Friday, July 9, 2010

Oscar Grant

The Oakland office of my organization is closed today due to fear of widespread "panic and rioting" in response to the verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, or killing someone by accident and without intent. It seems he had meant only to Tase the unarmed black man, and reached for his real gun instead.

Many armchair-activisty emails have been flung my way about this case, and it is indeed sad to read about yet another act of targeted violence against black people in urban communities.

Justice-related riots in the past have stirred up and articulated the deep-seated distrust of the police presence that exists in many areas of this country, but productive action has been stunted by the mainstream collective consciousness' painting of the involved parties not as an actively democratic citizenry, but as an angry, wild, and uncontrollable force.

The message is that it is inadvisable to even go to work when black people are upset in Oakland. We must take refuge in our homes and the fact that the police are keeping us safe from the violence. No matter that the rioters are seeking refuge from the police. But is it so unreasonable to wonder quis custodiet ipsos custodes, anyway?

The reports of rioting and looting of course bring up confusion: How does breaking into Foot Locker help anyone? Why throw rocks at a Walgreens window? What does any of this do to further the establishment of true justice?

One answer is that many people, especially those who share a demographic with Oscar Grant, feel entirely marginalized, ostracized, and disenfranchised by the current system. Protesting injustice in a court of law has proven to bring acquittal after acquittal, and in the rare instances of conviction, those related to lesser crimes than the ones committed.

It may be true that there is little redemption in storming a shoe store, but the image of an enraged citizenry is useful in pushing a justice-centric agenda forward. Not only are the people angry, they are active. They are willing to bring down symbols of a system that oppresses them. Yet their interest is not only in dismantling that very system, but creating a new one. And this last piece is what gets lost in the fearful reports of uncontrollable violence.

On the flip side, that same image of "looting" has been used to punish the very same people who are pursuing justice in their communities. We have seen this in post-Katrina New Orleans, post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, and everywhere else where people seek empowerment through unorthodox means.

So it is not only the destruction of symbols of power that will advance the cause towards justice, but rather the movement towards constructing new and improved systems. I'll buy one and get one free of those.

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