by Keenan Norris
Before and after Oscar Grant
1 January 2009. Oakland, California. Underground. The all-illumined Bay Area Rapid Transit Fruitvale train station platform.
A melee of indistinct origin and uncertain conclusion occurs on an arriving train. The transit system’s private police are called in to restore order. A big, husky officer walks along the outside of the train beating his baton furiously against the train windows. He produces his taser, flashes it about like an abstract warning. His male and female fellow officers decide to roust the offenders. Young men in baggy pants, their dreadlocks and beanies and hoodies bobbing back and forth, are hustled off the train. Confusion ensues. Insults and expletives are exchanged between the officers and young men. A crowd gathers. A mass of jeering New Year’s youth form a circle around what is quickly degenerating into a spectacle.
The crowd is chanting, deriding the gang of overzealous, armed security guards. The boys argue with their captors. They make a big deal about being handcuffed, continue to volubly object and claim innocence even as, one by one, they adopt the physical positions of compliance. Hands behind their backs. On their knees. On their stomachs. On the ground.
Cell phone cameras are held aloft, their black, inscrutable lenses trained on the rolling debacle. These are the first images of Oakland in 2009: A stupid fight. Some stupid kids. Some stupid cops.
Two officers, including the one with the baton, force a medium-sized, nondescript brother to the ground. They want him to concede completely. He has conceded, gone limp and immobile. The one with the baton is still on top of the kid, the difference in weight and strength obvious by the way the kid collapses stomach first, prostrate. More arguing, more jeering, more complaints. Then the officer produces his gun. He points it directly at the kid’s back. He shoots him once, then presses his knee deeper into his back.
It was on the enclave island of Alameda, connected to Oakland and the rest of Northern California’s East Bay by three mechanical bridges, that the “Oscar Grant Trial,” as it’s come to be known throughout California, really started to make sense to me. At an Alameda diner, I overheard a man say that Alameda’s business plan, in case disgraced Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Johannes Mehserle was found innocent, was to raise the bridges before the riot spread to the island.
I remember wondering how the man would like it if the bridges stayed raised and the good people of Alameda had to swim to work for a while. He could lead the way.
Slip the yoke and change the joke, as black folks used to say.
I never actually wanted anyone to swim to work, but this overheard remark crystallizes the conflict of visions that slashes across this case. The verdict is in. The jury has decided, but the decision no more than a formality. Involuntary manslaughter; in other words, an accident.
The scales of justice do not tilt this strangely in a single instant. In this case, they started tilting in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when BART police officers tried to confiscate the camera phones from the onlookers who had just witnessed and recorded the shooting. They were tilting when the proposal went in for the trial site to be moved from Oakland to conservative bedrock Orange County, and when downtown Los Angeles was eventually decided upon as a compromise location. They were tilting when the defense and prosecution took an hour to agree on a jury without even one black juror, and they were tilting when the judge summarily dismissed the first-degree murder charge before closing arguments were read. All of this could have been predicted.
Viewed from the perspective of an ideology and a lived experience that encourages trust in law enforcement and a court system that from time immemorial has protected and served, Officer Mehserle appears as a tragic figure guilty merely of a rash misreach for his taser, poor police education, and an understandable panic at his proximity to several (variously handcuffed, prostrate, unarmed, and restrained) young black men. But viewed from the perspective of those young black men, or this young black man, that vision is absurd. The notion that we black men—prostrate on train platforms, loitering aimlessly on corners, bullshitting in bars, raising children, being loving spouses—may one day surrender our lives to some weird welter of color-struck paranoia, half-assed job training and taser confusion is idiotic. Statistics, by the way, tell us that violent crimes committed by black people overwhelmingly are committed against other black people, that in fact (as opposed to fear), white people have never been at the mercy of an irrepressible black crime wave. From our perspective, this verdict lends any police action formed against us, including shooting a prostrate man in his back while he lies on a clean, well-lit train platform in full view of dozens of witnesses, plausible deniability. Black men, in the governing ideology, are not understood as victims of crime. Emmett Till’s coffin has closed. Our murder, whether from police action or drug war crossfire or whatever, becomes the sacrifice by which the nation ritually defines its distance from randomness and premature death.
Justice and time
The arc of the moral universe is long but it does not necessarily bend toward justice.
Between 1865 and 1870, Reconstruction saw sweeping legislation for full civil rights for black men, including the Fifteenth Amendment’s effectively enacted rights to vote and hold political office. The beginnings of black power were, tragically, located within a South characterized by anti-black vigilante and police terrorism, and within a Republican Party that effectively bound the freedom struggle to Northern capitalist interests much as our current-day Democratic Party binds a medley of underserved constituencies to an overserved business elite. The grassroots resistance of low country South Carolina rice workers by means of rolling labor strikes during Reconstruction’s final days testifies not only to the injustice of payment in scrip (the issuance of promissory notes that were only valid at local stores as opposed to actual monies exchanged for labor), and opposition to segregationist terror, but to the increasing unwillingness of most white Americans to represent black labor, let alone protect black lives. The trajectory of Reconstruction, from sudden admission of a previously enslaved racial minority into the body politic to an almost equally rapid foreclosure of freedoms—a foreclosure essentially supported by the unabashed antipathy of one political party and the apathy of the other—suggests not so much the impossibility of revolution in America as the certainty of counter-revolutionary opposition.
Absent representation and protection, a whirlwind of repression spread nationwide. All-white hamlets where blacks could travel through and conduct business only during daylight hours became commonplace in rural northern and western communities, as detailed in James Loewen’s 2005 book Sundown Towns. And the under-taught and consequently little-known, yet nation-defining anti-black riots, from San Juan Hill in New York City, to the Massacre in East St. Louis, to the Burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, forced blacks into more and more rigidly cordoned ghettos, from Harlem to Oakland. Not only did the riots take black lives, they wiped out businesses and destroyed much black financial capital. The riots signaled a virulent resistance to our migration into America’s centers of industry, wealth, and power. Systematic backlashes against minorities have neither been inevitable nor in inevitable decline, but rather tend to intensify during periods of social progress and inclusion.
In Oakland and far beyond this city’s limits, our era is revealing itself not as some magical post-race realm, but rather a brook of fire familiar to a nation that has always known racial change as a violent crossing over. In the crossing there is no assurance, no affirmation. I still see shirts here and there around Oakland celebrating Barack Obama’s presidential victory of 2008. I still see from time to time, as well, those unearthly aurora red, blue, and beige graphics of President Obama’s face that make him look like something superhuman suddenly arrived. They read to me now as advertisements on the sharp brevity of euphoria. The shirts that I no longer see are the ones that memorialize Oscar Grant, not so much because he has been forgotten here, but rather because most know that his tragedy will be replaced many times over.