Oakland haunts me.
Last week, I started trying to convert my essay’s on the
crack epidemic into a memoir and the above sentence
came to mind.
As many of you know, on early New Years day , the BART
police killed an unarmed man, Oscar Grant.
I felt my heart flip in my throat when I heard the woman say
they just shot him.
Oakland haunts me.
I hate that moment. The moment in the hood where the violence
sparks and we have no fucking idea of what is going happen next.
Richard at Fem-men-ist captures it when he writes about being at the riots,
I head down 14th street towards Webster… and that’s as far as i get. A couple blocks further down, the crowd looms, and its a riot crowd. i can smell something burning, and Broadway is obscured with smoke that could be the source of the smell, or tear gas. A metal hulk slowly rolls out of a backlit cloud of smoke. it is a paramilitary tank with a mounted water cannon. Is this my neighborhood?
It is really easy to think of Oakland as the home of side shows, The Black
Panthers, the spiritual seat of pimp mythology. It is easy to think of Oakland
as San Francisco’s pathologized other. However, there is a very
strong thread of Wild Wild West street justice that permeates
the culture of Oakland. A shoot first and maybe ask questions later
steelo that is both reflected in how the police and how the hood
resorts to violence to deal with rage and retribution. Furthermore
there is a shoot first and ask questions later attitude associated
with American foreign policy. Operation Iraqi Freedom anyone?
In fact the confluence of rage, revenge and retribution is palpable
I shuddered when I read the account of a woman, Nia Sykes,
wax matter-of-factly about violence at the riot. She sounds cool as a fan,
but I know rage when I see it. Demian Bulwa and others from the San Francisco
“I feel like the night is going great,” said Nia Sykes, 24, of San Francisco, one of the demonstrators. “I feel like Oakland should make some noise. This is how we need to fight back. It’s for the murder of a black male.”
Sykes, who is black, had little sympathy for the owner of Creative African Braids.
“She should be glad she just lost her business and not her life,” Sykes said. She added that she did have one worry for the night: “I just hope nobody gets shot or killed.”
Lets be clear, the riots didn’t happen until a week passed without a word
from BART executives.
Lets also be clear that it wasn’t until the riots occurred that national
news took an interest in what happened.
It is also important to note that the BART police are not OPD.
They are officers specifically hired, trained and compensated
by Bay Area Rapid Transit. This merits being noted simply
because they earn $64K per year, at the entry level. This is an important
distinction because they are not under compensated $32K/year
That being said, Oscar Grants death is clearly personal to me. December
28th 2003, at approximately 5am the Oakland police tried to kill my brother.
I had just came home from New York, fresh with my new engagement ring.
Ambivalent, proud, scared. In many ways, I felt grown.
My mother got the call at that deadly time of the morning. The
it could only be bad news time. My brother was at Highland Hospital.
That we needed to come. We piled in her boyfriends truck and headed
to Oakland’s public hospital, Highland. The sun was coming up.
The sky was orange sherbert and periwinkle blue. Gorgeous, the way
that the Oakland sky is notorious for.
I was in shock because we had just taken my niece to see Bad Santa
at the Metreon in San Francisco on 27th.
The police knocked teeth out of his mouth. Cut his lip open.
Opened his head. Handcuffed him to a fence and beat him, in front
of a group of eye witnesses in the heart of deep East Oakland.
I didn’t feel so grown anymore. I was scared of what the police
had done to my brothers face.
My brother ran from the police that night. Had been running for years.
They caught him, and commenced to letting him know the
consequences of his actions.
I wrote the FBI, OPD’s internal affairs and John Burris
(the attorney for The Rider Trails.) Burris’s office ultimatly
told me that while my brother suffered from being harmed
by the police, a jury would not be particularly
receptive to a formerly convicted D-Boy, albeit even if he
wasn’t hustling anymore.
I also became intimately acquainted with Bay Area
Police Watch, which is a program ran by the Ella Baker Center
for Human Rights. They were the only institution that listened to
me. They ultimately found an attorney to take my brother’s case
pro bono, however, by that time the statue of limitations had ran.
In many ways Ella Baker has inspired me to start 100 Visionaries.
Back to Oscar Grant. This video reminds me of both the
historical worthlessness of the Black body, as it pertains
to the state. Of lynchings, of Tuskegee syphilis experiments,
the bombing of Black little girls in churches, of Sean Bell, of, of, of.
It reminds me of 1989, Task Force in my living room,
my brother handcuffed, and feeling incredibly powerless.
It reminds me of how that situation on the BART platform
could have gotten even further out of hand had someone
else on that platform had guns and decided to use them.
You see, I was raised to believe that everyone had a gat.
In the flat lands of Oakland many people do.
Let’s be clear about how this is a teachable moment about who
does and doesn’t have power in our society.
