OK. Here is what I have to say about Oscar Grant.*
There are lots of really important discussions to happen here about police violence, racism, etc. I don’t want to talk about that right now. What I want to talk about is coverage of the “riot.”
The day after the verdict and mini “riot” of July 8 2010, The SF Appeal — and, subsequently, many other outlets and blogs — reported that only 19 of the 78 who had been arrested were from Oakland. These figures were widely repeated and discussed, with many people using them to support the idea that troublemakers and instigators from outside of Oakland came to town to cause problems. Many of these same people blamed the violence on white anarchists wearing black hoodies and bandannas.
Let’s unpack this a little bit.
It was “outsiders” causing the problem.
A local establishment** wrote a post on Facebook saying, “What turned an upset-but-mostly-peaceful crowd into a smash-and-grab mob? At least partly: lots of folks who don’t even live here. People, we have enough problems of our own – next time, stay home and break stuff up in *your* hometown. for real.” This sentiment was echoed countless times and in countless ways.
This is what that sentence (and the others like it) tells me: Next time a cop kills someone in Oakland, I should put on my blinders and think it’s not my problem because I don’t live in Oakland. And ditto for any other kind of injustice going on not in my backyard. That Chevron refinery in Richmond? Who cares if they expand it! War in Iraq? Whatever! Not my problem!
This sentiment is antithetical to how I live my life, and how I want the world to function. It took me a long time to boil down why those statements hurt me so much, and now that I figured it out I don’t know how to emphasize it enough.
Here are some other, additional reason why I think this “it was outsiders” narrative is a problem:
- Who is really an outsider? I ride BART most days, yet I live one block from Oakland. Does this mean that I don’t have a right to be outraged at BART police for killing someone? If there are organized rallies on the day of the verdict in Oakland but not where I live, should I not go? Grant, by the way, was from Hayward. Does that make his family and friends “outsiders”?
- Under what context were people arrested? Where they actually doing someone illegal or where they just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time? Do you think that prominent Oakland attorney Walter Riley was arrested doing something illegal? Since the city only filed charges against 9 people, does it really matter where those other 69 people were from?
“Anarchist” is not a synonym for “rioter.”
I didn’t go to downtown Oakland because I had heard a lot about the large number of police going there and I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I might accidentally get arrested for just standing there. I think I spent most of the evening arguing with people on Twitter about using the word “anarchist” to refer to people who were breaking windows and looting. As I said, the kind of story that people were perpetuating was that white anarchists wearing black hoodies and bandannas had come from outside of Oakland to fuck shit up. I was actually really surprised to see that kind of generalizations and language coming from smart people. For example:
LudovicSpeaks: “Lemme also say-white anarchistsare often behind instigating ‘riots,’ and we have many of them in Oakland. They cause lots of trouble”
Egratto: “Already seeing white guys on bikes forming and dissolving their packs, and black bandannas. Anarchists, please get the hell out of my home.”
This photo essay from the Oakland Tribune (approximately 100 photos) clearly shows that first, the violence was perpetrated primarily by police, and 2nd, that a lot of people looting the stores were neither white nor wearing black/black bandannas.
While I still think that my discussion earlier that only 9 people were charged with crimes is important and applies here, the additional points I want to make here are:
- Focusing on a few window smashing incidents takes away from focusing on the larger issues. This video shows that there was a lot less violence than people are talking about, as well as the role of the police in escalating.
- Let me say that again: we cannot underestimate the role of the mainstream media hype and the police in escalating the situation. There were tons of media reports ahead of time about how the authorities were gathering 20,000 police from around the Bay Area, that they may use a sound cannon, etc – and later reports talked about police “kettling” people: ordering them to disperse, but not allowing any way to leave. I appreciated that my friend Sarolta called the police the real outside agitators, the “blue bloc.”
- There are people unconnected to communities, social movements, or political activists, who will always come to hotspots to “fuck shit up” because they can and they think it’s fun. Ascribing political significance to them is a mistake.
- I know some people think that making generalizations is part of human nature, but it’s dangerous. In this case, how did you know that anyone there was an anarchist? (or from Oakland, btw). Maybe there’s some kind of “gaydar” for anarchism that I just don’t know about that these other people have, but aside from judging a book by it’s cover, I didn’t know that you could identify people’s political affiliations by how they look.
Violence v. Non Violence
Whether or not property destruction is a legitimate tactic is a huge debate among not only anarchists but other activists as well. I just want to say that this post has nothing to do with that discussion, and that I am only talking about one specific incident here and how it is being framed by people who are commenting on it.
I have more to say about the contradictions of what working for justice means when you don’t trust/support/believe in the criminal justice system. On one hand we criticize the system for how the police acted on July 8, and on the other, people want the system to deal with Johannes Meheserle. They’ve failed in both cases, and I hope more people start to understand that this system – and by that I mean the whole thing – is not working for very many people. Maybe more on that another time.
* The background: Very early in the morning on New Year’s Day 2009 Oscar Grant was fatally shot by BART officer Johannes Mehserle. On July 8 a jury convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a 2 to 4 years sentence, with a sentencing enhancement of up to 10 additional years for using a gun. On the day the verdict was announced, protests in Oakland started peacefully and after dark devolved into some window smashing and about 80 arrests. For more background and recent update on the case, check out Colorlines’ excellent coverage of the case.
**I’m not naming them because I like their business, and I’ll continue to patronize their establishment. But seriously, every time I read this comment, I just can’t believe that someone would say that.
- Colorlines’ excellent coverage of the case.
- Loved this photo of city council person Rebecca Kaplan and community members squaring off against cops
- Celeste Faison posted this really awesome summary of what to bring to a protest if you expect it to be violent.
- This is an excellent discussion of the verdict and its implications by Adam Serwer at The American Prospect.