Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's Not Always About Race

Anyone that knows me knows I am not a racist. I decided sometime last year that I would start calling bigots what they were- right to their faces. And I do so- without hesitation. I don’t care about age, gender or reasons why. A bigot is a bigot. But the same character trait that pulls at me to call these people out- is forcing me to call another issue the way I see it.
Not everything is about race.
 I used to work with an African American girl who thought no one liked her because she was black. She called me mom because I was always dispensing unsolicited life advice to her. “Try being polite” I would say.  “Get rid of that chip.” I would tell her. “Don’t drink so much, don’t date jerks, try to get to work on time, stop playing the race card!” 
“Okay Mom.”  She would reply.
She was really a sweet girl under all the bitterness and misplaced anger.
I recognized a lot of my young self in her. I recognized her poor choices in men and lifestyle: her reluctance to take responsibility for her own actions. It is always much easier to blame your parents, your school, the world in general, then to look at your own faults.
Natalya was angry about slavery.  She was from Atlanta, Georgia. And, yes Georgia had slaves, but not in her lifetime- or her mother’s lifetime or her grandmother’s lifetime. Natalya came from a middle class family just like me, went to good schools, (her mother was a teacher) she was not raised in the projects, and had never been beaten by white people.  In her lifetime, she had never been denied the right to vote and never had to sit in the back of the bus. Her anger was taught to her –somewhere along the line- someone said be angry…because life is not fair.
And yes- some people are bigots. Some men hate women, some women hate men, some people hate Chinese people, some people hate Mexican people some people hate African American people. Some people hate dogs some people hate cats. It’s not always based on anything substantial- just passed down from father and mother to son and daughter. Like the cancer gene.
So when Officer Johannes Mehserle was arrested and charged with the “murder” of  Oscar Grant, it turned into a race issue- because Oscar Grant was black and Johannes Mehserle is white. There was no question about it. It was a race thing.
The press went to work fast. Convicting the BART policeman in the press before he ever got to court. He was white- and a policeman- therefore it stands to reason he is prejudiced, and hates black people enough to shoot them in the back. It must have been planned- because they charged him with first-degree murder. What a crock.
Johannes Mehserle made a huge mistake. And in doing so- he took the life of another human being; of this, there is no doubt. Did he wake up that day and say to himself… “I’m going to shoot someone today”? Probably not.
Mehserle was responding to a call at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s Day 2009. Whether confused by the melee or scared for his own life- because he thought Grant was going for a gun- Mehserle lost his bearings and grabbed his pistol instead of his taser and shot Grant in the back.
Any kind of murder charge would have been unjustified. The Judge in his case, (which was moved from Oakland to Los Angeles so Mehserle could get a fair trial)  found that he could be charged with involuntary manslaughter but not murder due to lack of evidence– involuntary manslaughter assumes that the death was unintended- still though, finds criminal negligence.  On top of that there was a special circumstance clause because a gun was used in the commission of a crime. But wait. Johannes Mehserle was  a policeman right? They are issued guns. It’s not like he was some street hood that had a gun in his hoodie sleeve. 

Citing the motion for bail – the police investigation report stated:
"Officer Pirone directed Officer Mehserle to arrest two of the individuals who had not been handcuffed. One of the individuals to be arrested was Oscar Grant, and Officer Pirone’s direction to Mehserle was overheard by Grant. Grant, upon hearing that he was under arrest, attempted to stand up, but was forced to the ground face first. Both Officer Mehserle and Officer Pirone attempted to restrain Mr. Grant and to seek his compliance by ordering him to put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed, but Mr. Grant resisted and refused to submit to handcuffing. Officer Mehserle was pulling at Mr. Grant’s right hand and arm, which remained under his torso near his waistband. Mr. Grant had not been searched by any officer for weapons, either prior to his initial detention or after being seated near the wall."
The motion also states that the man sitting next to Grant also told police he heard Mehserle say "I'm going to taze him."
Mehserle then stood up, unholstered his gun, and fired a shot into Grant's back. Immediately after the shooting, Mehserle appeared surprised and raised his hands to his face; according to Michael Rains, Mehserle's criminal defense attorney, several eyewitnesses described Mehserle as looking stunned. Witnesses say Mehserle said "Oh my god!" several times after the shooting. and many saw him put his hands to his head.

I’ll concede: Perhaps Johannes Mehserle was not great cop material. Perhaps his own fear got the best of him that day.  Perhaps he had the jitters because earlier that day two guns had been recovered in separate incidents along the rail line. Immediately before he arrived at the Fruitvale Station , Mehserle was involved in an incident at the West Oakland station where a teenage boy with a semi-automatic pistol had fled from police and jumped off the station platform, breaking several bones.
Mehserle had a spotless record prior to this incident. Grant however did not. He had been convicted of several felonies and had served two terms in state prison. One of those incidents he was carrying a gun. He had been out of jail a mere three months prior to this BART incident. Mehserle would have no knowledge of this information,  however- a good cop usually has a sixth sense- and maybe the hair on the back of Mehserle’s neck stood up when Grant tried to reach into his pocket while being arrested.
Oakland police work very hard for their money. And while BART Police are not Oakland police they work in the same crime ridden city where guns, thugs, drugs and shootings are commonplace. Parts of Oakland on any day are not safe- and on New Year’s Day- when morons like to shoot guns- it’s even less so.  Three months and twenty-one days after the New Year’s Day incident- four Oakland City Police were killed in the line of duty- by gunfire. The assailant in that case was a 26 year old who had spent most of his life in prison. After a brief shoot out with police- he was killed.  People tried to make him a hero. The police are hated in Oakland.
This was never about race- until the press made it so. This was about fear. Fear on both sides- no doubt. Grant afraid he would be arrested or perhaps killed for something he did or didn’t do, Mehserle afraid he would be shot and killed when he had a new baby on the way.  This was about lack of training, lack of education and lack of communication.
The riots that followed the incident did nothing to help the black cause. It was teenagers looting, breaking windows and stealing anything they could get their hands on. It was not about race or rights. Black leaders half-heartedly asked for peace- but in my opinion did not do enough to show young people how to get there.
This week the sentencing of Mehserle, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter was announced. He is to serve two years with credit for time served.  He will for the rest of his life, live with his mistake.
More riots followed the sentencing and over 100 arrests were made. Cars were smashed, windows broken and fires started.
 Oscar Grant’s family is unhappy they wanted a murder conviction and maximum sentencing. Of course, their pain will last forever. Losing a child is a pain that never goes away.
Perhaps someday the press will find a way to tell the truth. This was never about race. This was about fear. Until people are ready to have an open dialogue with each other, this will continue to be a problem. Crime is a problem- no matter what color you are.
Prejudice isn’t a one way street. Stop waiting for the government to fix everything, get off your butts, and start confronting your fears. Don’t be a Mesherle or an Oscar Grant. Don’t be a victim.  Lose the chip on your shoulder. Lose your knee-jerk reactions. And start telling the truth no matter how ugly it is- because that is the open door to all communication. 

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