Friday, February 27, 2009
Oscar Grant's 23rd Birthday is Today. A Tribute And Reportback Of When The Mesherle Verdict Dropped.
Today, Oscar Grant III would have been 23 years old if his life had not been needlessly stripped away by another man who is but a small cog in a large machine of institutional oppression. Today, I will light a candle for the evolution of justice and humanity, and healing.
As promised, I will share another perspective of living in Downtown Oakland which has become the heart of the outcry against these issues. This is an account of January 30th, 2009, the day when Mesherle was released on bail for murder.
January 30th, Oakland.
I’m on the phone with my mom in Florida, having a conversation about her not so successful trip to see Obama’s inauguration. I get a text from a friend who went to the Mesherle trial, it simply says: “Cop released on bail. Protest on court house steps now.”
My heart sinks, i am distracted, my attention leaving the conversation and going to the sound of helicopters and sirens. I can also sense the outrage in the air. I start to feel nauseous. I don’t have words yet. But before i can say what’s up, my mom cheerfully says loving nice-talking-to-yous, i-love-yous and good-byes. I say them back and hang up.
The nausea starts to burn me up. i feel dizzy. i text back Jen Mei to say i am leaving my apartment for the protest. She sends back updates of where the protest is moving to. I leave, feeling the rage bubbling up. I call the Breakroom, the cafe where i spin sometimes, tell them the news. I advise them to shut down, lock up and go home. They do. I hate to be alarmist, but i feel that there are people who are probably going to act out their rage on a more physically destructive level than i will. On one level, i envy those who may find some catharsis with the sound of smashing glass. I peep my head into Red Door Cafe and tell Ahmed to lock up too. He is just now hearing the news from me. I see his heart sink too, and him shake his head.
Owners of small businesses are hastily nailing up wood board over their store windows. Those who had not boarded up their stores posted paper flyers, calling for justice for Oscar Grant and featuring images of him. These flyers were usually placed right smack in the center of the store window. They were signs of support, but also hopeful talismans of protection. I was immediately transported back to living in New York City when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center buildings, and how Muslim and Sikh business were targeted and smashed up. The U.S. flag became the symbol that meant “don’t hurt me, i’m American too.” I remember getting into a Sikh’s taxi and counting 5 U.S. flags within the interior of the car alone. More flag stickers were on both bumpers and windows.
I continue down 14th street towards City Hall, where i see a group of protestors in the intersection of 14th and Broadway. On my way, I walk up to the Joyce Gordon Gallery. Joyce is outside with her chic artsy elder self, stylish black glasses framing her dark brown face, her signature short curly white fro shining. We both greet each other, shaking our heads. We comment that this verdict may as well mean “I hate Oakland. We vote to destroy it.” Concerned youth have given her an Oscar Grant III poster to hang in her large picture glass gallery window. She has positioned herself outside, at once checking the scene and protecting her gallery. Staff from Awaken Cafe walk over to talk to Joyce, asking for her thoughts around staying or locking up and going. I bid my farewells, and continue towards the crowd.
There are maybe 50, 75 people. Traffic has been stopped, and a brotha in his 30’s maybe is on top of a AC Transit Bus with a bullhorn, saying that it doesn’t matter if the person who was murdered was Black, Asian, Latino, whoever... the killing has to stop. The chant of No Justice, No Peace rises, signs depicting Oscar Grant and other black men who have lost their lives to police bullets in the back, and other senseless police brutalities. I see Navina and her sis. We are happy to see each other but sad look is exchanged. We hug. A brotha hands me a sign, and we all start walking down Broadway chanting “Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” It did feel powerful to be walking in the middle of the street in broad daylight with impassioned people. The streets were ours.
We reach the Oakland Police Station at Broadway and 7th Street, and converge on it. Several riot cops are standing there in line, blocking the front door. We swell around them, and the chants change to No Justice, No Peace, Fuck The Police! One dreadlocked brotha with dark glasses steps up to the line of cops, and with a bullhorn in their faces, charges them as being complicit, mindless tools of oppression that are lacking humanity. The flow of eloquent rage smoothly blends back into chants of No Justice, No Peace! Fuck The Police!
