January 15, 2009

From The Frontlines In Oakland: "Don't Shoot!"

[Fire on the Mountain is pleased to offer this report by a long-time Oakland resident about the community's ongoing response to the police murder of Oscar Grant.]

New Year's Day

On the early morning of January 1, I happened to be in the Emergency Room of Oakland General. Word came in that there had been a disturbance on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train at Fruitvale Station and patients were expected. The first ambulance brought in a guy who had leapt from the platform when BART police stopped a crowded train and started pulling young male “troublemakers” off. His legs were fucked up.

Then the paramedics brought in Oscar Grant. He was still alive and talking. Techs were telling him "Hang in there, hang in there," as they tried to reinflate the lungs collapsed by a police bullet and to re-transfuse the blood he was losing--fast. His heart rate collapsed and CPR brought him back so he could be wheeled into the Operating Room, but the internal bleeding couldn't be stanched in the OR, and Oscar Grant died.

There's one thing I want to highlight here. When Oscar Grant was brought in, he had a deep hole in his back, the entry wound, but on the other side you could actually see the bullet pressing out against the skin of his chest from the inside like a big pimple. It was removed on the spot. (ER personnel don't often go around fishing out bullets, unless it's life-threatening--that's TV stuff--but this one took only a quick incision to remove.) The slug was flattened, completing the picture of someone who had been shot in the back while pressed right up against a very hard, flat surface.

Anger Builds

I've been asked how come it took almost a week for the first massive protests to erupt in Oakland. I'm not sure of all the factors, but one thing is that it took a while for the videos taken by other BART passengers on the stopped train, using their cell phones, to circulate on the news and YouTube. It was in the news that the police had tried to confiscate them, but there were too many. In one of the videos, the scene of Oscar Grant's murder is framed by other cell-phone cameras being held up.

As the story became clearer, people recalled earlier BART police outrages and got madder and madder. The cops' defense, which tried to suggest that Officer Johannes Mehserle hadn't intended to kill Oscar Grant and may have accidentally drawn his handgun instead of a Taser, went nowhere. The videos were powerful testimony. One woman I know, who deals with cops professionally every day and tends to be way too sympathetic to them, tried to tell us that the videos showed the cop in “a Taser stance" and wound up leaving the room amid mocking comments.

When a protest demanding justice was called by the family at the Fruitvale Station on January 7, things began to pop. I wasn't able to attend, but friends and co-workers did. This is where the main slogan of the protests, Oscar Grant's plea on the BART platform, “Don't Shoot!” was adopted by the community.

That rally, numbering in the thousands, become a night of rebellion, as folks finally felt they had a chance to light up the cops. Several hundred young folks, white anarcho types in bandana masks and Black youths in roughly equal numbers, took the lead. There's video of the night, including a burning police car and Mayor Ron Dellums getting, let's say, a mixed response from angry Oakland residents as he tries to calm down a bunch of folks who aren't feeling at all calm.

The Struggle Continues

Yesterday, after another week had passed, my son and I attended the latest rally, called by the community-based Committee Against Police Executions (CAPE). It started at City Hall at 4 PM. Even though the news had reported that Johannes Mehserle had been arrested in Nevada on a fugitive warrant on murder charges, around 2000 people showed up. The talk from the platform did emphasize the need for “peace” but it echoed also the mood in the mood in the crowd, which was very angry. A letter from the mother of NYC police victim Sean Bell was read, and a list of names of victims of police murder called out, each answered by a crowd roar of “Don't Shoot.”

This time, Mayor Dellums had his rap down, though. He declared, and I think he's right, that the Mehserle arrest was a victory for the people's struggle. Previous killer cops in the BART system had walked away, but Oakland's anger had produced an arrest. Further, it would have to continue to insure a trial and justice, and to pursue other goals, like civilian review of the BART police force.

The mayor was followed by hiphop legend Too Short, a proud Oakland loyalist, who repeated Dellums' pitch that the crowd break up peacefully. There was a huge police mobilization to underline the call to disperse. Still, folks were not ready to go home quietly. As dark fell, many of the demonstrators, including a big contingent from the grassroots Black bike repair and customizing subculture called “scrapers,” headed out for the county building to keep the protest going.

Over the years, I've been to a lot of demonstrations, and often it feels like a duty. We are there because it is the right thing to do. This felt different, I want to say exhilarating,, although that doesn't quite catch the determination in the feeling. But as I left, I said to myself, “Where this goes, we will see. But this is the start of something, I can tell.”

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