction on the street to Grant’s murder was definite and quick. People around the Bay Area saw the video and saw murder. Protests were organized by a variety of groups, including churches and radical political sects. The first protest on January 7th attracted a thousand or so people and ended with a small riot in downtown Oakland and the arrest of more than a hundred protesters. Most people were not just angry about the murder, but also that no charges or arrests had been made in the case even though a week had passed since the shooting.
Then there is Barack Obama. If the state of black America could be summed up with the life of one individual, which of these men would we choose to represent that state? Barack Obama, who will become president of the United States on January 20th, 2009, or Oscar Grant, whose life was ended by a police bullet on January 1st, 2009? The very fact of Grant’s death shows the world that there is no post-racial America. In fact, it reminds us all that, despite the gains in the area of race in the United States, Barack Obama is the significant exception to the rule.
This fact is not a denial of the hopes his election has raised for African-Americans and the nation, but it is a cold reminder that making a black man president is a long way from ending the very real fact of the systemic racism that made this nation what it is. The death of Oscar Grant, like the presence of so many African-Americans in the US prison system, is an even harsher reminder of how that racism plays itself out in the daily lives of so many of its citizens.
Racism will end in this country when it no longer serves the interests of the elites that run it. The presence of a black family in the White House may be a symbolic victory for the forces opposed to racism, but the men and women chosen by Obama to help him rule represent the real nature of his presidency. Malcolm X once said that “An integrated cup of coffee isn’t sufficient pay for four hundred years of slave labor.”
Well, neither is a black man in the White House sufficient enough to forget the death of Oscar Grant and the many other African-Americans whose lives have been destroyed by the very system soon to be governed by Mr. Obama.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org