Our crowd begins to spread out, re-taking over the street intersection in front of OPD. Signs calling for the imprisonment of racist killer cops are raised in the air, pumping up and down in rhythm with chants. Traffic comes to a stop, and the crowd walks between cars, chanting. An SUV in traffic turns out to be an undercover cop car, and someone close by notices- and smashes the car window. My gut tightened, as i felt calm also instinctively wash over me. Its about to go down. In real time, i don’t have time to process all of this, because as soon as the sound of glass reached me, 2 seconds later, several cops poured out of the vehicle like angry and scared clowns. They each had arm loads of something. In a frantic dance, they all swung their hands out, and little black round objects flew in all directions. Everything goes slow motion, and i eye the location of where each little black object landed, and slowly back away, breathing deep, the calm overpowering the frenzy in my head and gut. Very loud explosions like staccato gunshots fill the air, and i see smoke. The protesting crowd seems to evaporate, clearing the intersection. The smoke clears (it wasn’t tear gas), and i see protestors on each of the four corners, and we seem thinner now. Someone is shouting for us not to disperse, to stay together. My adrenaline is somehow feeding my calm, making me buzz with an even, hyper-alertness. I see an abandoned bicycle in still in the street, and i pull it to the corner and rest it on a lightpost. I also see one of the concussion/smoke grenades in the street, unexploded. I use the zoom on my camera to take a picture without getting too close.
I point it out to people so they can stay clear. “Is it live?” One man asks. I decide that it is, and say yes. Another man walks over to pick it up to take it out from under the path of the now cautiously moving traffic. I lower my sign to shield my eyes in case it explodes and tell him to be careful. The idea of throwing it back into the cops occurs to me, but I am glad that he just disposes of it (in a gutter i think). I see a young white woman with short, curly dirty blonde hair and glasses move closer to the lightpost where I am. I ask her if the bike is hers, she says yes and slowly picks it up. She seems to be in some kind of adrenaline high as well. We stand on the corner and watch the protestors start to regroup a block further uptown.
“Can I walk with you?” She asks. “I feel safer just walking with someone.”
I tell her she most definitely can.
We start walking uptown on the Broadway sidewalk, me holding my sign, she walking her bike. An older black woman with braids up in a bun stops us, looking concerned.
“Did anyone get hurt? I heard something that sounded like gunshots.”
We let her know that they were just loud smoke grenades, and about the police vehicle with the smashed window. I flip through my digital camera pics and show her the grenade. She tsk tsks and shakes her head. She looks at us through dark shades and tells us that she has seen a lot, been through the sixties. She spoke of channeling this energy into the power of the pen, making sure that local representatives, the police stations and newspapers were contacted. She was glad that the Chief Of Police resigned. She also spoke about how the Oakland Police Department imports cops from Russia because no one wants to work here. The result being having cops who are not acquainted with, and unexperienced with connecting with diverse Oakland populations. The woman was a big advocate for police reform through recruiting people from the neighborhoods they will police. Cops who know kids by name cause they see them at church. We nodded, and conversed in agreement.
After a brief moment we exchanged smiles, thank yous, be carefuls and good byes. The young woman and I continued walking uptown. I know i have to head home soon. I see a chicken wire fence near a bus stop, and i take time to slide the post of my sign through the links so that it is high up, defiantly calling for justice against killer cops. When I am finished, a brother with a wool skully hat steps towards me from the bus stop, and says to me real close in my ear:
“People are excited about Obama. And that’s a good thing. But we need to be writing Feinstein about this stuff. She’ll fix things.”
I smell cigarettes and scented oils. He pulls back and looks me in the eye.
“Feinstein” He reiterates, giving me two thumbs up. I nod and smile, thank him and keep moving.
