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Oakland's Verdict, July 8th 2010
The recent verdict of involuntary manslaughter in the criminal case brought against Johannes Mehserle reveals the duplicitous scandal of the enforcement of law and its participation in institutionalized and violent racism against black and brown people in America.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
The recent verdict of involuntary manslaughter in the criminal case brought against Johannes Mehserle reveals the duplicitous scandal of the enforcement of law and its participation in institutionalized and violent racism against black and brown people in America. This criminal case is far from a unique story in this country’s history. It is not just about an instance that involves this one police officer and this young African American man; this case is about the terrifying and truthful reality of state brutality and state violence in America that has been legally sanctioned by a line of work that calls itself public protection. This reality is fact, and it must not be buried behind the scenes of dramas of courtrooms, the limelight of the police-sponsored, corporate media frenzy, or exhaustive deliberations about agitators who may pose as outsiders to Oakland’s city. Let’s not get the story twisted: this case reflects a reality about violence in America. This is not an issue of violence enwrapped in homicide statistics or “stop the violence” tactics. No. This violence, this extralegal violence, is and has been a political reality that our society and city must contend with.
What function does the black body have in our political democracy? What function does handcuffing a young black man to a stop sign in broad daylight, and asking him to lift up his nuts while being searched or habitually detained on the street, have within a “free and liberal” society? What does that image impress upon our psyche public? What becomes normalized to passersby, tourists, residents, students and children? Imagine walking along a street in West Oakland. Police officers pull up to a home on a residential street and position themselves on a street, pointing their weapons. Out of the home walks a four-year-old little black boy with his hands up. What have we done? Each day, children, teenagers, mothers and fathers walk out of their homes, with their hands up in the air, and still they face the threat of death. As BART police overtly demonstrated their pre-emptive fear of the black and brown youths’ on that BART platform, what opportunity was afforded to the youths to articulate their fear of the violent presence of the enforcers of the law? Who could they have gone to? And who would have listened to them? What honest answer can you offer?
According to Oakland’s December 11, 2008 Citizens’ Police Review Board’s Policy Forum on Officer-Involved Shootings, an estimated 45 reported officer-involved shootings occurred from 2004-2008 in Oakland. Victims’ ages ranged from 16-50 years old; of these victims, 36 were African American males, 7 were Hispanic males, and the remaining 2 were an Asian male and an African American female. All of the shootings were “deemed to be in compliance with Departmental policy.” In 2008/2009 the Oakland City Attorney’s office paid out $3,755,698 for documented claims and lawsuits on police matters. These payouts were founded in claims and litigation about excessive police force and fatal/non-fatal police shootings. These claims do not reflect the thousands of complaints brought to the Oakland Police Department’s Internal Affairs Department, nor does it reflect experiences of harassment, violence and racism of residents at the hands of the police that go undocumented.
Some residents of Oakland believe that black and brown people engage in criminal activity more than other groups of people and they believe that black and brown people deserve to be apprehended by police violence. These residents gravitate towards Neighborhood Watch Groups that celebrate gentrification’s development while living their lives in fear within their homes. These residents need to take a hard look at the institutional racism and ideological racism that has played them and shaped their ignorance. Crime does pay—it keeps the police paid, it keeps prison contractors paid, and it eclipses the role of authorities in allowing for such a sham to present itself as a legitimate response to public safety. Poorly run as a bureaucratic, overpriced cost to taxpaying pockets our crime and gang hysterias, police layoffs, and declining homicide statistics have intentionally veiled our senses to the inordinate political power of a police union who can take public stands against city officials, post bail for Johannes Mehserle, and pressure the pockets of city councilors who allow our city to run as a police state. We live in a city that spends more than half of its budget on police (police and fire departments account for 85 percent of the money the city has to spend)—evidence enough to conceive of Oakland as a police state.
The daily socialization of black and brown people by police stops, searches, and harassment generates an overabundance of black and brown people on paperwork. While these interactions are both financially and psychologically disruptive to the everyday lives of people who are criminalized based on their skin culture, these interactions also act as rhetorical justification to normalize policing as a legitimate response to public fear of black and brown people. Poor black and brown people present an ontological dilemma, a dilemma of being, the scandal of the law—the law designates differences between poor black and brown people and the rest of the public through racist presumptions of criminality and contradictory claims of public safety as an assurance for a racial democracy. The irrationality of black and brown people against the white mainstream culture of America may necessitate the irrational exercise of the fatal power that yields black death, so that white American life can rationally lives. Already confined and silenced to the criminality of their skin, black and brown people confront the legality of their illegality when they meet the police. The police embody the reminder of that continuing reality of violence, and the police come to be seen as a criminal and racist threat to community well being.
On July 8, 2010, jurors decided that the ex-BART police officer who shot unarmed Oscar Grant III in the back on the Fruitvale BART platform on New Year's Day 2009 in Oakland, California had no intention of killing Grant. Whereas a murder conviction demands establishing an intent to kill, jurors believed that Mehserle was criminally negligent and acted with "reckless disregard for human life." While this was the first documented case in California history in which a police officer was charged with murder for an on-duty shooting, but it is far from the first time that a police officer has murdered a black man while on-duty. The scandal that jurors, the media, nonprofits, city and police authorities choose to not speak frankly about is that Johannes Mehserle represents a workforce of police officers who professionally presume criminality within the blackness of one’s skin. This assumption of the criminality of one’s black skin, allows police violence to become police negligence—a matter of poor oversight or of a lack of proper training. And so the scandal continues and the “pain” of racial tension that police chief Anthony Batts urges us to talk about resides romanticized in the memory of a dream unfulfilled, rather than the egregious ravages of racists violence that his own officers exercise on poor, residents of Oakland.
To think that police violence against the black body is unintentional police negligence is to believe the lie that racism is over, or that the Klu Klux Klan is an emblematic vestige of the past, or that the anti-blackness that manifests as anti-poorness is a construction of the past in a post-racial Obama era. To believe such a farce is to fool yourself and to deny that anti-blackness is still made in America, made under the “legality” of the law. The extra-legal practice of gratuitous violence on black and brown people in America has served its function, and it continues to do so. This racial violence exploits vulnerable people in their communities hastening their death; this institutionalized violence occurs without fear of political consequence or moral shame. Every case of violence, excessive force, misconduct, and corruption on the part of the police is emblematic of the historical and current reality of violence in our city. It is precisely why police authorities, city, state, and federal authorities must not condone it and must publicly denounce and prosecute its criminality, as it threatens the legitimacy of any semblance of a democracy. Instead, Oakland is met with city, police, and nonprofit authorities who make irresponsible, criminal decisions based on political fears of delegitimizing the police force and its police union. The verdict on July 8th 2010 condoned, defended, and legitimized by the very city and court authorities who in actuality neglect to serve the representative functions of their jobs. To defend the extralegal execution of police violence over the poor is to legitimize and perpetuate the terrifying and truthful reality of gratuitous state violence against black and brown bodies. To perpetuate this history amidst current city politics is to condone racism, institutional racism and to lynch any semblance of a racial democracy in America. To condone such violence is to ensure that racial violence will also continue in America.
Gina is a doctoral student of education, at the University of California Berkeley.