Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The 21st Century USA (United States of 'Anger') Pt I

"People are angry"...

Almost invariably, this is applied to aging white, middle and working class Americans who are increasingly unfamiliar with a country where political decision makers look less and less and think less and less like them.

But they are not the only 'angry' Americans.

In Oakland, California, centuries old issues of inequity and abuse of power by law enforcement officials have exploded in riots.

On Jan. 1, 2009 five Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) , transit police officers stopped two trains at a station shortly after 2 a.m. As passengers look on, Officer Johannes Mehserle, then 27, draws his gun and shoots 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back as the younger man lies prone on his stomach. On July 8 of this year, an all white jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He will be sentenced next month. A timeline of the events from the time of shooting to the verdict can be read here.

The Oakland Tribune, in an editorial called for cooler heads to prevail saying...

"Apparently the jurors didn't believe that Mehserle acted without regard for Grant's life — a requirement for second-degree murder. Nor did they believe that he was provoked and acted in the heat of passion — voluntary manslaughter. Instead, they found that he acted negligently, but without malice."

"It was a quick verdict. The case was given to the jury on Friday. Monday was a holiday. A juror was sick Tuesday. And then on Wednesday, one juror was replaced because of a previously scheduled vacation, forcing the jury to restart deliberations with a new member. Talks that day were cut short because of another juror's medical appointment. So Thursday was the first time jurors had the opportunity to deliberate for a full day. But by midafternoon, they had reached a verdict..."

The reaction from Oscar Grant's family was predictable.

"Grant's family attorney, Oakland's John Burris, spoke with Grant's family members outside the courthouse, expressing their disappointment at the verdict."

"We are extremely disappointed with this verdict," Burris said. "The verdict is not a true representation of what happened to Oscar Grant or what the officer's actions were that night."

"Burris said there was a small victory to be seen. In his years of practicing law, he could not remember a white police officer being found guilty of manslaughter for killing a black man; nevertheless, the family wanted more."

""The family is extraordinarily unhappy," Burris said. "This is not a reflection of how the American justice system is supposed to work.""

"Burris did implore those in Oakland to be peaceful in any demonstrations, saying, "One death is enough.""

Suffice it to say, peace did not ensue.

"After about three hours of passionate but largely peaceful protests by hundreds of people who converged on downtown Oakland late Thursday afternoon, a splinter group of protesters, many wearing masks, egged on the crowd and ran through the streets breaking store windows, looting and setting fires before police moved in with flash-bang grenades."

"People started pouring into the intersection at 14th Street and Broadway after the surprisingly quick verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial. The former BART police officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III on Jan. 1, 2009."

"Police officers, while visible and prepared, allowed the crowd of about 1,000 to block the street and set up a podium. One after the other, speakers grabbed a bullhorn to express grief and anger. Many urged the crowd to keep the protest peaceful, and by 8 p.m. there were only a few arrests for fighting with police and instances of rocks being thrown by a smaller group that tried unsuccessfully to march down Broadway toward police headquarters."

"But all that changed after dark. By 10:30 violent protesters had left a trail of destruction down Broadway and throughout Uptown, smashing windows and looting..."

It's important to say that all of this, the shooting of Oscar Grant, the quick return of the verdict and the rioting is wrong.

But it is also important to understand, that this is not an aberration in our country. It is a reminder of a justice system that still undervalues the lives of minorities even in a country that is 'post racial'. And it is also important to understand that this undervaluation of the lives of people of color can be seen in countless ways that make them feel as vulnerable as those who 'want their country back'. Because the 'return' being called for is too great a reminder of a return to days when the Oscar Grants of America can be accidentally (or incidently) harmed in inumberable ways or even murdered in the cause of making white people feel 'safe'.

The rioting, while senseless, futile and contained (not to mention the fact that it is violence and criminal activity that can never be justified), becomes ocular justification for crackdowns that inhibit, intimidate and feed the fears of other Americans who are 'afraid'. These are the bigots and racists, for whom it is convenient to hide behind the thick techno-curtain of the blogesphere venting their spleen against those who have been 'given too much'. This too would be harmless and impotent, if it weren't for the politicians ready to pounce on such idiocy to score ballot points.

It's this same fear that results in Arizona immigration laws that are based on a desire to keep our country 'safe' - without regard to the fact that it is nearly impossible to enforce such laws without profiling citizens.

And so we're all 'angry' and 'afraid'. Transit police who fatally shoot prone suspects, are 'afraid'. Jurors who rush to judgement, without due consideration of facts or the message of their verdicts are 'afraid' (if not just apathetic). Rioters who vent their rage in ways that make their protests exploitable by criminals and agitators, are 'angry'. The business owners whose livelihoods are at stake 'afraid' and 'angry'. And the citizens who watch in horror, are 'afraid' and 'angry' as we are all reminded that justice is something that sometimes eludes our grasp.

Fear is a real and useful emotion, so is anger. But they cannot be a justification for everything. Not for taking a life. Not evading responsibility for rendering justice. Not rioting, violence and looting. And not for the meanness, insensitivity and veiled bigotry and racism we see in our politics and culture today.

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