I’m not sure if you’ve been following the story of Oscar Grant, but it’s getting ugly.
To recap, 22-year-old Oscar Grant of Oakland, CA was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority officer as he was laid on the ground unarmed. Disturbing video footage shows that – although Grant was not resisting arrest, an officer shot him point blank in front of scores of witnesses. Though the shooting officer, Johannes Mehserle, has sinced resigned, he has yet to be formally charged for the incident. As was to be expected, riots have ensued as a direct result of the shooting.
Admittedly, I haven’t collected enough information to formulate a full argument either way. Besides that, the blogosphere (including many of the sites I frequent. Please support them by providing your readership.) has discussed this story exhaustively, so there isn’t much more I can add to the discussion. Still, I have a few random thoughts:
(1) I heard that ‘experts’ are trying to ascertain whether the shooting officer deliberately shot Grant with gun or if he mistakenly thought he was using his taser. If it indeed was the latter, this brings into question the irresponsible use of tasers and how the hell it could ever be mistaken for a gun.
(2) The riots stemming from this event are of particular importance and are worthy of examination. In one respect, rioting is a sure way to bring attention to the outrage generated by this story. When most other methods of protesting tend to fall on their faces, rioting and other acts of randomized (or, in some cases, planned) chaos are textbook ways to call attention to events that would otherwise be ignored. When Bill Ayers wanted to express his opposition to the Vietnam War, he didn’t paint flowers and peace signs on himself. He bombed shit. When the officers complicit in the Rodney King attacks beat the charges, opponents of the verdict didn’t march the streets or recite spoken word poetry. They burned buildings. In a society which often places a higher premium on property and infrastructure than on human life, nothing makes as bold of a statement as causing damage. Where rioting tends to have its shortcomings is when the aggressor displays a certain misguided and self-destructive activism by channeling their anger toward their own homes and communities. In this case, the only victims of the rioting were black business owners trying to make a living.
Before I go any further in this post, I should point out this is not an endorsement of violence and destruction of any type. I am simply citing this out as a legitimate means of making noise when the more practical and lucid attempts to express anger over injustice go flat.
(3) The anger people are feeling is indeed justifiable. But at the same time, I’m left with a few burning questions. Obviously, the anger directed at “the system” makes sense when officiers ostensibly committed to “serving and protecting” can be so quick in demonstrating brutality; especially when the attacks are racially motivated. I get that. Where I seem to get lost is how we have become so passionate about this kind of violence while being far more dismissive of the excessively prevalent theme of black violence perpetuated by…well…other black folks. As much as I hate to give any credence to the the insipid notion of “black-on-black” violence (considering that black assailants generally don’t make it a point to travel all the way to the Boondocks to carry out their crimes), I at least recognize the phenomenon.
With that, I have a simple question: Is black violence stemming from police racism and mismanagement of authority truly that much more heinous than the senselessness of brothas doing each other in? Maybe it is. I dunno. You tell me. All I know is that the outrage expressed in Oakland far excedes that of places like Philly, Atlanta, or my hometown of Flint, MI; where black people incidentally are dying from criminal violence as frequently as the sun rises. At the end of the day, I ultimately suspect that the issue was that a black person died by the hands of a person sworn to protect him. If I’m wrong, feel free to chime in.
(4) If the shooting officer was black, what kind of response would have been generated? Interestingly, race was heavily cited as motivation in the Sean Bell shootings; even when two of the three officers involved were racial minorities (one was Latino, one was black).
(5) This story delivers a knockout blow to police officers nationwide; a fact of especially unfortunate consequences. For every cop involved in inexcusable scenarios such as this, there are thousands of other law enforcement officials in the unenviable and thankless job of protecting people. Most police officers I’ve ever known or come in contact with were devoted to their duties as sworn officers and would never engage in such shameful activities. Yet, the one bad apple in this case destroys the bunch.
(6) In the shooting officer’s defense (as impossible as it seems for me to mount a defense for this man at this point in the investigation), this case is a prime example of the normalcy of racial prejudice and how easily people are ensnared in the web of bias. This level of bias is not an attribute unique to trigger happy police officers, but is indeed shared by many of us.
For example, I remember participating in an interesting test developed by researchers at the University of Chicago. This project, known as “The Police Officer’s Dilemma,” was designed to determine the extent to which race was a motivation in an officer’s decision to shoot potentially hostile targets. In this interactive test, a set of city-like images are flashed on the screen. In the various urban scenes, a random person pops up into the frame; some armed with a firearm, others armed with harmless items (soda cans, cell phones, wallets, etc.). The object of the test is to quickly determine whether the pop up person poses a threat or if they are an innocent civilian.
To take the test, click here. It’s a little lengthy, but well worth it.
I’ve taken the test several times now, and I am able to better identify assailants from the innocent folks. But initially, my test results matched the basic results; where black men were more likely to be shot and where it took longer to ascertain whether certain black characters were armed or not. This, coming from a black person fully aware of the despicable practice of discrimination and prejudice.
Did the test results mean that I myself have a bias? Perhaps. But the test results of a simulated video game; nor the realities of crime justify the ‘shoot first’ mentality of some officers. If anything, tests like these and real life shootings futher illustrate the all-too-real existence of racial prejudice and the importance of providing comprehensive training in dealing with those prejudices on the job. How many more innocent black men must die before this happens?
Your thoughts on any of this…?