Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Realities of Race and Global Power

The great Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey once stated that “Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, [and] Japanese” were spared from being lynched because they are represented by some of the most powerful nations in the world.
With this statement, Garvey was making a direct connection between the treatment of a particular social group and their degree of power. Therefore, according to the argument, Blacks and Latinos in the United States can expect to suffer all types of state-sanctioned abuse (i.e. police brutality, lack of medical care, poor schools) because they lack significant power over the social, political, and economic system within the country they reside in. Although Garvey uttered these words nearly a century ago, recent developments in the world have re-enforced its significance. As was the case in Garvey’s day– one where the world was coming out of the ashes of World War I – we are experiencing a global shift in power and influence.
China is now a world power with India and Brazil at the brink. Feeling vulnerable for the first-time in centuries, European nations desperately banded together to form the European Union (EU) as a way to maintain political and economic power. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on the planet, it no longer has a monopoly. With mixed results in Afghanistan and Iraq and millions of dollars in debt owed to countries like China, America – according to many – is losing its firm grip around the world’s people and resources.
All of this creates an interesting dilemma for Blacks and Latinos, who along with Native Americans, have long occupied the bottom rung of U.S. society.
Centuries of slavery, racism, colonialism, legalized discrimination, economic exploitation, and incarceration have rendered a large number of people of color ill-prepared to acquire power domestically. With U.S. global hegemony lessening, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are faced with an interesting situation.
On one hand, declining U.S. power hurts the nation’s ability to force other countries to buys it products, which shrinks market share for its corporations and economic growth at home. As a consequence, domestic jobs and services become fewer and fewer with Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans – who are largely dependent upon the white power structure for life’s essentials – receiving even less. In other words, the poor could get poorer.
However, the situation possibly presents people of color a golden opportunity to destroy the oppressive social, political, and economic relationships that keep them in bondage. Established elements of the white power structure may become extinct or significantly downsized as foreign governments and companies gain control of the world’s landscape and markets. The void in power that could result from this scenario may be filled by Blacks, Latinos, or Native Americans. Barack Obama’s rise to the Presidency may the first of many examples to come that illustrate the before-mentioned theory.
Whatever side one chooses, it is important to consider one of Garvey’s other teachings. He believed that “the only protection against injustice is Power – Physical, Financial, and Scientific”. Physical power meaning the ability to defend oneself against attack and violence. Financial power meaning the ability to accumulate and increase material resources in order to provide the needs of a people. Scientific power meaning the ability to develop methods and tools necessary to master one’s environment. When considering Garvey’s criteria for power, it would appear that Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have a long way to go to effectively grab social, political, and economic power within the United States. As mentioned earlier, America’s system of oppression has ensured such a reality. Until we develop a new game plan, people of color will be largely left with an over-dependence on government services and protection, social protest, and mainstream political activity as its core tenets of change. While the positive value of these tenets cannot be discounted or ignored, we must admit that they - in isolation – cannot and will not build power. As Garvey taught nearly a century ago and countries like China and India are proving today, power requires a long-term plan and commitment to building leadership and expertise in areas that develop a group’s skills, create group unity, and produce things that fill needs. Maybe then, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans will be truly protected from the abuses they are currently subjected to.

The Importance of the Oscar Grant Trial

A recent decision to move the criminal trial of Johannes Mehserle – the former BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Years Day – to Los Angeles has once again thrust the city to the forefront of controversy involving police abuse and murder. Nearly two decades after the Rodney King beating case and forty-five years since Watts exploded in protest of law enforcement’s brutal behavior, the Oscar Grant case offers Los Angeles yet another opportunity to show the world how far we have progressed, or regressed, in ensuring that everyone – including police officers – is equal and accountable to the law. As with any case involving law enforcement, it is not merely a legal matter. It is very much a battle for social power between the elements of the status quo (i.e. law enforcement, politicians, business) who benefit from police officers’ arbitrary violence against Black people in particular and those who are fighting against it. Specifically, the Mehserle trial will go a long way in concluding if the State of California is willing to convict a police officer for murder. While we are at least 6 months away from the start of the trial, its history-making potential begs for us to understand and analyze some important elements that will impact the verdict.
1. Support from Police –Mehserle is enjoying tremendous support from law enforcement despite the fact that he resigned from the BART police force and fled authorities to Nevada immediately following the shooting. Police organizations throughout the state have allegedly raised more than $3 million in support of his defense. Why would California police officers shell out millions to help someone who shot an unarmed person, quit the police force, and went on the run? They understand that if Mehserle is found guilty of murder it potentially creates a precedent that would make it easier to convict other officers of murder and other tougher felonies. Remember, the greatest taboo in law enforcement is to convict officers of murder. The belief is that they have the “right” kill – no matter how racist, tragic, and unjust. Police organizations will do whatever it takes to maintain that right.

2. Legal Strategy – Most people assume that because the incident was recorded for the world to see, Mehserle will automatically be found guilty. As many legal experts and activists know all too well, this is far from the truth. In order to receive the maximum punishment, the defendant will have to be convicted of either first or second degree murder. According to the law, first degree murder is pre-meditated and intentional. In contrast, second degree murder may be intentional but not pre-meditated. In either case, these are difficult to prove against on-duty police officers, who are given the right to carry and use a gun everyday. Furthermore, Mehserle has already stated that he mistakenly grabbed his gun and shot Grant. The Alameda County District Attorney, who hasn’t made decision yet on which charge they will pursue, has the huge responsibility to put together a strategy to disprove Mehserle’s theory and show that he killed Grant intentionally. Did he shoot Grant because he was a young Black man? Did Mehserle have a history of committing abuse and misconduct? These are some of the questions that may be considered by the prosecution in establishing intentionality and pre-meditation. There is a lot at stake. In the state of California, anyone convicted of first degree murder gets no less than a sentence of 25 years to life. No less than 15 years to life for a conviction of second degree murder. If Mehserle is convicted of either it would be a rare and historic moment. It would be similar to the first time Klu Klux Klan members were first convicted of murdering a Black man in the south.

