Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010
Oscar Grant or Lebron James? The Systemic Devaluation of Black Life in America
by Josh Healey
Back in July, a Los Angeles jury announced its verdict in the case of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle. The officer, who is white, shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, on January 1, 2009. The incident, which was captured on film and viewed online by millions of people, has become the rallying cry of a resurgent national movement against police violence and racial profiling.
I live here in Oakland, only one train station away from where Grant was shot. Oakland is a city of beautiful people often put in ugly situations. In a city with serious racial/class divisions, as well as a great legacy of community resistance since even before the Black Panthers, Grant's killing was a lightning bolt in an area used to its share of storms. In the days following the incident, I participated in large, passionate demonstrations, some of which included property damage by small groups of protestors. At the rallies, and on posters plastered on walls across the Bay Area, we raised our voices for the man who had no breath left: "I am Oscar Grant!"
Feeling the pressure, the Alameda County District Attorney charged Officer Mehserle with murder; Mehserle was the first cop hit with such a charge in California history. The trial took over a year to get started and was moved to Los Angeles, but hopes for justice remained high. Police violence is notoriously common in Oakland, and community activists hoped that a strong conviction would be a signal to cops across the country that enough is enough. Instead, we got another reminder of who has power in America -- and who does not.
On July 8, 2010, the jury, which deliberated for only three days and included no African Americans, found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter -- the weakest of the three charges brought against him. His sentence could be anywhere from a maximum of fourteen years to as little as probation and time served. In other words, Mehserle might spend less time in jail for shooting Oscar Grant than Michael Vick did for dogfighting.
When I heard the verdict, I couldn't believe it. Involuntary manslaughter? That is what people get for unintentionally killing someone in a car accident, not for shooting a man while he is lying face down and restrained by the weight of two huge cops. Instead of the celebration of long-overdue justice we had been hoping for, I joined my neighbors and strangers in the streets for one of the most tear-filled, painful protests I've ever attended.
The next morning, I turned on the television, expecting to hear about the verdict and our response in the streets that the police were calling a "riot." But before I could find any mention of Oscar Grant, I was bombarded with endless coverage involving the decision of another young black man: Lebron James. I had spent all night trying to find details about my friend wrongly arrested at the protest, so I hadn't heard what was apparently the most important news of the year -- Lebron James announced that he was going to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join his all-star buddies of the Miami Heat.
This was the media's top story? I'm a huge sports fan and believer in team loyalty, but even worse than Lebron's decision to abandon his faithful Rustbelt fans was the hype and hysteria surrounding it. Months of "Will he? Won't he?" rumors dominated the media, and then to make the announcement itself, Lebron created a one-hour ESPN special, humbly called "The Decision." Whether Lebron's ego is really that big on its own, or a creation of the corporate media, the real question is: what does his spotlight say about us?
Lebron James and Oscar Grant never crossed paths. Why would they? Lebron is the most talented athlete in the country, while Oscar was a butcher at a grocery store in Oakland -- my local grocery, in fact. Yet on the same day that millions of people watched Lebron announce he was going to Miami, twelve jurors in Oscar's case decided that, unless he can put a ball through a hoop, a black man's life is worth little in America. Two decisions -- both resulting from five hundred years of white supremacy.
Here in the twenty-first century, our country invests billions of dollars in two industries that highlight the contradictions of racism. On the one hand is the world of professional sports, which projects a 24/7 image of incredibly wealthy, mostly black athletes. On the other hand, we have a prison-industrial complex and its associate police agencies that violently target and imprison more than two million people per year, again most of them black and Latino. There are only a few Lebron Jameses in the United States who make it to play in the NBA. But there are thousands of Oscar Grants, gunned down by cops not just in Oakland, but also in Detroit (Aiyana Jones), New Orleans (Adolph Grimes), and increasingly along the U.S.-Mexico border (Sergio Huereka). Why do we not know and revere those names like we do Kobe, Dwayne, and Dwight?
On a daily level, I am not Oscar Grant. I am white and Jewish, just a little bit older than Oscar would be now. The only time I have ever been pulled over by the cops was in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My friend in the passenger seat said it was probably due to my huge Jewfro and license plate from the Chocolate City, because when the officer came up and saw my face, he looked surprised and quickly let us go. White skin is the best get-out-of-jail card you can have in America.
I understand the privilege I have in this city, in this country, but I know that hasn't always been the case. At the turn of the last century, an entire generation of Jewish immigrants was met with suspicion and sometimes violence across the country, including my own family here in Oakland and Berkeley. While American Jews were eventually invited inside the white picket fence of assimilated America, that opportunity was never afforded most black people. In the struggle for racial justice, I strive to participate as a committed ally. So despite our differences, I remember that I, too, am Oscar Grant.
This November, while most the country will be consumed by the midterm elections that some are calling a referendum on our first black president, I will be watching how the two decisions of July 8 play out. The NBA season kicks off early in the month, giving us a chance to see if Lebron's move to Miami will earn him that championship he's hoping for. Meanwhile, over in Los Angeles, the judge is scheduled to announce Officer Mehserle's prison sentence on November 5.
The prison-industrial system is far from a healthy model of restorative justice and community healing, but a strong jail sentence in the case would be a symbolic victory for police accountability and racial justice. Because of the jury's lesser verdict, Mehserle won't receive the life sentence that many activists were initially hoping for -- but there is a big difference between fourteen years and getting off on probation. That difference is the space between honoring a man's life and disrespecting his death, between an all-star athlete and a butcher, between our country's claims of equality and justice and the reality of black life in America. Regardless of the judge's decision, it is our job to close that gap once and for all.
Josh Healey is a writer, an organizer, and the author of Hammertime: Poems and Possibilities. Featured by the New York Times, NPR, and Al-Jazeera, he lives in Oakland, California, and works with Youth Speaks to empower young artists and activists.
Last, First. 2010. Oscar Grant or Lebron James? The Systemic Devaluation of Black Life in America. Tikkun 25(6): 25