Too Late for Justice

As the city of Oakland prepares for the Grant trial verdict in which former Oakland BART cop, Johannes Mehserle, is on trial for murder in the 2009 New Year’s morning shooting of Oscar Grant, it may be important to ask a bigger question: is it too late for justice? Flyers in support of Oscar Grant

It is impossible to not notice that there is an air of apprehension throughout the Town. From Downtown to the Fruitvale, stores have been boarded up in preparation for rebellions, civil disobedience, and property destruction that nobody is quite sure if is coming.

Reports have focused on the protests and property destruction that took place in Oakland only a few days after Grant’s death. Back then, in January of 2009,  after video of the shooting circulated widely, thousands of people took to the streets and over a hundred were arrested. In anticipation, comparisons to the Rodney King trial of 1992 in which four white cops were acquitted of a brutal beating of King have been made. As some have ominously pointed out, in that case King was only beaten whereas Johannes Mehserle killed Oscar Grant, so the logic dictates, the rebellions and backlash against police may be more severe. One thing is for sure, as officials seek to prevent the disruptions of 2009, the police crackdown will undoubtedly be harsh. As Jesse Strauss writes, reports have swirled for days of a preëmptive police state in Oakland.  And walking down the street in downtown sure is eerie: [see our pics].

It is hard to be optimistic about the potential verdict in a trial of a white cop for the killing of a black man, by a jury with no black jurors.

A helpful break-down of the Mehserle verdict options

A helpful break-down of the Mehserle verdict options

If history has shown anything, it is that cops get off free. Understandably much of the community hopes that Mehserle is convicted of the highest crime he is eligible for: second-degree murder. Such a verdict would mean that at least one cop would pay for his actions. But on a macro  level it seems important to question whether asking for a guilty verdict is enough.

Some might say that it is time to make an example of Mehserle – just as the shooting of Oscar Grant was an example of a racist police system. And it’s hard to argue with that line – this is one of the few chances that exist to punish a cop, not only for shooting an unarmed black man but for what are widespread, systemic, institutional, and epistemic transgressions. The very significance of the case, it seems, lies in that the prosecution seeks a murder conviction:  one of the only times that a cop has ever been tried for murder. But the undeniable and understandable satisfaction a guilty verdict would bring could prove to be short-lived unless we work for alternative models of justice. After all, would Mehserle’s conviction prove that “the system” “works”? Conversely do we need an acquittal to understand that it’s broken?

Furthermore, let’s be wary of another possibility: that a dangerous narrative can emerge (and likely will in the conventional media) on the chance of a guilty verdict – one that presents the case as a closed loop in which damage that was done with the shooting is undone by the conviction of a cop who will now “pay” for his crime. Such a line is particularly troubling because it is entirely limiting; it leaves little room for pointing out the everyday racism (et al.) of the prison-industrial-complex. So let us hope for a guilty verdict but not lie to ourselves that even the most severe punishment will have solved the injustice of the judicial system.

If we bracket off (bear with me) the fact that the judicial system, the police force, and the narrative around the Oscar Grant are racist, we are left with an opportunity to create change regardless of the outcome of this trial. Let us concede: there can be no justice. (Yet.) A guilty verdict is only the best we can get right now.

But this is not a call to apathy; it’s a realization that letting go of the broken model opens up new possibilities for change. While cooperation with police and government is worrisome and the focus on property destruction and not on police brutality ominous, some of the conversations coming out of the groups organizing part of the post-verdict response are uniquely heartening. They focus on creating new organizing opportunities, ways of expressing anger, frustration, rather than condemning others’ actions. As one organizer, a preacher at an East Oakland church, put it, “we are not here to tell people what to do, we are here to present constructive alternatives and point out that the struggle for justice does not start nor end with Oscar Grant”.

So why wait for the verdict? The cycle of injustice will not have been started with then. Neither should the response. In the future we can look back on the Mehserle trial verdict as a catalyst for widespread reform and fortunately that narrative remains unwritten. Let’s get writing.

Helpful reading:

Oakland on the eve of the Mehserle verdict: between “Do the Right Thing” and “What is to be Done?” [Solidarity-us.org]
Chronicle of a Riot Foretold [George Ciccariello-Maher / Counterpunch]
A Verdict Against Racism and Towards Liberation [Just Cause Oakland]
Continuing the Fight [Critical Resistance]

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