3. Jury Selection – If history is any indication, these types of cases are largely won and lost during jury selection. In almost every police brutality and murder case, the officer’s attorneys will fight to move the trial to an area that can produce a pro-police jury (e.g. white, suburban) that will likely acquit their client. This tactic was recently used by Mehserle’s lawyers, who demanded that the trial be moved out of Alameda County for concern that the jury pool in the area was largely prejudiced against the ex-BART police officer. While they were pleased that the trial was moved, they were just as disappointed that it ended up in Downtown Los Angeles rather than a court in the more conservative, pro-police San Diego County. With a population more diverse and critical of police abuse and misconduct than many, the jury pool in Downtown Los Angeles potentially provides prosecutors in this case with a rare situation – a jury open to finding a police officer guilty.

When Oakland exploded in anger after Oscar Grant’s killing, many in Los Angeles sat on the outside looking at a scene so familiar to the civil unrest in 1965 and 1992. Now through the inner workings of the justice system, Angelinos are now center stage of another police-related tragedy. With a new LAPD chief in office and multiple investigations of Inglewood’s Police Department pending, the region’s leadership will be closely monitoring the Mehserle trial. Its verdict – whether guilty or innocent – may greatly impact the type of policing we will see here for the foreseeable future. Community activists and residents will need to be attentive and most importantly, effectively organize to make sure that police abuse and murder becomes a thing of the past.

Inglewood Police Woes: It's a Question of Leadership

Earlier this year, Inglewood was named an All-American City. While some may scoff at the controversy-plagued city winning such a distinction, I fully embrace it. Like America, the City of Inglewood is at a critical juncture in its history.
In particular, the city of over 120,000 residents is currently confronted with the question about what type of police department it will have from this point forward.
After the most recent rash of police shootings, which resulted in 5 unarmed individuals losing their lives in the last year, it has become resoundingly clear that Inglewood needs a significant change in police policies and practices. The situation has been further complicated by the Inglewood City Council's refusal to release findings from an Office of Independent Review (OIR) report concerning its police department – findings that probably aren’t favorable.
However, in every significant political moment, there needs to be one or more decision-makers who act in a courageous and just manner to create the change that is needed. We see this currently with President Obama’s principled stand for health care reform in the face of death threats and deceit. Inglewood also needs a courageous and just decision-maker to arise. Its residents demand and deserve someone who will not back down to reactionary forces within law enforcement, who prioritize protecting abusive police officers over community safety, trust, and integrity.
Inglewood’s current group of political leaders is an intelligent and highly skilled group. However, the question remains if Mayor Roosevelt Dorn and Councilmembers Danny Tabor, Judy Dunlap, Eloy Morales, and Ralph Franklin have the courage to do what is right, which would be the following:
1. Increase the powers and responsibilities of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC)
Created in 2004 to provide civilian oversight, this commission was stripped of any significant power by the City Council and Police union. The Commission doesn’t even have the right to review cases of abuse or misconduct. The CPOC must have the power to review cases, conduct independent investigations, and make disciplinary recommendations to truly represent the voice of Inglewood citizens.
2. Engage a large number of Inglewood residents around what they want from their police department
One of the obvious next steps for the City of Inglewood is to engage its own residents about their thoughts and solutions to the issues facing their police department. My organization, the Families for Community Safety Campaign, recently organized volunteers to collect over 200 surveys from Inglewood residents on the subject. Our findings were profound but not surprising. For instance, the majority of residents surveyed do not think that Inglewood Police officers are held accountable for abusive behavior. This information is important and should be prioritized by Inglewood’s leadership when crafting solutions. Furthermore, frequent surveying of residents should be an often-used tactic by the Inglewood City Council. If a volunteer group can do it, the City of Inglewood should be able to do so.
3. Conduct a comprehensive review of the Inglewood Police Department in order to discover and change any practices or policies that encourage abusive policing (i.e. cleaning house)
The Inglewood Police Department has had 3 Chiefs in 10 years. Despite these frequent changes, it is clear that police abuse and misconduct continue to be tolerated, as evidenced by the actions -- and in some cases, inaction -- of both high-ranking and rank-and-file officers. The City Council, through Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks, must be creative and effective in establishing a humane and community-centered police department. This must be done by improving/changing the department's policies and procedures. Central to this effort must be thorough and consistent mandatory training for officers and management.
4. Make a public stand against the Police Bill of Rights and the District Attorney's consistent refusal to prosecute police officers who commit murder and/or misconduct
We have constantly heard about how the California Police Bill of Rights and the District Attorney's Office create the real barriers to ending police brutality. While it is true that police officers receive too much protection from state law and the DA’s office, the City of Inglewood can do a lot of good by instituting policy reforms and making a public stand against the Police Bill of Rights and the District Attorney.

In response to recent media coverage of the Inglewood City Council’s handling of the OIR report, its members are scrambling to “save face” and finally do something. However, unless the Mayor and City Council provide real leadership on this issue and act with courage, any proposed solutions will fail to make change. Given the current idea of creating a task force – which would have no real power either – Inglewood’s political leaders continue to fail at the expense of the residents of their All-American City.