I was originally going to write this week’s article about harmless American novelist Richard Russo, whose birthday is today, but in light of the recent events surrounding the Oscar Grant shooting and subsequent trial of Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, CA, I felt that to ignore this issue would be irresponsible. The video of the incident is available here, but it is quite graphic and brutal.
I recently re-watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and was struck by the similarities between what happens at the end of the movie and the Oscar Grant/Johannes Mehserle incident. In both cases a young, black man is murdered by an over-aggressive police officer. In both cases the victim was restrained and posed no threat, mortal or otherwise, to the police or anyone else. In both cases the death brought about rage and outrage from the community. And as Spike Lee has commented about Do the Right Thing, in both cases people were more concerned with the protection of private property, of business, from riot, than with the life of a young, black male. Do the Right Thing was released in 1989—twenty years ago.
Next I read an article from the Duke Law Journal on JSTOR about the “Socio-legal aspects of racially motivated police misconduct.” The article is available here, but JSTOR access is required. If you do not have access to JSTOR and are interested in this issue, I highly recommend visiting a local library or college, most of which provide access to JSTOR, and reading this devastatingly astute examination of racially motivated police brutality. What struck me most about this article, other than its overall correctness and fluency, was its date of publication: September 1971—almost forty years ago.
Finally, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man came to mind. Late in the book the protagonist witnesses a young, black man murdered by a police officer. The details and feelings surrounding the incident in this book are identical to those in the Oscar Grant case. Ellison’s extraordinary novel was published in 1952—sixty years ago.
In all three cases the story is the same. The list of actual cases of racially motivated police misconduct in America in the recent past leading to the death of African Americans is even longer. In each incident, police supporters, many white, middle class Americans, and flat out racists have attempted to pick apart the case, pointing to tiny details without acknowledging the larger, historical picture of this series of terrible crimes. One can go back years, decades, and find the exact same story repeated over and over again. The pattern of abuse can be traced from body to body, while the history of accountability in these deaths is virtually non-existent.
The murder of an unarmed man by a police officer is especially heinous because of the police officer’s position of authority and power over the average citizen. Radical European left-wingers have often stated that they stand in solidarity with black Americans because their cause is the cause of economic oppression by an uncaring, alienated upper-class that will, if necessary, resort to violence to protect the status quo. The fact is that class does play an enormous role in these cases.
American laws are first and foremost in place to protect the wealthiest members of society—to protect their persons and property from harm. The wealthy have the most to gain from maintaining the social norm, while the poor and disenfranchised have the least to gain from following the rules. The less money one has, the less of a stake in the legal system they have—and the less of a stake the legal system has in them. In a country where politics are determined by economic resources, it is laughable to think that simply giving a person a single vote amounts to total enfranchisement.
Even more frightening is the bias with which these already skewed laws are enforced. Almost never will a middle-class or white collar criminal be brutalized by the police. There are several reasons for this, but chief among them is the unwritten and perhaps unconscious rule that police officers—street cops—exist to protect “hard working, taxpaying citizens” from the underclass. When you couple this with the long existing specter of racial prejudice, the resulting violence is not only predictable, but inevitable.
Spike Lee explored the inherent racial prejudice in American government in his remarkable documentary When the Levees Broke - A Requiem in Four Acts. This thorough examination of the Katrina disaster (and by disaster, Spike Lee doesn't mean the hurricane, but rather the man-made disaster of inadequate hurricane protection and the federal government's still unexplained delay in providing aid to those in need) delves deep into the racial tensions behind the Katrina aftermath and exposes any number of cases where local authorities mistreated, if not outright brutalized, black citizens of New Orleans in the hour they needed help the most. Just a few days ago six police officers were charged in connection to the shooting of several unarmed people in the Katrina aftermath, one of whom, 17-year-old James Brissette, was killed. But will they face justice? History says no.
To deny the racial aspects of the Oscar Grant case is ridiculous; however, to deny the socio-economic aspects is just as ridiculous. But regardless of the reasons, regardless of the excuses (a police officer unable to tell his handgun from a taser, despite nearly a 23oz. difference in weight and a difference in color?) there is no way to honestly or accurately say that convicting Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter for shooting an unarmed, restrained man in the back at point blank range, is justice. It was murder.
Some people argue that Oscar Grant’s criminal background makes a case for Mehserle’s actions. But even if Oscar Grant were a murderer, even if he were a vile, despicable career criminal, does that give a police officer the right to become a judge, jury, and executioner? Under no circumstances does a police officer have the right to take a person’s life unless the person poses a clear and immediate danger to the life of another. Clearly in the case of Oscar Grant, as well as many, many other cases of police murder in black communities, this was not the case.
In this video, Nation of Islam minister Keith Muhammad expresses the frustration and feelings of the Oakland community. His eloquence and passion could easily be that of the protagonist of Invisible Man. But Muhammad, like many Nation of Islam speakers, is often immediately stereotyped and discredited based on an incorrect perception of his organization. This perception comes from the sparse, though highly vectored, media coverage of the Nation of Islam and especially its current leader, Louis Farrakhan. Through various soundbytes, only the most inflammatory, polarizing snippets are made available to a public that, for the most part, relies on media conglomerates for their knowledge of world events. But if one listens closely to what Keith Muhammad has to say, one hears the same argument that people, black and white, have made for years: that the oppression of the lower class by the wealthy and their police force muscle must come to an end if we are to have true justice, true peace and true community. One must speak truth to power. One must resist bullying and intimidation. A justice system, much less a government, cannot preach equality while favoring financial superiority.
One often overlooked message in Do the Right Thing is that in order to succeed, African Americans have to overcome their apathy and resignation. This is true of all people, though, everyone must refuse complacency. Complacency only allows the existing power structure to continue on in their capricious, unaccountable methods. The character Spike Lee plays in Do the Right Thing, Mookie, is an example of this resistance. Throughout the movie, Mookie goes along with Sal and his sons, helping them to “protect” the pizza parlor from the other members of the community. But after the death of Radio Raheem, he decides that his place is with his people, fighting the status quo, not maintaining it.
The title of Do the Right Thing is an imperative sentence. It is a command. But at whom is the command directed? During a Q & A at the Cannes film festival after the showing of Do the Right Thing, someone asked Spike Lee which characters he felt ‘did the right thing.’ His answer was that a lot of the characters did the right thing, but the police definitely did not. The title of Do the Right Thing isn’t directed solely at the black community or even at the white community. It is directed at the establishment of power—the government, the judicial system, the police forces—those with the means and opportunity to cause serious damage to lives, family, and community if they act irresponsibly. It is they who should do the right thing. It is they who are in the best position to do so. And in the case of Oscar Grant, they most certainly did not.
Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. His short fiction is available on the web at http://brendlewords.blogspot.com
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