When you live in a society where the people who taken an oath
to serve and protect you, can conceivably smoke a person
who looks like you in front several witnesses. You feel powerless.
Furthermore, it is reasonable for you to feel powerless and
want smash the symbols of the power that you do not have.
Rage can only turn to violence when unchecked.
In many ways, rage is violence.
For many young folks, the idea is to carry a gat, because it is
clear that no one will protect them. This means always staying
15 years ago, Ice Cube said on Death Certificate, “I would rather
be judged by twelve than carried by six.” This is the code of the
streets that I know.
Yes, there are major fallacies to this argument. To put it simply,
it invites that eye for an eye logic, which is incredibly harmful,
because if we all do an eye for an eye, we will all be blind.
But think about this, power is the ability to restore yourself after you
have suffered a set back in life. To right a wrong.
What power do the people in this situation have?
BART possesses and has and exercised the power to be silent.
Some folks in Oakland exercised their power to burn property
and be destructive.
Think about this as well.
What does an Obama presidency mean to Oscar Grant,
Oscar Grants family, or the people who were in Downtown
Oakland on Wednesday night saying “We Are All Oscar Grant.”
I know that some of you may balk at my bringing Obama in this.
Think about it this way. Where does Oscar Grant fit in our
“post racial” society?
I ask you all this question because last year it was
revealed to me that part of my purpose is to ask the
uncomfortable questions. Not just affirm what you already know.
On Wednesday morning, someone Twittered me a message
asking if I was going to the protest. I responded saying
that I was not in Oakland, and that I don’t do protests.
However, I also thought, if the BART police will smoke a man
on a BART platform in front of arguably 20 to 30 witnesses,
then what would stop the OPD from smoking other people
at a rally/protest riot?
That being said.
Oakland haunts me.
But I am not only just haunted. Courtney stays on me about
100 Visionaries. Last week, I sketched the website and now
I am just looking for a template and finalizing a color scheme.
Shooting incidents like these remind me that so much work
has to be done. As individuals we can stand and be reactive,
bumping gums all day about how horrible the police are.
Or, we can be reflective, strategic and decide exactly which
part of the system we are going to come together to analyze
I ride for the analyze and change approach, because while
Oakland still haunts me, my goal, god willing, is to be able to
rest assured that at the end of the day I contributed something
other than just hot air.
If you want to get involved contact the Ella Baker Center for
Human Rights. They are on the ground. They are organized
and they can use your help. Below I have attached an excerpt of
and e-mail I just received from them.
This week, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights joined the call for justice in the shooting of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old unarmed man shot dead by a BART police officer on January 1st, 2009, at the Fruitvale BART station. As an organization that has tackled the issue of police brutality and accountability for the past 12 years, we share in the anger, sadness, and frustration this tragedy has stirred within our community and beyond.
Several Ella Baker Center staff members — and many of you — attended the January 7th rally at the Fruitvale BART Station. We were joined by hundreds of other activists from all over the Bay Area, a crowd that mirrored the incredible diversity of our region. Youth read poetry inspired not only by their pain, but also by their hope for justice; elected officials stood with the community; activists led chants and local performers shared their souls through song. It was a sight to behold.
As you may have heard, some people then led a march from Fruitvale to the Lake Merritt BART station. While most of the march was peaceful — and at times even beautiful — a small number of participants succombed to their overwhelming anger, rooted in a long history of police misconduct and lack of accountability, and lashed out with inexcusable behavior. The Ella Baker Center believes the fight for justice must sometimes be taken to the streets, and does not condone vandalism or the destruction of property while speaking truth to power.
That’s why we must keep our focus on the issue of justice for Oscar Grant and his family. We’ll need your help as we continue to speak out in protest to ensure that this case is handled with respect and urgency.
Specifically, we demand:
- A thorough, independent investigation into the training, supervision, and arrest procedures of BART police.
- A full criminal investigation to be conducted by the State Department of Justice of all officers involved in the shooting that evening.
In addition, we’re joining forces with the Courage Campaign and ColorOfChange.org to support a bill by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and Senator Leland Yee that would create a civilian oversight board for BART police. Senator Yee and Assemblymember Ammiano are ahead of the curve in calling for this kind of legislation, and they’ll need our support to get it passed and signed into law. Click here to sign the petition:
Please also join us in helping turn this tragedy into hope for change by making a donation to Oscar’s family. Checks should be made payable to “Wanda Johnson” (Oscar’s mother), and sent to Ella Baker Center at 344 40th Street, Oakland, CA 94609. We’ll then pass along all donations to Oscar’s family.
We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Oscar Grant III. In the coming months we hope you’ll join us in demanding justice and continuing to work for peace and opportunity in our communities.
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights