Policing the Police

Fredrick Harris

  • Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
    California, 539 pp, £24.95, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 520 27185 2

On 1 January 2009, around two in the morning, 19 days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, was shot in the back by a white transit officer in Oakland, California while lying face down on a train platform with his hands behind his back. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died seven hours later. Minutes before, Grant and several other men had been herded from a train by police, who were responding to a complaint about a brawl.

Using mobile phones, train passengers recorded Grant and the other men being handled – and in some cases manhandled – by the police while they were lined up and handcuffed on the platform. The video images of the shooting ignited a firestorm across the city and beyond. Grainy footage shows Officer Johannes Mehserle remove the gun from his holster and shoot Grant. The fatal shot – which pierced Grant’s back, travelled through his body and ricocheted off the platform back into his chest – was played and replayed on local and national television for weeks. A video of the shooting was also posted on YouTube, where it has been streamed more than a million times. Many concluded after watching the video that the shooting wasn’t a murder, but an execution.

Six days after the shooting, a peaceful march in downtown Oakland turned violent. Protesters who had gathered to express their outrage at Grant’s killing as well as their disgust that Mehserle had not been charged for murder were met by two hundred police in riot gear. Several hundred protesters smashed car windows, vandalised businesses and set fire to trash cans, newspaper stands and dumpsters. An abandoned patrol car was set on with rocks and bottles. Angry youth – mostly black but also Hispanic, Asian and white – confronted stone-faced officers who formed a barricade to stop the demonstrators from moving to other parts of the city’s central business district. Some shouted: ‘Pigs go home.’ Others: ‘Fascist police – no justice, no peace.’ One black youth asked in an earnest, defiant tone: ‘As a concerned citizen of the beautiful city of Oakland, can you provide me with a valid reason for what took place the other night to that young man, for being shot in his back?’ He and several others then fell to the ground, lying face down with their hands behind their backs, re-enacting the moment when Grant’s life began to end.

In the chaos that ensued, Ron Dellums, Oakland’s septuagenarian mayor, addressed a crowd of protesters on the steps of City Hall. Dellums, immediately recognisable by his sculptured Afro – which, over the decades, has gone from jet black to snow white – looked shattered, dejected and defenceless. In earlier decades the mayor would have been standing alongside the protesters, rather than standing for ‘the man’, forced to account for and defend the actions of the state against black people. Dellums was first elected to public office as a councilman in Berkeley in 1967; in 1970, he was elected to the House of Representatives as the first openly socialist member of Congress, serving until 1998. In 2006, he ran for mayor of Oakland and won, becoming the city’s third black mayor. Now he told the crowd he understood their pain and frustration but called for peace. ‘We are a community of people, we are civilised people,’ he thundered through a bullhorn and was roundly booed. He and his entourage then returned to City Hall and locked the doors behind them. Protesters continued their rampage. The police eventually dispersed the crowd with tear-gas grenades and arrested more than a hundred people for rioting, vandalism, assault and unlawful assembly. A columnist for the Oakland Tribune called the rioters ‘self-described anarchists’ and ‘wannabe Black Panthers’.

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