Before Us the Open Grave: Responses to Bay Area Police Brutality and the Defense of Black Life


What though before us lies the open grave?
– Claude McKay’s ” If We Must Die

Community members hold a vigil on May 11, 2012, for Alan Blueford. Credit: Creative Commons/Wendy Kenin.

Black families in the San Francisco Bay Area are no strangers to this kind of grief. Before the nation turned its eye to Oakland in the wake of the Oscar Grant riots in 2009, there were others. And there are still more now. According to a court-appointed monitoring team, police shootings are so flagrantly mishandled that District Court Judge Thelton Henderson has moved the Oakland police department “one step closer” to federal receivership, as reported recently by Colorlines.
Meanwhile, Bay Area residents continue organizing to counter this quiet genocide in a few ways. In June, the International Socialist Organization of Oakland (a group to which I have no affiliation) hosted a community discussion to talk about police brutality and hate violence (though the de facto focus of the panel was on the former). Panelists at the discussion included the sister of Brandy Martell, a black trans woman shot to death by a transphobic attacker on April 29, and the family of Alan Blueford, an African American teenager shot to death by Oakland police on May 6.
For those who have not heard, following Blueford’s killing, the police initially claimed that Blueford shot an officer. It was later revealed that the officer shot himself, but the department continued to insist that Blueford brandished a firearm and that both he and the officer were rushed to the hospital. A People’s Independent Investigation, recently formed and present at the community discussion, has since canvassed the neighborhood of the shooting and gathered the testimony of ten witnesses who confirm the worst: Blueford was never carrying a weapon and his body was carelessly tossed about but never received emergency medical care.
In addition we heard an update on the family’s burial of Brandy Martell, the Blueford family’s memories about their son, and words from other activists. Jack Bryson, whose sons were close friends with Oscar Grant, spoke on the panel rather quietly and slowly, about how he came to be involved helping the Blueford’s demand justice for their son. For a moment, he seemed to drift off, lost in thought, while relating to the audience that, when he is with Mr. Blueford, he feels guilty that his sons are alive and that, unlike Mr. Blueford, he can call and tell his sons he loves them. “I don’t know why I feel so guilty…”
Save for one voice that called out after a pause, “Don’t feel guilty,” the audience was silent. Were we embarrassed of Bryson’s admission of guilt? Confused by it? Or did we, as black and brown people, share in it?
Stuck on this last question for almost a month now, I turned to Abdul JanMohamed’s work. In a recent book exploring what he calls an archaeology of death in black literature, JanMohamed describes the death-bound-subject as one “who is formed, from infancy on, by the imminent and ubiquitous threat of death.” Which is to say that, in a society that both historically and presently treats black death as routine, deserved, or mundane, black life becomes an exception, a death sentence contingently deferred.
If you are wondering how common this kind of violence is in the Bay Area, consider this: In the brief time following the official panel, three more black families in the audience came forward to tell how they were robbed of their children – children murdered by California police officers. The audience also bore witness to the stories of two more young black men presently fighting for their freedom from the prison industrial complex, one for video-tapping the police.
Notably, one of the families that stepped forward that night was of Kenneth Harding, Jr. – a teenager shot to death while being pursued by San Francisco police for not paying a $2 Muni fare. His mother and others are calling for direct action next week on July 16, the anniversary of his killing, to shut down the transit system not just for her son, but “for all victims of police violence and murder.”
For more on the struggle for justice for Alan Blueford and family, join their Facebook page here.

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