Violence is not Justice
Many businesses and office buildings in Downtown Oakland are boarded up. If, for just a second, you don’t have the trial of Officer Johannes Mehserle on your mind you may think, “Wow, Jerry Brown’s legacy gentrification scheme must have really tanked!” Downtown Oakland is looking like your average abandoned city block in Detroit (a city with over 12,000 abandoned homes). As you tune in closer you see posters plastered all over businesses. Most of the posters feature Oscar Grant’s (R.I.P.) image with the slogan, “Violence is not Justice”. As you tune in even further you see the more familiar sights of Black people waking up from their sleeping bags and cardboard boxes, and people coming down from the night’s dope high to hustle life for another day. Taking this visual assault in entirely, it is hard not to question the concept of violence.
Who gets to define violence-city officials and property owners? Who gets to talk about what is or isn’t justice-people who are afraid (rightfully so) that their businesses will go up in flames and their dreams smashed to pieces? Perhaps an even better question is, “Whose fault is it that yet another unarmed young Black man was executed by those charged with the duty to protect and serve?”
Hopefully, city officials and business owners are working to decrease the skyrocketing unemployment rate in Oakland, working to protect services and programs for youth in Oakland, working to fix our ailing school system, working to stop the displacement of poor people of color as we battle the forces working to push us out in the name of redevelopment. Hopefully, these same city officials and business owners are working tirelessly to dismantle the violence and racism that lies at the foundation of this country. If they aren’t, then pleas for peace, and the use of Oscar Grant’s image in an attempt to protect private property is a hypocrisy and nothing more than a strategy to corral and pacify community members. Unemployment, criminalization of youth, a high school dropout (some would say “pushout”) crisis, gentrification…these are manifestations of the violence that poor people of color fight on a daily basis. Does the slogan “violence is not justice” refer to this violence that our communities face? If so, then it is true, violence is not justice.
It is not by accident that Black people account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 44 percent of all prisoners. It is not an accident that unemployment rates for people of color in this country are almost twice that of White Americans. It is no accident that high school dropout rates for Black and Brown youth are rising. Here in Oakland, only 52% of students will finish high school. It is also not an accident that the community was in such an outrage over Oscar Grant’s murder. As Jack Bryson, whose son Jackie was handcuffed and kneeling next to Grant on the BART platform, stated in an interview with Colorlines reporter Julianne Hing “History is not on our side.”:
- November 21st, 2006-Kathyrn Johnston, a 92-year-old Atlanta woman was shot 6 times and killed by police officers who entered her home with a fraudulently obtained “no-knock” warrant;
- September 20th, 2007-Gary King Jr. was murdered by Sgt. Patrick Gonzales of the Oakland Police Department; and
- May 16th, 2010-Aiyana Jones, a 7-year-old Detroit child was shot and killed while sleeping during a raid conducted by the Detroit Police Department.
This is a small excerpt from a list that is way too long. Folks, youth especially, don’t feel safe, wondering when they are next. What does justice look like then? The creation of safe space for community to express our feelings is constructive. However, there is a difference between constructive behavior and productive behavior. As many have noted, we already have the right to assemble and speak-out. More than speaking to each other though, we need to be able to directly challenge decision-makers to right this wrong. They must be pushed because we don’t want to lose any more lives. We have already shown that confronting power forces change. Without the community organizing that took place last year we would not have achieved the following advances:
- the June 2009 indictment of former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer, Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant;
- the August 2009 adoption of independent citizen oversight of the BART police department;
- the August 2009 retirement of former BART police chief Gary Gee; and
- the September 2009 resignation of Tom Orloff (District Attorney at the time of Grant’s murder).
As wooden boards are secured to prevent damage from what might be construed as rioting if a ” not guilty” verdict is announced many residents have to wonder, “When will the violence cease in Oakland?” It is clear that we have more work to do, and that priorities need to shift. The City of Oakland spends over 70% of the annual budget for police to maintain peace, while spending less than 1% on violence prevention programs that directly impact youth of color. Only after a potential riot was believed to happen by the City, officials sent an email statement identifying several youth agencies to serve as contacts to maintain peace. With cuts to funding for youth programs many youth organizations are stretched too thin to meet this need in this time of desperation. The city needs to demonstrate the political and economic will behind its call for justice by investing in a long-term strategy for true peace. Youth Together supports the following demands and the organizing and media work being done (by the New Year’s Movement, the SF Bayview, and the African People’s Socialist Party) to win them:
- We demand that Tony Pironi be indicted for First Degree Murder;
- We demand that the “Police Bill of Rights”, which hides the records of police brutality and murder, be immediately abolished;
- We demand that the Department of Justice conducts a federal investigation into Bay Area Rapid Transit, concerning civil and human rights violations;
- We call on the City of Oakland to immediately disarm all transit police; and
- We demand that all Gang Injunctions across California, which restricts the rights of innocent people, be declared unconstitutional.
We continue to mourn the loss of Oscar Grant, and all those who have died at the hands of Law Enforcement. In honor of lives lost we continue the hard work of building a world where justice is a natural state of affairs, for as we know justice, we will know peace.