[News] Chronicle of a Riot Foretold - Racism Fuels the Possibility of Acquittal and Rebellion

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 29 18:18:39 EDT 2010

June 29, 2010

Racism Fuels the Possibility of Acquittal and Rebellion

Chronicle of a Riot Foretold



As the trial of former transit cop Johannes 
Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant rushes at 
breakneck speed toward its conclusion, spurred by 
the insistence of Judge Robert Perry and 
political imperative, ominous clouds of injustice 
begin to crowd the political horizon in 
anticipation of a verdict, which could come as 
soon as this week. But while it is this injustice 
that we should most fear, too many are focusing 
their fear and the fear of others on the 
possibility of a repeat of last year’s street 
rebellions should Mehserle be acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge.

What this view neglects is one basic fact, indeed 
the most basic fact regarding the Oakland 
rebellions: that it was only as a result of those 
rebellions of January 2009 and the fear that they 
might be repeated that Mehserle was even arrested 
and put on trial in the first place. Those 
rebellions were, in fact, the basic precondition 
for this limited form of “justice” to even be 
possible. Possible, yes, but far from guaranteed. 
And yet those who opposed the rebellions from the 
very beginning, denouncing them with delusions of 
“outside agitators” as irrational and desperate 
outbursts--in short, as “riots”--are busily 
trotting out the same discredited lines as always.

Different Trials, Different Verdicts

Of course, the relative brevity of the Mehserle 
trial should not fool us. While The People v. 
Johannes Mehserle has only been underway for a 
few short days, two other trials have been 
proceeding informally for 18 months now: The 
People v. The State and The State v. Oscar Grant.

The trial of The People v. The State was 
initially played out during the 
of January 2009, rebellions sparked not by 
Grant’s murder, but by the patently hypocritical 
inaction of the state in response and its patent 
refusal to treat a murder of a Black youth by a 
white cop in the same way it would treat any 
other murder. These rebellions forced the state 
into action, however defensively, giving rise to 
Mehserle’s arrest, indictment, and now to his trial for murder.

Thus forced involuntarily into charging a cop 
with murder, the state and all of its allied 
institutions responded in the best way they 
could: by shifting gears, in Gramscian terms, 
from the coercive to the hegemonic, putting Oscar 
Grant on trial as a not-so-subtle way of 
justifying his murder. As a result, The State v. 
Oscar Grant has been played out largely through 
the demonization of Grant in the media, a 
demonization which continues today as an 
essential part of Mehserle’s defense strategy.

At first, it was the media that put Oscar Grant 
on trial, disrespecting his death and the 
suffering of his family by bringing up irrelevant 
questions about his criminal history, while 
equally irrelevant aspects of Mehserle’s past 
were displayed front-and-center, in full view for 
all those in doubt of where public sympathy 
should lie in a white supremacist society: 
Mehserle the murderer thus became Mehserle the 
giant” who could do no harm. By contrast, those 
elements of Grant’s history which did not fit the 
profile of a young thug looking for trouble were 
systematically erased: Oscar Grant the father, 
the worker, the friend, the brother and cousin.

More recently, it has been Michael Rains, 
Mehserle’s attorney and notorious cop lawyer 
(Rains successfully defended the corrupt 
Riders”) who has assumed this role of smear 
artist. Knowing full well that racism is squarely 
on the side of his client, and that all he needs 
to do is to give the (white) public an excuse to 
pardon one of their own, Rains has deployed an 
ingenious strategy of 
leaks in violation of a prevailing gag order.

A Jury of Whose Peers?

But beyond these informal trials in the court of 
public opinion, if there was a single moment 
that, more than any other, shoved Mehserle’ 
brusquely toward an acquittal, it was the jury 
selection process, and this process, in turn, was 
heavily conditioned by the trial’s change of 
venue. Rains is no dummy, and has studied his 
history: you change the venue and then you stack 
the jury. After successfully getting the Mehserle 
trial moved out of Alameda County (but not 
successfully pushing it as far south as 
notoriously conservative San Diego), Rains came 
hard out of the gate, demanding ahead of time 
that, in open conflict with California law, 
police officers should be allowed onto the jury.

It has a certain logic to it, doesn’t it? If we 
are promised a “jury of our peers,” Rains was 
merely calling the perpetual bluff of the 
criminal justice system: a (white) cop should be 
judged by a jury of (white) cops, resulting 
inevitably in acquittal. But what if the opposite 
were also the case? What if young Black and Brown 
men in Oakland were suddenly granted juries of 
their peers, juries which understood the 
lose-lose situation of the postindustrial 
non-economy that is the underside of racist 
America? It would be acquittals all around and 
the system would come crashing down upon itself.

