Wednesday, July 14, 2010

George Ciccariello-Maher: Oakland's Verdict -- In the Oscar Grant Movement, Steel Sharpens Steel

Oakland's Verdict: In the Oscar Grant Movement, Steel Sharpens Steel


For the fourth time in less than two years, Oakland has become a surreal scene. As though fleeing a tsunami, thousands have packed into their cars in a mass exodus from the downtown area, and are sitting in twenty blocks of traffic headed north on Broadway. The jury in the murder trial of Johannes Mehserle, the transit cop who shot and killed Oscar Grant some eighteen months ago, has reached a verdict, which will be read in a few short minutes.

The response by the Oakland Police Department and the thousands of other officers drafted into an ironically-titled “mutual aid” scheme has been predictably overblown: alarms have been triggered in major buildings downtown to force evacuations, and the fear of God has been struck into the heart of every corporate and government employee in a ten-block radius. The police, it seems, are expecting a war, and are preparing accordingly.

Nonprofits: Velvet Glove of the State

But as I have said previously, this was never just about the police, as a powerful alliance had emerged between nonprofit and local city leaders whose sole objective seemed to be heading off a repeat of last year’s rebellions by co-opting the anger of the people at the verdict. Instead of a well-orchestrated symphony of hegemonic control, however, this alliance yielded a cacophony of clumsy embarrassment that discredited all involved. Here is how it played out:

Absent for the preceding 18 months while community members busily demanded and worked for justice, a whole host of state, business, and nonprofit institutions jerked into motion in the face of the impending verdict. Their clumsiness was immediately transparent in a staged press conference thrown together at the last minute by Mayor Ron Dellums with the participation of city leaders and the Oakland Police. In desperate need of some degree of legitimacy, the Mayor’s office drafted three members of the Laney College Black Student Union, who were trotted out and expected to parrot the official line: Peace without Justice.

While the measure was partially successful in providing the barest façade of unity (for example, in the uncritical coverage by the Oakland Tribune), the reality was that this co-optation attempt was a partial victory at best: the three young men took turns attacking the police for their threatening preparations and distinguishing between property destruction and violence, while Dellums squirmed and OPD chief Anthony Batts stared on in icy silence. Afterward, all three young men angrily confessed to feeling “used” by the Mayor and city officials.

Simultaneously, a whole host of nonprofits with nominally radical roots drew increasingly closer to the city and pushed the same line. The Urban Peace Movement, for example, teamed up with Youth Uprising to push the slogan “Violence is Not Justice” a now-notorious Public Service Announcement which was as ill-conceived as the Mayor’s press conference. In the PSA, the violent murder of Oscar Grant is explicitly equated to the property destruction that followed, and the nonprofit-state alliance becomes absolutely clear in interviews with OPD as well as San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris. Once released, the PSA was explosively polarizing, even within the nonprofit community, where many well-meaning activists take economic refuge.

Similarly polarizing was the next effort by the nonprofits and local government, one aimed more directly at the community-planned day-of-verdict event. A local, democratic, grassroots organization known as the Oakland Assembly had planned for months a gathering on the day of the verdict, one which would privilege the voices of the young people of color most affected by police violence, but this did not stop nonprofits and local city officials from attempting to upstage the community by holding their own event less than a block away, in front of City Hall, and demanding that community organizers join the official event.

Community organizers quickly denounced this and other efforts by nonprofits and city officials to co-opt the popular movement for justice in a press conference that was largely ignored by a media looking for sensationalistic stories of impending violence. Community calls for freedom of speech and assembly to be respected were taken up by some in the nonprofit community who did not buy into the city’s intimidation campaign and attempt to police movements, and once it became clear that the Oakland Assembly would not participate, the city-sponsored event collapsed.

“My Son Was Murdered!”

As the slow stampede of commuters continues to pour out of Oakland, we receive word of a verdict: involuntary manslaughter, which some had been predicting from day one. While it was initially unclear, the jury did in fact add a weapons enhancement, but it remains to be seen whether or not Judge Robert Perry will allow the seemingly contradictory conclusion--an involuntary killing alongside the purportedly voluntary use of a firearm--to stand. As though expecting that his final sentencing would prove controversial, Perry scheduled it for a full month later, on August 6th, but to add insult to injury, a defense motion was granted which postpones sentencing indefinitely.

In a clearly emotional response to the media after the verdict, Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson responded to the verdict in the most unambiguous of terms:

My son was murdered!
He was murdered!
He was murdered!
He was murdered!
My son was murdered!
And the law has not held the officer accountable…

Grant’s uncle Cephus “Bobby” Johnson expressed a sentiment similar to Wanda’s, that the family had been “slapped in the face by this system that has denied us true justice.”

In a nauseating parallel to the Youth Uprising PSA, the Director of that same organization, Olis Simmons, took Bobby’s statement as an opportunity to turn the violence of the state once again back toward its victims. Knowing perfectly what she was playing into, she told that mouthpiece of reaction in the Bay, the San Francisco Chronicle, of her disappointment at Bobby’s words: “Damn… He just opened the door. Kicked it open. I don’t think he meant to, but he did it.” Thus from mourning uncle, Oscar Grant’s uncle Bobby is symbolically transformed into violent aggressor. This tactic, so long used by abusers of all stripes, is called blaming the victim, and it is reprehensible.

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