According to President Obama, America has come “90 percent of the way” towards ending racism. This statement, however, is violently contradicted by the brutal police killing of Oscar Grant, a young black man, by a police officer in Oakland, CA on New Years Day. The case provoked angry demonstrations in Oakland after the police officer was recently found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — by a jury without a single black member. This drives another nail in the coffin of the idea about the “end of racism” that Obama holds so dear.
In their closing statement, the defense for the police officer who killed Oscar Grant tried to convince the jury that the case was an “isolated incident” and not to make “some sort of commentary on the state of relations between the police and the community in this country,” (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/2/10).
Time and again this is what jurors and the wider public is told: race had nothing to do with it; it was just an isolated incident. But then why is it that practically every case of police brutality — from Rodney King to Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and countless others — is perpetrated against people of color? Clearly, the murder of Oscar Grant is indicative of a larger pattern. It is an old and persistent pattern of brutal racial oppression in America.
Oscar Grant and several others were detained by Oakland police in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2010. The Oakland PD were responding to an alleged fight taking place between some of the men in the Fruitvale station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. After detaining the men for almost an hour, questioning and arguing with them, police officers moved to handcuff several of them and Mehserle restrained Oscar Grant by kneeling on his back while he lay prostrate, stomach - down on the train platform. It was at this point that officer Mehserle drew his gun and shot Grant in the back at point-blank range. Grant then screamed “you shot me!” and died several hours later from his wounds from a bullet that ricocheted off the ground and punctured his lung.
Fellow riders on the subway that night filmed the incident and their recordings clearly show that Grant was not threatening the police in any way at the time he was shot. Furthermore, eye witnesses described the officers’ behavior as antagonistic from the beginning and some attested to the officers’ use of racial slurs during the incident. Roy Bedard, a police use-of-force expert, said of the shooting after viewing several video recordings of it, that “it looks like an execution” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/7/09).
Communities of color — in Oakland, throughout California, and across the country — have been outraged at this blatant case of police brutality, yet again perpetrated by a white police officer against a young black man. In Alameda County, where the shooting took place, the public outcry was so great that Mehserle’s defense attorney appealed for — and received from the judge — a change of venue for the trial, claiming that Mehserle could not receive “a fair trial” in Alameda. Conducted in downtown Los Angeles, the trial took place with a jury consisting of seven white members, four of Hispanic and one of Asian background — i.e. no black jurors. As many as six of the jurors were said to have “law enforcement connections,” meaning that either a spouse or family member was a police officer, and Mehserle’s defense attorney successfully argued that video evidence not be shown in court.
Of the three charges brought against Mehserle — second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter — the jury convicted him of only the third and least serious. Apparently, Mehserle’s excuse that he “meant to taze” Grant, despite the fact the tazer was worn on the opposite side of his body from his gun, weighed about half as much and had a completely different shape, was enough to convince the jury of non-malicious intent.
The massive and ongoing protests which have taken place since this verdict was released on July 8th show the immense anger and frustration that exist among America’s black community. Oscar Grant’s killing is but the latest and one of the most vicious examples of the systematic racial profiling pursued by police departments across the country. A recent New York Times article noted that in Brooklyn, and New York City as a whole, the NYPD has been pursuing a policy known as “stop and frisk” in which people on the street are simply stopped for infractions like “furtive movement” in order to be interrogated and frisked. Complete records for all of these individuals — over 575,000 in 2009 alone — are kept on file.
A recent Village Voice article said that 85 percent of those stopped in New York City were either black or Latino, and this humiliating and invasive police tactic has been most actively pursued in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownesville. The rate of stop-and-frisk in one section of Brownesville was found to be so high that it equaled one stop per year for each of the 14,000 residents in that area (New York Times 7/11/10). One long-time resident noted that people in the neighborhood “fear the police because you can get stopped at any time.” Less than 1 percent of the 52,000 stops resulted in an arrest and only 25 guns were recovered from those stopped and frisked.
Such systematic policies of racial profiling, combined with the brutal murders of Oscar Grant and Sean Bell and the incredibly disproportionate incarceration rate for African Americans (six times more likely to be incarcerated in a country that already has the highest overall incarceration rate of any nation ever) lead to only one logical conclusion: the police forces and criminal “justice” system across the country are used to keep people of color, African Americans and Latinos in particular, as a permanent underclass in American society.
Keeping the majority of blacks in a near-constant state of anxiety about police oppression—as with undocumented immigrants about deportation — serves the interests of the American ruling class in several ways. First, it works to provide a source of cheap labor by deterring African Americans from speaking up about the economic injustices they face. Why bother advocating your interests in a society that’s clearly out to keep you down? Second, such policies divide the broader working class along racial and ethnic lines by scapegoating black people for many of the problems in society while providing white workers with a relative sense of privilege. The police oppression of blacks and Latinos also provides inmates for America’s massive — and growing — prison-industrial complex, which creates jobs for an increasing number of rural Americans while lining the pockets of private for-profit “corrections” contractors, paid to do everything from building new jails, catering the food, and providing prison guards.
Under capitalism, the police represent the armed wing of the state of corporate class rule and capitalism. While many individual officers may have working class ties and an increasing proportion are themselves black or Latino, this does not change the fundamental character and function of the police force as whole — namely, to protect private property and support the existing power structure in which stockholders and CEOs run the show. Instances like the murder of Oscar Grant are not isolated at all. They are not the acts of a few “bad cops” or even of a misguided policy that could somehow be reviewed and corrected. Rather, brutal police tactics, racial profiling, and the barbarism of the death penalty, are a natural outgrowth of a state apparatus designed to support the profits of the few against the interests of the many.
Community organizations, unions and working people should continue to call for demonstrations and demand a commission composed of ordinary working class people to investigate and expose police practices, police racism and for democratic control of the police. Furthermore, the outrage at the police killing of Oscar Grant should be linked to the struggle to tax Wall Street and the rich, and to use the money for decent jobs, free education, rebuilding the inner cities, affordable, decent housing and full funding of community needs. This is a program to start to deal with the serious social problems of poverty and street crime across the country.
Ultimately, racial profiling and institutionalized police brutality against African Americans stem from a system in which ordinary people do not control the police, and the police act like an occupation army in communities of color like Oakland. As the violent death of Oscar Grant shows, the stakes are too high. And as the favorable treatment of his killer makes even clearer, people of color cannot “trust” the courts and criminal justice system to right such wrongs. It is time for labor, community, immigrant and youth activists to work together to challenge the capitalist system - a system that needs exploitation, poverty, racism, environmental degradation and war in order to keep itself afloat.