Pendarvis Harshaw for PopUp Magazine on Tuesday, Apr. 19th
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I initially learned the story of Passover from the Nickelodeon cartoon, “the Rugrats.” The episode was called, Let Me Babies Go.
In due time, I researched the story for myself, and I read about the Pharaoh and how he enslaved the Israelites. I learned about the ten plagues, and how God had brought them upon the Egyptians to force the Pharaoh to free the Jewish people. I learned the significance of the last and worst plague, “the plague of the first born”; until the slaves were freed, the first-born son in every Egyptian family would die. The Israelites marked their doors with lambs’ blood to save their sons from that fate.
The morning of January 1st 2009, America was on the verge of inaugurating its “first black President.” But this new era came with an all-too-familiar sight: a black man gunned down in Oakland by an officer of the law.
Using camera phones, passengers recorded transit officer Johannes Mehserle firing his pistol into the back of Oscar Grant. And the video spread like mad that New Years morning.
People were outraged. And I was one of those people.
I was raised in Oakland, but I watched the entire saga unfold from my college campus in Washington DC: the shooting, the riots, all the way until the trial.
That began last June. I was back in Oakland for summer break and working for Youth Radio as an intern. The trial had been moved to Los Angeles, so I headed out to see what was happening in the streets of Oakland, and how local business owners were preparing for the verdict.
The sight of my city boarding up was frightening: was this verdict going to push the citizens of Oakland to rise up in violence?
Back in Youth Radio’s newsroom, our conversation turned to the L.A. riots, back in 1992, when Korean storeowners boarded up their buildings and wrote the words “Black Owned” on their storefronts.
And then we made another connection: the story of Passover. Like the lamb’s blood on the doorframe, business owners in downtown Oakland were plastering their store windows with images of Oscar Grant, hoping this mark would spare them from the wrath of Oakland’s enraged citizens.
Oscar Grant’s killer got involuntary manslaughter—the conviction carried a modest two-year penalty, with a deduction for time served. Later that night, people broke some windows and stole some stuff, but most of the people arrested came from outside of Oakland.
I can’t help but feel like all of this will happen again.
In the modern Jewish celebration of Passover, during Seders, it’s customary to recite the ten plagues in order. With each one, you dip your pinky into a wine glass and spill a drop of wine onto your plate. The wine symbolizes joy diminished because of the Egyptians’ suffering. But there’s a newer version of the ritual, where you drop the wine on the palm of your hand instead. It’s a reminder that as long as people aren’t free, everyone has blood on their hands.
This story was first produced for PopUp Magazine.