Again and again today, as the news of young people rioting in London rolls hand in hand with word of the stock market, it feels a bit like the end of Western Civilization. What surprises me isn’t the news — for it’s part the stock market crash feels like pessimistic wish fulfillment — but the reactions I’m seeing in social media. All the people asking “why”?
Because the police shot and killed a father of four and then failed to be very clear about how and why it happened. That’s why.
Anyone who lived through the aftermath of the killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland, or whose memory stretches back to the time of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, knows that when police actions violate the public’s trust, there is a pretty good chance that young people will act out in the few ways that they see available to them. Impotent rage is only impotent until you can find a cop car to overturn and torch.
There’s footage — ample footage — of the looting that’s going on. This always raises the question — what is so just about raiding a big screen TV?
When the whole of your society is based on the acquisition of material wealth, and great numbers of people see no chance of acquiring that wealth, the real question is why we don’t see riots more often. It doesn’t help that the austerity measures the British government has enacted has slashed both youth program funding and police budgets, meaning more aimless kids on the streets and fewer, inevitably stressed out cops to monitor them.
Take a look in the crystal ball America, unless we want to see more of our cities headed this way.
It doesn’t matter if the rioters are using the shooting only as an “excuse” to loot and pillage the shopping courts of middle class neighborhoods. What matters is that there are sufficient number of people, sufficiently disenfranchised from their society, that burning down a city block doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing to them in the moment. While that may be a mentality born of pathology, it’s a pathology of the culture more than that of the people in it.
In other words: this is what happens when you split the world into haves and have nots. Or has everyone simply forgotten the entire sweep of human history?
My heart goes out to the family of Mark Duggan not just for their loss, but for the fact that they are unlikely to ever really know what happened to their loved one now that his death has become a political flash point. So, too, do my sympathies lie with those whose homes and livelihoods are being sacrificed to rage. The human scale of these events is often lost as the balance sheets for damages are totaled like some kind of satanic scoreboard.
That’s the opinion of Myleen Hollero who witnessed transit police shoot and kill a man last weekend on the platform of a BART station in downtown San Francisco. In an interview with The Bay Citizen, Hollero described the victim as just a “drunk hippie” who was hobbling toward two cops before one of them shot him.
Hollero said that in the moments after the cops fired their shots, a crowd formed on the platform. One woman screamed at the two cops, calling them “f***ing pigs.” Then she heard someone in the crowd invoke the name Oscar Grant.
I mean, wouldn’t you?
BART police said the dead man, identified as 45-year-old Charles Hill, was “an aggressive suspect who was holding a bottle and a knife” and that officers are trained not to use their Tasers “in a life-threatening situation or a situation of eminent danger.” And whether Hill presented eminent danger, harmless drunkeness or something in between will likely become clearer after BART releases video surveillance of the shooting. But what is already clear is that Hill’s death will be linked to another fatal shooting that happened two and half years ago on a BART platform.
On Jan. 1, 2009, BART cop Johannes Mehserle killed an unarmed passenger, Oscar Grant, during an arrest at an Oakland station. Video taken by other passengers show Grant lying face-down on the platform with his hands behind him when Mehserle shot him point-blank in the back. In court, Mehserle claimed that he had mistaken his gun for a Taser. The jury gave him involuntary manslaughter and he was released last month after serving 11 months in prison.
Grant’s shooting generated a much longer and sweeping deliberation in the Bay Area and around the state about the weapons BART police officers carry on the job. Youth Radio reported on the debate throughout the trial and I wrote about it for The Huffington Post. Here are some of the opinions we heard:
“The whole case raises the question of why BART cops even carry guns,” former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote last summer in his column in the Chronicle. Guns, he argued, don’t fit the job description for police whose jurisdiction revolves around trains and their stations. “It’s not like they are real police officers out on patrol. They are transit cops.”
As certified peace officers, BART police do in fact wield the same authority as their counterparts who work the streets of Oakland, Los Angeles and every other California municipality. But officers at the various police agencies don’t all wield the same equipment, and those varied arsenals can include nightsticks, pepper spray, Tasers, pistols and shotguns.
