I’ve checked in with my managers, and we have our plywood sheets cut and ready to go. The sandwich shop and apartments across the street are already boarded up.
The verdict in the Oscar Grant shooting case is expected this week, and we’re bracing for another riot. A year and a half ago, seven days after an unarmed 22 year old black man was shot and killed by a 28 year old white policeman on an Oakland subway platform, a protest march turned violent in downtown, where I co-own two bars. A block away I watched a car burn in the street. Hundreds of rioters swept past my bars, on 13th and 14th streets, but saved their greatest anger for storefronts three blocks away, where they broke windows, fought with the cops, and set more fires.
As I asked my managers about the plywood sheets, I felt a jolt of shame and pettiness. I was thinking about a $500 window. I wasn’t thinking about whether justice would be served.
So I decided to look again at the cell phone videos taken on that awful New Year’s Eve, 2009. This was the first time, the first time, I really looked closely. It’s horrifying.
As one of the witnesses puts it with brutal understatement, “That’s hella unnecessary!”
It’s true that you can’t see every little detail. How much did Grant really resist arrest? Was he reaching ominously for his right pocket, as Mehserle’s attorney contends? Maybe. Can’t tell from the tape. What you can tell is that he was on his stomach, surrounded by three cops, one of whom has his knee on Grant’s neck. He looks subdued to me. Very subdued. Mehserle then stands, shoots him, and looks stunned.
The question that will determine Mehserle’s fate is whether twelve LA jurors believe that his stunned look is in reaction to pulling his gun when he thought he was pulling his tazer, or whether he was simply stunned that he had just shot a man in the back.
I used to think video tapes made for open and shut cases, but now I know better.
I remember the outrage I felt when I first saw the Rodney King tape. It was a no-brainer! Those psycho cops were in deep shit.
I righteously proclaimed inevitable convictions, then months later watched LA burn as they were acquitted. I became jaded. Not just about the verdict. But about the aftermath.
Why were African Americans destroying their own communities? Shouldn’t the mayhem have been more focused? Not to sound glib, but shouldn’t the angry protestors have car pooled out to Simi Valley, and rioted there? It just made the looting and violence seem opportunistic, rather than idealistic.
A free TV? Why not? That’s a fair trade off for a black man having his face smashed in by white cops.
And then, in another incredible moment of wrong-place-wrong-time, I watched Reginald Denny get yanked out of his truck and beaten nearly to death for being white. Well, at least everyone was wallowing in the mud together. On that the races could agree.
In school we were taught that history was an inevitable march toward the light. We got rid of slavery, gave women the right to vote, passed child labor laws, etc. We were an enlightened and enlightenable species, heading on a one-way ticket to betterment.
By my late teens I realized that this was just wishful thinking. I mean, how could Rwanda happen after Auschwitz? Weren’t those concentration camp images enough to jump start our humanity for good? I guess not. From Europe to Africa to LA to Oakland, we will forever be fighting our darker impulses. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose.
So when the Grant verdict comes out in a few days, we’ll cover our windows with plywood, turn off the lights, lock the doors, and wait for the riots to pass. I don’t feel clever for anticipating the mayhem. I just feel a kind of tired sadness.
Where is my outrage? In a parallel universe somewhere am I marching down 14th street, protest sign in hand, venting my anger about a man shot in the back for no good reason?
I’ve taken precautions to save a window. What precautions have I taken to set an example for my children about the importance of speaking out against injustice?
Guess you’re reading it.