Friday, February 26, 2010

Mehserle's Trial Suggest Change in Law Enforcement

The first pre-trial hearing for Johannes Mehserle – the Ex-BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Years Day 2009 – brought out a tapestry of emotion and activity. The Foltz Criminal Justice Center was a buzz with scores of brave protestors, media representatives, and agents of the legal system all taking part in the early morning rush. It was an amazing scene considering that the hearing itself was rather basic and bland. The biggest developments of the day included an announcement of a May 2010 start to the trial and Judge Perry’s insistence of no cameras in the courtroom. While these tidbits of legal information are indeed critical, they pale in comparison to the acknowledgment that countless legislative barriers make it nearly impossible to fairly and successfully prosecute officers like Mehserle in a court of law. This reality creates a piercing anxiety in the hearts and minds of everyone hoping for justice in this case that will not dissipate anytime soon. However, if Oscar Grant has any chance of being our generation’s Emmit Till – a martyr that inspires a movement for progressive social change – we will need to immediately identify concrete next steps to work on. A few recommendations include:
1. Repealing or Amending the California Police Bill of Rights
Passed in 1976 to supposedly protect officers against workplace harassment, this part of the state’s Constitution has become a tool used primarily to protect trigger-happy cops from getting fired. Much of the Police Bill of Rights deals with issues of due process when officers violate department rules. However, it contains several problematic clauses that not only make it difficult to fire officers, but to convict them of criminal acts. Some of these clauses include guaranteeing every officer an administrative review regardless of the severity of their actions and paying officers if they are questioned while off-duty. Moreover, as long as the Police Bill of Rights remains intact, local efforts for community-controlled policing are rendered ineffective. In order to repeal or amend the California Police Bill of Rights community leaders will need to raise millions of dollars to put forth a ballot initiative before voters. This will be a hard-fought, yet just battle to save the lives of thousands of vulnerable residents.
2. Establishing a Special Prosecutor Office to Investigate and Charge Police-Crimes
As the legal representatives of Californians, County District Attorneys have the primary responsibility to handle felony cases throughout the state. Consequently, DAs work very closely with local law enforcement. This collegial relationship creates a gapping contradiction in the legal system. DAs are very reluctant to bring charges against on-duty police officers – especially in cases of brutality and murder – out of fear of alienating the very group often responsible for their pay and job status. In Los Angeles, District Attorney Steve Cooley has consistently refused to charge on-duty officers of murder and other serious felonies. In order to change this appalling scenario, community leaders should look at creating a Special Prosecutors Office that would assume the responsibility of investigating and charging police-related crimes. This move would likely require a ballot initiative approved by voters.
3. Eliminate the Police Board of Rights in Los Angeles
One of the most peculiar police structures in California is the LAPD’s Police Board of Rights. This panel, which is comprised of 2 high ranking police officers and 1 civilian, has the power to make binding decisions in cases where a cop may be demoted or terminated. What makes the Board even more powerful is that no one, including the Police Chief, can reverse their findings. Furthermore, the Board has skillfully interpreted State law to make their process confidential. Therefore, the names of the officers involved or rationale around their findings are not released to the public. The role of the Board of Rights became resoundingly clear in the aftermath of the 2005 LAPD shooting of 13-year old Devin Brown. Despite findings by the Police Commission that the shooting was out-of-policy, the Board of Rights cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Undoubtedly, the Board’s decision in the Brown case was impacted by their secretive nature and the pervasive presence of the “police investigating police” dynamic. For a department maintained by taxpayer dollars this situation is an abomination and an affront to the principles of freedom and representative government. Since it is written into the Los Angeles City Charter, eliminating the Police Board of Rights will require Los Angeles voters to approve the change at the ballot box. Another hard-fought battle. Another expensive campaign.
All of the above recommendations would require a lot from community leaders and residents. Well-financed law enforcement interest groups would work to prevent any of them from becoming reality. This will force activists to adopt a long-term vision and strategy, raise large sums of money, and recruit a talented network of progressive attorneys, media consultants, and of course, organizers. However, we must recognize that while marches and protests are essential tactics, they leave much to be desired in terms of deterring police officers from arbitrarily killing and abusing members of our community. The family of Oscar Grant and other victims of police brutality deserve our maximum effort. They deserve victory.

