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Why the Spin Regarding "Outsiders" Protesting the Mehserle is Bullshit (and Illogical)

by Michael Siegel
Don't believe the hype. Let's build a movement for justice and police accountability. [Originally posted elsewhere on 7/9/10]

Dear Friends,

We wake up today in Oakland to the aftermath of the Mehserle verdict. The major media are presenting a litany of images and catch phrases that essentially sum up yesterday's mass demonstrations as a series of broken windows and stolen sneakers. One of the most-repeated lines essentially states that "outside agitators" are responsible for the property destruction. In my opinion, this line is ill-informed, based on OPD hearsay and hype, and also plainly ignores the fact that politics are not circumscribed by municipal boundaries. To the contrary, Oscar Grant's murder by BART police is an issue with local, regional, national, and even international relevance.

First of all, here is my quick summary of what happened yesterday. We received the verdict a little after 4:00 p.m. The speak-out in Oakland's town square -- Frank Ogawa Plaza, at the corner of 14th and Broadway -- began immediately. Countless speakers addressed the injustice of the minimal punishment applied to Mehserle, contrasting his lightweight conviction with the treatment of countless youth of color subjected to the California prison system. By 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., representatives from the General Assembly for Oscar Grant began setting up a sound system. Soon after, Tony Coleman, one of the spokespeople for the General Assembly, took the mic and initiated a formal speak-out that gave priority to youth speakers who wanted to express themselves.

Between 4:00 and at least 8:00 p.m., we essentially had a "liberated zone" in downtown Oakland encompassing a few blocks downtown. Over a thousand people listened to one youth speaker after another express themselves -- in the spirit of the ancient tradition of the town square, free speech, and the right to criticize government oppression. At the same time, the liberated zone had a festive feel, with all sorts of side conversations taking place, a volunteer brass band playing, and some folks even sitting on blankets and playing chess in the street.

In the background, while the people continued expressing themselves, police massed at every intersection. First at 12th and Broadway, police formed a line 20 wide and 3 deep, pushing back the demonstrators into a smaller, two-block zone. Every ten minutes or so, a new squadron of cops would block off another side street. By 7pm or so, the community at 14th and Broadway was surrounded by a cordon of hundreds, if not thousands of cops blocking every egress from the liberated space.

As nightfall approached, OPD moved in, and squeezed the community out of the peaceful, central space. From there, the chaos that you have read about ensued.

Now, to the point: do we blame all of the negative behavior on "outsiders" and "anarchists"?

My first response would be: who are the outsiders? Oakland is a major city that, each day, is populated by tens of thousands of workers who drive in from the suburbs to work for city, state, and federal government, major and smaller corporations, and so forth. Are they "outsiders"? Our police force is populated by, according to some accounts, up to 90% of individuals who DO NOT LIVE IN OAKLAND. Are OPD the "outsiders"? Are we saying that only people who live within Oakland's municipal borders are entitled to protest the murder of an Oakland resident? Why are so many of us repeating this illogical dichotomy between inside and outside, when so many of us who are in Oakland right now are not originally from Oakland, and when so many of us are obviously aware that what happens within Oakland affects many people outside of Oakland?

Which brings me to my next response: why should the universe of protestors who protest Oscar Grant's murder be limited to "Oaklanders"? We protest the Mehserle verdict in Oakland, because the murder happened here, Oscar Grant lived and worked here, and so forth. But police murder: isn't this an international issue? And how often is a police officer charged with murder? As many of us are aware, the mere fact that Mehserle was charged with murder presents an exceedingly rare situation, and very important for many reasons. In Los Angeles alone, I've heard that police kill 30-35 residents a year. Yet, none are prosecuted for murder. In New York, we know of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, obvious victims of police murder -- but who were never avenged by a criminal prosecution of the killing cops. So it seems obvious that this is a bigger issue, much bigger than Oakland. Folks in Richmond or San Francisco or elsewhere who experience police oppression may want to come to Oakland to express their solidarity. Oscar Grant's murder is an international story -- why should only Oaklanders take the streets to express their displeasure with the murdering officer's lightweight conviction?

And one more response: politics are never purely local. Think of Bush v. Gore back in 2004 -- do you remember those George Bush operatives who disrupted the recount before Gore could garner enough votes for victory? (Check Michael Moore's flic if you haven't seen this story.) Do you think those operatives were from that particular county of Florida? Or how about the foreign policy of the United States, when a country like Venezuela elects Hugo Chavez, or back in the day when Patrice Lumumba was elected leader of the Congo (and then murdered with CIA complicity) -- was the U.S. staying out of "local" issues? Here, in Oakland, BART police (representing nine Bay Area counties) murdered an African-American young man (resident of Hayward, CA; likely descendant from African nations; clearly affected by local, national, and global policies that contribute to systematic racial oppression). Only after intense community pressure (including pressure by non-Oaklanders) was Mehserle charged with murder. And, oh yeah, here's another indication this is not a local issue: the Department of Justice, led by Eric Holder (yes, an African-American), has gotten involved -- all the way from Washington, D.C. -- to say that Mehserle and BART may be subject to a civil rights investigation. Are we calling the President and DOJ "outsiders"? (No, I'm not talking you, Mr. and Mrs. Birther.) Let's drop all this talk of who is outside and who is inside, because it really makes no sense.

Finally, some of you may be waiting for me to condemn the folks that set fire to dumpsters and stole tennis shoes. But really, I'd be a hypocrite to do so -- if you knew me back in high school, at good old Skyline High in Oakland, you'd know I have never been a perfect citizen, and it would be foolish for me to pretend otherwise. In fact, I will admit it -- I have broken a window or two in my lifetime, and I am sure that I stole candy on more than one occasion. No, I did not break any windows last night, and no, I am not sporting a brand new pair of Air Force Ones this morning. But, let's not get it twisted -- a few burglaries and broken windows are not the same as a police murder; and they pale in comparison to a larger system that supports and condones police murder.

To take a step back, I would say that the civil rights movement in Oakland -- and particularly the movement for police accountability -- needs some work. I would like to see us get to a place where there is enough organization and leadership so that we can do a better job of controlling the message and working towards political outcomes. For example, the media frenzy regarding last night will not do much to create political pressure on the police. We are still a long way away from getting action on our demands (including the need to indict racist, former BART cop Peroni, the need to take guns away from BART police, and the need for increased oversight of police use-of-force).

For now, though, let's engage in some of the nuances here, let's get away from blaming "outsiders," and let's work together to build a cohesive civil rights movement in Oakland.

In solidarity,
Michael Siegel
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