I live and work in Oakland, California. On Friday, I walked out of the office building where I work downtown — through a side door, because the main doors had already been boarded up — into a knot of police officers, patrolling the streets in riot gear. Their uniforms said they were from Monterey County, two hours away. It was, to say the least, a strange experience, nor one that many Americans expect to encounter in their own cities.
The occasion was the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who shot and killed an unarmed, subdued, handcuffed young black man named Oscar Grant on a crowded platform on January 1, 2009. The footage was caught by multiple video phones and can be found on YouTube. Mehserle claimed, in his trial, that he meant to reach for his Taser, not his gun. He had already Tased Grant and his friends multiple times without error, in the process of subduing them. Early in the trial — held in LA to reduce the likelihood of protests and riots in Oakland — first-degree murder was taken off the table, and after several short months, the verdict came in: involuntary manslaughter, the mildest possible conviction but still more than a police officer in California has received for killing an unarmed civilian while on duty in a very, very long while.
The verdict came in early July, and anarchist groups from Berkeley and San Francisco took advantage of the protests to incite minor rioting and looting (the only site of notable damage was a single Foot Locker, and most of the arrests were of non-locals). This past Friday, with the city on high alert and swarms of uniformed police officers lining downtown streets, the protests stayed small, dissipated early, and never turned violent.
The obvious conclusion, to any witness of the cityscape, was that Oakland had become, for that evening at least, fearful of its own citizenry: that we might erupt like Watts in the wake of Rodney King, so broken and disenfranchised by our powerlessness within the system that we might opt to turn the whole thing upside down; to say, fuck it, let’s smash some windows and steal some shoes, because it’s the only way we’re going to get anything at all.
High-tops are poor consolation for a young man’s ended life, and so is the verdict — and the sentence — handed down to Mehserle. Two years in prison, with credit for time already served; he will spend about one year more in the clink. As Grant’s uncle pointed out after the family left the courthouse, football star Michael Vick got four years for dog-fighting. I find little value in punitive justice, but the comparison with Vick mocks the very idea of justice at all.
Last week at San Francisco’s Stud Bar, I told a joke — written months ago, but saved for the appropriately wonkish, post-election occasion — about the three branches of government as a citizen’s children; the brainy judicial branch, the popular executive, and the hapless legislative. The recent midterms, and the entire philosophy of the Tea Party, operates on similar principles: that the American government is, indeed, of the people, by the people, and for the people, and to that end it can be made to heel at the ballot box. The government thusly envisioned is not oppressive, but responsive; it is a tool by which we might achieve our own ends, echoing values held closely and broadly.
It is a government that looks nothing like the government seen by protesters on Friday night at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland. At a protest against police brutality, police stalked the streets en masse, only reinforcing the sense of being beholden to their power. Cop-killers get life in prison; killer cops rarely see prison in their lives. The notion of any equivalency between citizen and state, to many, is laughable. It is most laughable to those with the least recourse for change. Money, as the Citizens United decision made explicit, talks, and the impoverished find themselves without a voice.
The best mechanism for the unmonied to be heard is to speak collectively, to pool meager resources into a superstructure, to channel so many frustrations into organizations agitating for change. For working people — the working-class, not the professional class — there were unions, on the wane for decades now. There were, and are still, community organizations like ACORN, stripped of funds and demonized by the right for daring to give the poor an opportunity to speak. Once-effective techniques, of marches and demonstrations, have been co-opted; a quarter of a million people gathered on the national Mall recently, days before a major election, predominantly white and well-educated. Their demand was not for fair wages or civil rights or an end to war, but only for a little more civility, please. That would be nice.
Oakland did not want for civility this past Friday; the vast police presence proved unnecessary. Johannes Mehserle seems, by all accounts, to be a perfectly civil young man, treated politely by the judicial system. There is no solution in politeness, but only in structural change, in acknowledging that any sense of ownership over government is a privilege not accessible to all citizens. Such entitlement to a responsive state defines full citizenship within a participatory democracy, and that, more than anything, is what Oakland has sought to claim throughout this saga. That is all that oppressed peoples throughout history, and especially in democratic America, have sought to claim. To ignore those needs, or to dismantle the institutions and organizations which support such an imperative, is both dangerous to the principles of democracy and degrading to the value of human life.
If you disagree, think only of Oscar Grant. His life was not less than that of Michael Vick’s dogs, but yet the strange mathematics of our justice system made it so.