In an effort to analyze the epidemic of lynchings suffered by Black people during the early twentieth century, the great Marcus Garvey once stated that Europeans and Asians escaped such a fate “because they are represented by great governments, mighty nations and empires…” With each painstaking, agonizing day of the trial of Johannes Mehserle – the former BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 – Garvey’s words and the subservient position Blacks hold within American society proves increasingly true.
First of all, Robert Perry – the judge on the case – has a well-known history of excusing the brutal and outright illegal behavior of police officers. As the judge in the Rampart Scandal, he led a court that allowed Los Angeles police officers guilty of stealing and selling drugs, shooting unarmed residents and participating in bank robberies to go free. Second, there are no Black people on the jury. As this writer stated in an article written months ago, one of the first tactics that the system does to protect its police officers in this type of trial is to rig the composition of the jury so that Blacks – the most critical group of the police – are either small in number or non-existent. While usually this is done by moving the case to a court in a white suburban community (see Rodney King or McDuffie cases), the system was able to get the same result by moving the trial to Downtown Los Angeles. Third, the District Attorney’s strategy on behalf of the murdered young Black man has been questionable at times. When the jury was finalized and no Black people were on it, the DA should have instantly filed a legal challenge out of concern for a lack of a fair trial. However, they chose not to do so. Despite the fact that every legal expert following the case stated that Mehserle’s intent had to be clearly proven in order to avoid an acquittal or a light sentence, it’s questionable if the prosecution was able to do so. That is why in spite of the great organizing of the Los Angeles Coalition for Oscar Grant and the scores of folks who trek down from the Bay Area for court dates, there is a sense of acquittal flowing in the air.
However, as Black people we know that this “aint no new thing”. We have lived through centuries of abuse and murder that has gone unpunished in America’s so-called justice system. Police brutality, like lynchings in Marcus Garvey’s day, were accepted by the legal establishment as something that happens to Black people without any need of punishment for the perpetrator. In these times we are reminded that America’s legal system still operates upon principles established to maintain the chattel slave system. As we near the end of the Mehserle trial – with our hearts and minds anxiously awaiting the verdict – the question inevitably becomes what can be done? Surely, we can and should continue to protest in large numbers to show the masses that injustice will not be accepted. Furthermore, those of us who organize around the issue of police murder and misconduct must seriously attack and remove the web of laws and legal interpretations that make California one of the most difficult states in the nation to convict cops of felony crimes. However, the ultimate solution to the police terror that has helped to define the reality of 30 million Black people in America, regardless of income or stature, is building independent social, political and economic power. As long as we continue to depend on the police as our primary source of protection and depend on the courts – in its current makeup – for legal remedy, we will never break ourselves out of the dependent relationship that has made us vulnerable to suffering abuse at the hands of authorities – be it police or politicians.
Garvey once concluded that “action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom.” To that end, we must take the energy created around the Oscar Grant case and develop grassroots organizations capable of building the economies of our neighborhoods, improving education and decreasing crime and violence without depending exclusively on the police force. While many people would assume block clubs and neighborhood councils carry out these functions, they often struggle to do so because of restraints resulting from their relationship with the City’s bureaucracy or police departments. As Garvey taught us many years ago and as the Oscar Grant case demonstrates to us today, in order to transform our existence from dependence and victimhood to one of power, freedom and justice, we must build power that is independent from this system that sanctions the murder of Black men in the streets and provides protection for the perpetrator in the courts.
Lets get to work.