My bicycle friend is bending over helping a homeless man whose shopping cart of possessions has fallen over. Full plastic bags, clothes and other items are all over the sidewalk. Green eyes look up at me, and my bicycle friend says:
“I’m going to help this man for a minute. Could you walk with my bike and i’ll catch up with you in a minute?”
I say yes, and take the bike calmly, as if (white) people I just met ask me to walk away with their bike all the time. I walk slowly with the bike, and realize that i am unconsciously walking slow to make clear that i am not going to quickly jump on the bike and speed away. I break into a more normal stride, clear that all that isn’t necessary. I also feel touched by this genuine exchange that is happening.
I reach the corner of 14th and Broadway, and police are shooing people away. Wtf? I pretend not to see them, and lean the bike against the lightpost, pretending to be tying my shoelace or something. My ruse seems to invisibilize me, and practically everyone else is shooed away. My bicycle friend walks up and thanks me, looking around at the cops. I tell her that the cops are dispersing people, but i’m just like whatever. Still, i gotta head home. She thanks me again, and takes her bike. I ask her what her name is, she says Tonya. I formally introduce myself. She asks if i want a ride home on the seat while she pedals standing up. I laugh graciously, and say i’m ok, touching her shoulder in thanks. She smiles and rides off.
The cops are now doing the cop parade thing in the middle of the street, walking a dozen cops across. It looks so fascist. I see a friend, a sista i am going to refer to as B, who is shaking her head at the cops.
“They got all the twist ties hanging from their belts, they are just ready to start mass arrests. Look at em.”
Indeed, the cops look like they have a mission. We are behind them, watching them process up 14th street towards Lake Merritt.
B looks exasperated.
“What’s it gonna take? Do I have to join the police force and start killing white people? Or other cops?”
Another sista walking by hears B, and reacts by covering her mouth and saying a long “OOOOOOOOOOO!” The sound evokes approval of daring schoolyard antics, or hitting someone’s weakness right on the money when doing the dozens. Essentially... B said it.
Said the “unspeakable”, the idea of white communities being subjected to the same loss, the same needless suffering, the same injustice, the "same" oppression. The question resounded in my head. What would it really take for police reform?
I think of B’s words as I turn the key to my front door. Once inside, I can see from my window that cops were amassing on Harrison. I get a text from Kenji, it says that the cops are doing mass arrests on Harrison and 14th. B was right.
I am left with questions.
The last protest, protestors smashed up corporate stores instead of mom and pops places. Wells Fargo was the first to go down. What is the next step?
Politics of riots aside, another question burns uncomfortably in me. Where are the riots for Annette Garcia? Are there lower levels of outrage when women of color get shot in the back and killed by cops?
In a time of financial crisis, the OPD has tons of positions available. What can be done about deadly combinations of recession, capitalism, oppression, and the exaltation of legalized, primarily male violence?
The last question is around justice and healing.
In 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV put an Amish schoolhouse under seige, and shot and killed 5 schoolgirls (ages 6 through 13) before killing himself . The response of the Amish community to this harrowing tragedy made the news, because it was unlike many responses usually seen. The outpouring of compassion directed to the Amish families, such as a fund for the affected families was refused... unless the family of the shooter was also given funds to help them recover from their loss as well. Family members of the murdered girls went to the wife and children of the shooter and comforted them. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts' funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims. Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, "Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you've given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you."
Will justice be served by putting anyone through the twisted, unjust, capitalist monster that is the prison industrial system? Will healing and reform occur that way? I do want justice, but i don’t think we have a very real and functioning justice system. Of course, a part of me wants Mesherle with all his white privilege and guilt to experience what men who look like me are forced through all the time. I want an example to be made, a sign to humanity impaired, racist white cops that its no longer open season on black men. An example that signals the crumbling of the racist foundations of an institution. And at the very least, a mechanism that protects our communities from trigger-happy cops.
But perhaps, there are other ways towards healing and justice. Ways that we have yet to create. Ways that leave the family destroying eye-for-an-eye ways behind. Ways that truly rehabilitate and cause real change. Ways that others may have pointed a compassionate finger towards.
I’m open to suggestions.