The Rebirth of Black Power part 1 - We Need a Black Private Sector

The Rebirth of Black Power Part 1 - We Need a Black Private Sector!!!
I AM not a Republican nor am I blind to the structural inequalities of Capitalism. However, as a Black man I AM thoroughly convinced that my community needs to develop a strong, unified, and viable private sector, which would include at the very least:
1. Independent political organizations free from the constraints and contradictions of the Democratic, Republican or any other mainstream party. We need organizations with the freedom and commitment to develop goals that address the particular needs of Black people and serve as a respected voice on behalf of the Black community to world abroad
2. Black-owned businesses that service a significant consumer base in all communities, but continually utilize their earnings to employ and empower the Black community
3. Independent schools that teach our history and culture, yet also prepare our youth and young adults with the skills to compete in a global, high tech world
We must recognize that after 500 years of enslavement, lynchings, disenfranchisement, and economic exploitation Black people – as a whole – have become largely depended upon the government to provide us with political and economic power. Our concept of political power has been narrowed to the process of voting for practical strangers every four years to positions we honestly don’t understand. Our economic reality is largely defined by a middle-class sustained through dwindling unionized public service jobs or the poor subsisting on endangered government aid like food stamps and CalWorks. Conditions are such that a large portion of our community is literally owned by the State through incarceration in public-run prisons and the foster care system.
The consequences of this imbalance include the following:
1. Black people are largely seen as burdens, rather than power players in the United States. While many in power will not admit this publicly out of concern for being politically incorrect, they express this reality through the way they deal with our community on important matters. Our community is often ignored when important issues in society are being developed and debated. At best, we are alerted about decisions after they have already been finalized
2. Too much responsibility is ceded to elected officials in the Black community. This goes contrary to the fact that an elected official’s effectiveness is primarily defined by the political, economic and social strength of the communities they represent. Unfortunately, too many Black elected officials are counted on to be the SOLE SOURCE of political, economic and social strength of the community. However since the private sector of the Black community is relatively weak and our system of accountability is spotty at best, Black elected officials are courted and controlled often times by mainstream political parties, white corporate interest or a small circle of Black elites.
3. Black people are extremely vulnerable in times growing conservatism in government and budget cuts to public services. We see this currently in California and other states where our people are being disproportionately injured by eliminations to education, public aid and health care programs
On the eve of Black History, we need to know that we can change our current predicament. In order to do so, we will need to have what Marcus Garvey taught – namely a plan that emphasizes “action, self-reliance and a vision of self and the future…” With a small, but entrenched Black middle class, a plethora of community leaders and elected officials, and numerous community organizations, labor unions and churches, Los Angeles can be the epicenter for the re-birth of real Black Power. However, in order to do so, we must change our current thoughts and actions around the role government will play in our liberation movement. Furthermore, we must once again develop and expand Black-owned independent political organizations, businesses, and schools and do so in a principled and coordinated manner. This is the type of work plan that a people interested in power will take up. Lets get to work.

Lesson from the Oscar Grant Tragedy - We Need to Get to Work

In many instances, the second pre-trial hearing for Johannes Mehserle could be seen as a victorious day for the family and supporters of Oscar Grant. After weeks of nervous speculation, presiding Judge Robert Perry rejected motions put forth by Mehserle’s legal team to reduce his bail amount and remove the Alameda County District Attorney from the case. While Judge Perry acknowledged that prosecutors employed some questionable and perhaps, unconstitutional tactics during the course of their investigation, those acts failed to substantiate the extreme requests of Defense Attorney Michael Rains.
Victory also extended to outside of the courtroom as scores of activists and supporters braved the early morning chill to hold signs, recite chants and talk to onlookers – all in the name of making the often apathetic Los Angeles populace aware of one of the most significant court cases in state history. While the number people who attended the rally this time was slightly smaller than that at the first hearing, the crowd contained an impressive intensity, dedication and discipline that was appropriate and effective.
However, in the midst of countless examples that spoke to the triumphant potential of this case, it was difficult for me to enjoy the moment. In the background of the day’s court rulings and grassroots activism stood the realities of an unjust system that leaves too many families – particularly Black and Latino – mourning the loss of a loved one at the hands of law enforcement. In Black and Latino communities across the United States, there are too many women like Oscar Grant’s mother who have to learn how to live again after having their child’s life ended prematurely by those sworn to “protect and serve”. This tragic situation is compounded by the fact that police murder – unlike murder committed by civilians – often leaves the family with little or no hope of ever receiving legal justice. While some may receive financial settlements, the court system fails time and time again to convict and sentence police officers for murder. For Black people in particular, this perpetual lack of legal re-dress for one of the oldest problems impacting our community has created deeply entrenched pain, fear and anger. No matter the social status, economic class or skin tone, almost every Black person in America has experienced a nervous moment whenever a cop came near. This is not because we are a community of cowards – rather it is because we recognize that the police can arbitrarily kill us without any threat of jail time.
The Mehserle trial is so important to all of us because it can establish a more humane legal precedent in terms of police conduct. A just verdict of murder can help shift policies and practices of law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles, Inglewood and across the country. In order to ensure victory in the case however, we need every resident – especially Black and Latino – to become aware and active in the work. We need established civil rights organizations and leaders in the city to step out of the shadows and become public advocates for the Oscar Grant family. In a case so important, no one who yearns for the full expression of justice can afford to sit on the sidelines and carry on like business as usual. For if we choose that route, another unarmed Black man will be murdered without any accountability and our current attempts for social revolution will be exposed as a hollow and weak impersonation of the 1960s. As the great Afrikan leader Amilcar Cabral taught us, we cannot “claim any easy victories”. Victory in this case not only means the conviction and sentencing of Mehserle, but as Dr. Maulana Karenga teaches, a corresponding re-building of a strong movement capable of instituting progressive practices and policies throughout the society. Lets get to work.

If you are interested in supporting the family of Oscar Grant, please contact Los Angeles Coalition for Oscar Grant at 213-663-6316.