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Justice or Just Us? Beyond the Hype of the Mehserle Trial
An article from the Ella Baker Center wrestling with the complexities of 'justice' in the Mehserle trial and Oscar Grant case.
On New Year’s day 2009, Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant in the back, that much is clear. What’s less clear is what justice in this case should look like.
I am clear that Mehserle must be held accountable. But that alone is not justice. Locking him up won’t give Oscar Grant’s daughter her father back. It won’t give his mother the chance to see her son continue to grow. And it won’t take away the terror in the hearts of black and brown boys when they are stopped by police officers this summer. A guilty verdict for Mehserle won’t make up for decades of police brutality, racism, unequal justice, exploitation, racial profiling, or socio-economic systems that are rigged against the poor.
I have been an activist for far too long to think that sending someone to prison ever sets things right. Prison adds damage-to-damage and trauma-to-trauma. We don’t want prison to be the only option for young folks who make mistakes. Is it really the only answer for police who make mistakes?
At the same time, Oakland Police and leaders are preparing for the worst – riots to erupt in Oakland, civil unrest- if the verdict of the trial absolves Mehserle. The media is more interested in the idea of cops facing off against the community than uncovering the problems of the justice system, police accountability, and racism at the root of this case. Furthermore, the resources being spent to address this possible unrest would be better used in addressing the distrust and strained relations and trust between police, community leaders, young people and residents. It’s as if the authorities in our community expect the worst from us, planting seeds of fear which could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than investing in true community safety and system reform.
In all the media hype surrounding the trial and the cops vs. protester coverage, something is lost. That something is healing, transformative justice. How do we transform the system that recruited, trained and armed Mehserle and thousands just like him? How do we change the fact that police and civilians alike see young men of color as threatening? How do we build a powerful social movement and not just participate in one-off flash mobs?
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we have to take to the streets. I am down to march, chant, rally, block an intersection, commit civil disobedience- what ever it takes. But not just to make myself feel better. When we take to the streets, we should be saying what we want, clearly and resolutely- not just point out the problems but also demanding the solutions. I know too much to protest the sky, to mistake commotion for motion.
That is why we are supporting Emergency Leadership Forum. A gathering of young leaders from through out Oakland, organized by our allies at Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising. The four-hour Leadership Forum will inform youth about the status of the current legal case, provide young people with a positive process through which they can explore their feelings and frustrations about the situation, and educate them about Social Movement history. The Forum offers youth the tools and the space to work on not just a vision for justice, but a plan. Young people did not get us into this mess, but do have the wisdom to help get us out. Please invest in Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising by donating your time and/or financial resources to work with youth on peaceful responses to violence.
In our Families for Books Not Bars Network, we train parents to advocate for their children in the juvenile justice system by telling them not to let the court see their children as the sum total of their worst moment. For Johannes Mehserle, it’s too late. He will forever be seen as the cop who killed an unarmed Black man, as he lay prone. He will have to live with that reality for the rest of his life no matter what the jury decides in Los Angeles.
But for you and me there is time. How will we be remembered? When the jury makes its decision, will we feel victorious or defeated? Which outcome would trigger which response, anyway? What solution would mean that justice has been achieved – for Oscar and his family- and for all of the victims of State violence in our communities? Please share your ideas, your questions, and your feedback so we can move forward together.
As we heal our society so that there can be true and transformative justice, I am reminded that there is just us- we are all we have. We must come together to find the answers and move forward with our heads held high and our commitment to real solutions always lighting our path.