But such thought experiments inevitably crash 
into the hard wall of white supremacy, as it is 
only white privilege that allows Rains to 
plausibly demand a jury of peers for Mehserle. 
Every day, thousands of Black, Brown, and poor 
enter the justice system without the resources or 
leverage, in short, without the privilege, to 
make such demands. While knew he would lose the 
battle, however, Rains and his client might yet 
win the war, since by demanding police on the 
jury they created an opening through which cop 
culture would infect the jury by other means. In 
the end, either through utter incompetence on the 
part of the prosecution or open bias on the part 
of Judge Perry, a full four members of the final 
jury have police among their family or friends.

As most of us now know, there is a second aspect 
to the game, since while Rains was pushing for 
police or at least their family members to be on 
the jury, he was pushing equally hard to exclude 
anyone who might have an unexplained or natural 
affinity for Oscar Grant’s cause. In other words: 
Black people. In the final stages of jury 
selection, Judge Perry dismissed 2 of the 
original 12 potential Black jurors for identified 
causes, before Rains summarily dismissed 3 more 
peremptorily, meaning that no reason was given. 
Stunningly, given what we have just seen, one of 
the reasons given for dismissing a potential 
Black juror was experience with racial profiling. 
In other words, while jurors with family and 
friends in the police (and who presumably have 
some sort of positive feeling toward the police 
as a result) were admitted, a juror with a single 
negative experience (of the kind endemic to the Black community) was removed.

In the end, 
defense dismissed 3 Blacks and 4 Latinos, but 
only 1 potential juror who was white, and the 
prosecution 4 Latinos (2 with strong police 
ties), 2 asians, and 1 white. This left the final 
jury makeup as follows: majority female, with 7 
whites and 5 Latinos (some question remains as to 
the ethnicity of one of the latter).

Rains had played his hand impeccably, and if 
Oakland burns, he will deserve the lion’s share 
of the credit, but this is credit that he won’t 
likely be granted: as we all know, the best way 
to cheat without being caught is to fix the game 
beforehand, so when the shit hits the fan, your 
hand doesn’t get covered with it.

Crocodile Tears in Court

Efforts to humanize Mehserle reached a 
predictable crescendo when he took the stand to 
defend himself. While the press feigned surprise, 
an understanding of the long-term defense 
strategy, i.e. harnessing white supremacy to 
garner easy sympathy points, makes Mehserle’s 
testimony look instead like the natural 
conclusion of a trial whose conclusion was in many ways predetermined.

And this because his testimony was largely a 
repeat of the press coverage that had immediately 
followed the murder. Hours were spent on 
nominally irrelevant aspects of his background, 
such as the fact that he was voted 
huggable” in high school, and that he was 
embarrassed by this title at the time. But to 
insist that such facts are irrelevant is 
misleading, since they reveal the most basic 
racist structures that have been operating in 
this case since day one, the ways in which the 
media and the white public sought to explain away 
Grant’s murder despite seeing it before their 
very eyes. 
I wrote more than a year ago in these very same 
pages: “One side is automatically condemned; the other automatically excused.”

This sickening display continued when Mehserle 
returned to the stand Friday, claiming that he 
had not meant to shoot Grant, that it was all a 
tragic accident, and that as a result, he too was 
suffering deeply. Then, in a clearly 
well-practiced gesture, Mehserle broke down 
weeping on the stand. This might have proven 
effective on a jury long-primed to feel sympathy 
for this “most huggable” “gentle giant,” but it 
was certainly not convincing in the least for 
Grant’s friends and family sitting in the court, 
especially since Rains himself had laughed 
audibly when a friend of Grant’s who witnessed 
the killing similarly broke down during prior testimony.

Grant’s mother Wanda was so disturbed that she 
up and left, and 24 year old Tim Killings could 
finally take it no longer, standing up to shout: 
“Maybe you should save those fucking tears, 
dude!” Killings was promptly arrested under 
suspicion of contempt and as I write this has only just been released.

Nonprofits Protect the State, Again

A growing and increasingly hysterical chorus has 
begun to warn of the threats faced by the City of 
Oakland when the verdict comes down. Perhaps 
sensing the increased likelihood of an acquittal, 
local government officials and the Oakland police 
have kicked into full gear, and their 
interventions have again appeared on both the 
coercive and the hegemonic levels.

letter purportedly from a San Leandro police 
officer clearly seeks to stoke the flames of 
anxiety: warning of police preparations for 
massive riots, naming the “Black Bloc” as the 
threat, and urging readers to stay in their homes 
after the verdict. Such apocalyptic predictions 
seemed to be supported by both the 
training undergone by OPD and other agencies and 
message distributed by an emergency medic warning 
that the police are preparing for a week-long 
riot in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Hayward and 
instructing medical responders to prepare for 
injured civilians. In a nod toward McCarthyite 
snitch culture, OPD has even established 
special “tip line” for the Mehserle verdict, with 
an audio recording encouraging that citizens 
report any and all “anarchist” threats in the coming days.

