Oscar Grant was just one of many young Black men shot by police officers in the US in 2008. The thing that makes his story different is that it was caught on camera and witnessed by hundreds of people. On December 31, 2008, the same night Grant was killed, 23 year-old Robbie Tolan was shot in the driveway of his home in Bellaire, Texas because police thought he was driving a stolen car. A bullet lodged into his liver and ended his career as a professional baseball player. Like Grant, Tolan was young, Black, and unarmed. And Grant and Tolan weren’t exceptions. Police in Jacksonville, Florida shot 25 people in 2008. Of these 25 people, 21 were Black.
In the United States, Black and Latino men who come into contact with the police have a greater chance of being killed or going to prison than whites. According to the US Bureau of Justice, Blacks and Latinos who are pulled over by the police are more than twice as likely to be searched, arrested, or subjected to physical force than whites. In US prisons, 40 percent of people incarcerated are Black while 20 percent are Latino. And of the people locked up for drugs, 86 percent are Black while only five percent are white.
The cellphone cameras at Fruitvale BART on New Years Eve captured more than just the murder of an unarmed Black man by a white cop. They captured the reality of what the so-called justice system looks like in the United States.
Missing The Point
City officials and the media have been warning us about the likelihood of violence in the Oakland streets following the aftermath of the verdict. Their message to us is that the city officials and their cops are concerned about our safety and that those who would protest are a threat to people’s safety.
The tense atmosphere they are creating is an attempt to shift our focus away from what this trial is actually about. This trial is not about some people who broke the windows of small businesses or lit a police car on fire last January. And it is not a trial about Oscar Grant! This trial is about whether a cop can get away with murdering an unarmed Black man in front of hundreds of people. Period.
City officials and the cops are hoping that the real point of this trial gets lost, but we can’t let it.
What is Violence?
Officials are telling us that people are likely to go out into the streets to damage property—this is what they mean when they warn us of potential “violence.” But this isn’t violence.
In Oakland, 22,000 children are malnourished due to the inability of their families to afford food. Close to 20 percent of Oakland’s population lives below or at the federal poverty level. According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, a child born to a family in West Oakland is more likely to be born prematurely than a child born to a family in Oakland Hills. This is real violence.
And what about the violence of the police, which is what this whole trial is about? Nurses and doctors throughout Oakland are being put on standby. But why would anyone end up in the hospital if people demonstrate in the streets after the verdict? It will be because the police used batons, tear gas, and other types of physical force on crowds of people. Will they call this violence?
These officials’ definitions of “violence” are just showing us what their real priorities are.
Do They Want a Riot?
The Oakland Police Department has been behaving as if it would like to see a riot happen.
In what they are calling “Operation Verdict,” the OPD has been staging mock-riot drills with the California Highway Patrol and over 20 other law enforcement agencies. Over 450 police officers have been participating in the drills. After the verdict is read, the OPD plans to issue a call for “Mutual Aid,” at which point hundreds of officers from throughout Northern California will come to Oakland. In addition to these preparations, the National Guard has also been put on standby.
The OPD has also announced to the media that they are looking at fliers put up around town and monitoring websites such as Facebook and Twitter so that it can know immediately when and where public gatherings about the verdict will be held.
The OPD says it hopes demonstrations stay peaceful. However, it seems like they are trying to provoke people by coming out in force. Oakland’s police chief said last week that public safety will be jeopardized if 80 police officers are laid off because of the city’s budget problems. Maybe he wants a riot in Oakland. It would sure help his argument.