Critics of armed BART officers say they are about as likely to face violent crimes as mall cops. It’s a claim even Lynette Sweet on BART’s Board of Directors concedes.
“Our big problem right now is at Dublin-Pleasanton garage where somebody is stealing wheels off cars and putting the cars up on crates — I mean, that’s our big crime right now,” Sweet told Youth Radio last July. She also said that BART police have a bad record of using deadly force. Of the agency’s two other fatal shootings by officers, one involved an unarmed 19-year-old, shot in the back while running away, and the other happened when an officer gunned down a mentally ill man who had grabbed his nightstick.
But Sweet disagreed that BART police should lose their guns.
“In a post-9/11 world, we want to have some means to defend ourselves if need be,” she said. Instead, she said, they should be relieved of their Tasers to avoid confusing them with their guns. “I know that sounds silly because guns are deadly, but more thought goes into pulling a gun than a Taser,” said Sweet. Many police say the debate is not about choosing weapons, but rather how much officers are trained to use them. While all police in the state receive the same basic, police academy training, including firing handguns, law enforcement agencies have varying levels of on-the-job training. Oakland Police Department, for instance, provides officers much more continuous gun training than BART cops receive.
In a brief asking for a lowest possible sentence from the Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Mehserle’s defense lawyer cited that the former officer was not trained well by BART.
At Napa Valley College Police Academy, where Mehserle graduated in 2006, he is now used as an example of what happens when an officer’s skills get rusty.
“Especially when we go down to the firing range and we’re practicing our shooting and drawing drills,” said Brent Hardy, a 24-year-old cadet. “They say, ‘Muscle memory, muscle memory — know what your gun feels like without looking at it.’”
Hardy said the academy teaches how to use pepper spray, but not Tasers.
“It’s my personal belief that he wasn’t training enough,” said Hardy. “He simply grabbed the wrong weapon. I understand why that happened, but if he was training more outside of his work, on the weekends or whatever, he might not have made that mistake.”
As part of a federal civil rights lawsuit, the mother of Oscar Grant will receive $1.3 million dollars in a settlement from Bay Area Rapid Transit for the killing of her 22-year-old son at the hands of a BART cop.
Grant was unarmed when he was shot in the back at point blank range on a BART platform on New Year’s Day 2009.
For a timeline of the case, see the magazine produced by Youth Radio that details the events that followed the shooting, including multiple large-scale protests in downtown Oakland after the shooting and the verdict that convicted former officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter.
Two years ago Youth Radio produced a video interview with Karina Vargas, a witness to the shooting of Oscar Grant. In the interview above, Vargas returned to the scene of the shooting for the first time since that night of 2009 and shared her footage of the shooting on the Fruitvale BART platform. Vargas told Youth Radio “no matter how much time passes, I’m never going to forget [the shooting]. 2009, that New Years, I’ll never forget what I had to witness.”
Former BART officer Johannes Mehserle was released at midnight after 11 months of his two-year sentence for shooting and killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day. After a jury trial in Los Angeles last summer, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and received the minimum sentence of two years in state prison.
Protesters In Downtown Oakland 2010
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, chaos erupted at the Fruitvale BART station. After a night of celebration, partygoers were heading home, including 22-year-old Oscar Grant. BART police were called to Fruitvale BART station in response to an alleged fight on a train coming in from San Francisco. Johannes Mehserle was one of the officers restraining the individuals believed to be involved in the fight. While attempting to restrain Oscar Grant, Mehserle drew his gun and shot Grant once in the back. Grant later died at Highland Hospital.
Mehserle testified in court saying he accidently pulled his gun instead of his taser gun. Grant was unarmed. The shooting stirred up racial tensions in the city, reigniting Oakland’s long history of tension between its police force and the community. Mehersle, a white man, was videotaped from multiple angles, shooting Grant, a black man. The incident was followed by violent protests and looting in downtown Oakland.
Youth Radio has been following the Oscar Grant case since the beginning. Below is a photo timeline of the case they’ve created.
Check back for updates on reaction from Oakland, Los Angeles and across the U.S.
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.