But explicit threats of force are but one side of 
OPD’s preparations for the day of the verdict. It 
recently emerged that Mayor Ron Dellums and the 
Oakland Police 
meetings with representatives of various 
nonprofit organizations and church leaders active 
in Oakland in an effort to quell any rebellion in 
the streets before it starts. While it should not 
surprise us that the city might attempt to do so, 
what is more surprising is how easily these 
mediating forces fell for it, especially given 
the lessons of the past 18 months.

Thus many of the very same church leaders who 
played an instrumental role in supporting the 
Oakland community and organizing to demand 
justice for 18 months took to their congregations 
insist that people remain at home, employing the 
“power of prayer” instead of their own power in 
the streets. More worrying still was the response 
from ostensibly “radical” nonprofits.

While the nonprofit sector 
a significant role in demobilizing the rebellions 
of January 2009, providing, in the words of local 
the Struggle, a “buffer” protecting the state, 
never before had they come out so openly in 
support of the governing apparatus as would be 
the case in 
June 23rd email from Nicole Lee of the Urban 
Peace Movement. Astonishingly referring to the 
Mayor’s office and the City of Oakland as “allies 
and partners” Lee (and by the looks of it, 
several prominent Oakland nonprofits) urges 
nonprofiteers to “inoculate” their bases so that 
“outside agitators” will not be able to lead them 
astray as they did in January of 2009. Evidently, 
“inoculation” means using revolutionary language 
in an effort to fool the youth, as Lee, somewhat 
incredibly, evokes the spirit of Martin Luther 
King, Malcolm X, and even Huey P. Newton to 
conceal her collaboration with the state.

There is no mention of the fact that the “outside 
agitator” claim, one which originated with OPD 
itself, was 
discredited at the time, and that those deploying 
it were not even themselves present on the 
streets. There is no recognition of the utter 
condescension that such a claim entails, reducing 
youth of color to passive followers of whatever 
white anarchist attracts their attention. And of 
course, there is no suggestion whatsoever of what 
strategy for demanding justice these nonprofits 
have to offer their “base” beyond negotiations with the enemy.

Rebellion on the Horizon?

While I don’t want to stoke hysteria about an 
impending riot, nor do I intent to ignore the 
very real and very justified rage that will greet 
an acquittal of Mehserle (and likely even his 
conviction on manslaughter charges, according to 
communiqué published by Oakland’s Raider Nation 
Collective). Toward this end, ominous graffiti 
has begun to appear near Downtown Oakland reading 
“L.A. better get it right, or else,” and other 
considerably less pleasant phrases. Closing 
arguments are slated to begin any day now, and a 
rally has already been called to meet at 6pm on 
the day of the verdict at 14th and Broadway in 
Downtown Oakland, notably the point of origin of rebellions past.

But while recognizing the possibility of a 
renewed rebellion in the streets, our efforts 
should not be focused on preventing it, but 
rather at refocusing attention on the real 
violence at work in Grant’s murder and the 
Mehserle trial. The real violence is that which 
was suffered by Oscar Grant, his family, and his 
friends, and this is a violence multiplied a 
thousandfold across the United States as a whole. 
It is this violence that permeates the structures 
of the state, of the judicial system, of jury 
selection, and of sentencing, and it is this 
violence that has played out in the Mehserle 
trial as a dehumanization of Oscar Grant and a 
sympathetic presentation of Mehserle himself.

This is a violence far more grave than a few 
broken windows and a burning car or two, and it 
is a violence far more deeply rooted and 
insidious to be eliminated by putting a single 
cop on trial. But when that cop is on trial as a 
result of mass action in the streets, a transitional victory has been achieved.

Some 18 months ago, 
noted the intuitive rationality of those who took 
to the streets in the following terms: “we have 
to do something, and in the face of police 
impunity, this is all we can do.” This 
rationality stood against all the claims from the 
nonprofit left that to do so was utterly 
irrational. Fortunately, we have been proven 
correct, and whereas before, we came with but a 
desperate wager, we now come with the experience of a popular victory.

In such a context, any and all calls for 
unconditional peace without justice, for 
community solidarity in collaboration with the 
police and the state, and for “rational” dialogue 
with an unreservedly irrational force must 
inevitably confront the single most important 
lesson of January 2009: that Mehserle was not 
arrested due to the peaceful and rational 
requests of the Oakland community, and nothing 
could be more violent and irrational than 
rewriting the history that we have made.

George Ciccariello-Maher received his Ph.D in 
political theory at the University of California, 
Berkeley. He lives in Oakland, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu

Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110

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