Oscar Grant Aftermath: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
“No one man should have all that power.” —Kanye West in “Power”
On November 4th, 2008, we thought we won. When Barack Obama defeated John McCain to become the first African-American president, we cheered and shouted “Yes We Can!” at the top of our lungs. We were prepared for change. On November 5th, the same issues that plagued our community were present but many believed Obama would come and rescue us. Many thought Obama would change the game and we subconsciously let our guard down.
On July 8th, 2010, the cop who shot and killed Oscar Grant at a BART Station in Oakland was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter—a verdict which carries a sentence of two to four years. The community in Oakland protested the light verdict which could see Officer Johannes Mehserle serve less time than a non-violent drug offender. People hit the streets and showed their frustration with the verdict, clearly feeling justice had not been served. Riot squads swarmed the 500-plus protesters to quell the civil unrest. Emotions ran high. Some business were damaged, fires were started and a Foot Locker was looted. But those unruly individuals were but a mere fraction of the peaceful protesters who broke no laws and showed solidarity in the midst of yet another policeman getting off lightly for killing or harming a Black man. The outrage was like a scaled down the 1992 riot which all began when four officers were acquitted after video evidence showed them beating down Rodney King. The Oscar Grant protest was far more civil than that resulting from Rodney King’s beating—which caused over a billion in damages—but the foundation of the anger remains the same.
And there’s our President, Barack Obama. And there’s the many African-Americans who voted for him, who are now just waiting for him to say something about Oscar Grant. Though Obama’s plate is full of other world and country issues, for him to not speak on this particular issue is simply not right. Expecting him to interrupt the LeBron James announcement to denounce the judicial system would be equivalent to Obama carrying the cross for the Black community and being crucified by his enemies who work for (and against him) in the White House. But in this story, Obama won’t resurrect on the third day.
But we should have already known this. We shouldn’t have let our guard down and put all of the power into one individual to change our lives. We cannot force Obama’s hand to do anything because of our lack of fight and inability to focus on issues impacting our community. It’s Mumia Abu-Jamal, Assata Shakur, H Rap Brown being nothing more than an afterthought to our generation. It’s the names Sean Bell, Aiyana Jones and Amadou Diallo being met with blank stares when mentioned to our peers. It’s our responsibility to make a change. And as we learned in the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s verdict,”The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The signs were there telling us not to put our entire stock into one individual. I outlined in an column entitled “I Like Obama But He Can’t Do Sh*t For Me” for my old stomping grounds of HipHopDX on April 25th, 2008, that our then potential Democratic Presidential candidate was trapped in a similar Catch-22 when three officers were acquitted of all charges stemming from the murder of Sean Bell.
“I’m not questioning Barack Obama’s blackness. I’m not likening him to any black man who cares more about the mighty dollar than our community. I’m questioning what Barack Obama can and can’t actually do in the Oval office. He’s a politician and has to play the game of a politician. When situations like this arise, I would love to see Obama with eyes of fire. I would love to see him make a joke out of our flawed judicial system. I would be elated to see him articulate the black struggle to the American people in a manner that is not as threatening as it is educational. I would love to see a black man who genuinely is hurt by how society treats minorities, stand up on national television and in so many words say “F*ck that sh*t! That sh*t ain’t right!” (devoid of the curse words but filled with the same passion, of course).
Obama can’t and will never ever be able to do that as president of this country. But I will still vote for him with the understanding that his contributions during his first four years are more inspirational to minorities than tangible.
So, what can’t Obama do for me? Well, he can’t do anything about the Sean Bell case. There are a number of factors that go into this case that prove today’s America to be desensitized and constantly conditioned by media.”
This was after Obama offered a simple “respect the judgment and not react” solution to the situation at hand. Right there, I knew and understood Obama could never be our Superman. He would be the President of the United States, not the President of African-Americans. His responsibility lies with the country; our responsibility lies with the community our children are born and raised in. The work needing to be done has to start with the community. Change doesn’t start from the top down, it grows from the bottom up. I learned we just aren’t mad enough to do anything anymore. We don’t feel the pressure like our parents and grandparents did during the civil rights era. We have truly become complacent and are often distracted by big shiny things on our television sets.
“For one, how many individuals knew who Sean Bell was—prior to Friday’s ruling, of course? If you didn’t, I’m not upset as much as I am disappointed with our culture and the media outlets that project it. If it isn’t in a rap song, you don’t know about it. The news will give it maybe two minutes of its precious time before moving on to Miley Cyrus’s “too hot for TV” pictures or the latest American Idol reject. And although we have the power of the Internet at our fingertips, most of us don’t spend our days looking to see what’s happening in our community. Rather, we mill around to find out what Jennifer Lopez’s babies look like or what Lil Wayne said about sizzurp.”
The same holds true two years later. Exchange Miley Cyrus for Lindsay Lohan and you’ll see that nothing has changed since Sean Bell. We have no one to blame but ourselves. Instead of waiting for Al Sharpton to lead a rally or for a celebrity to call attention to a situation concerning our community, we have to first acknowledge a problem even exists. We have to tell the stories of Aiyana Jones and Amadou Diallo using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. We have to educate our peers on Mumia Abu-Jamal and Assata Shakur with our blogs and by any free means of press possible. By educating ourselves as a community, we’ll understand where the problems lie and can begin working on the solutions. We can’t leave it up to The Boondocks to deliver the cold hard truth about our society. We can’t expect Fox News to care about us. We can’t be irresponsible anymore. Otherwise, Oscar Grant will manifest itself time and time again.
We are not supposed to fear our government. Our government is supposed to fear us. We have to hold each and every individual in positions of power accountable for what happens in our society. When something goes wrong, we must be strong enough to stand up and voice our opinions. Think of the government like you would a 4-year-old child. If you don’t scold him/her when they do wrong, they will continue doing the same things. If we continue to act like Sean Bell, Aiyana Jones, Amadou Diallo and Oscar Grant are less important than a celebrity, our media and politicians will treat them as such.
I honestly believe if the Rodney King riots hadn’t happen, Officer Johannes Mehserle would have walked out of that Los Angeles courtroom acquitted of all charges. But because of the fear a community put into the air, there was no way another cop would walk away “not guilty” in the state of California. With a stronger front, that “involuntary manslaughter” charge will undoubtedly become a “2nd degree murder” charge. But we have to know, address and act like we care about something more than what Rihanna is currently wearing.
I’m not asking any of you to throw a trash can through a pizzeria window to prove you are doing the right thing. Change can be as simple as reading a book or rounding up your peers for a healthy discussion regarding the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. When a film comes out discussing the ills of society, support it and pass it along to friends and family. Don’t simply gather around the television to watch reality TV on weekends with the family. Watch the news and shows like “Real Talk With Bill Maher,” “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show.” Email links to articles that may otherwise not be seen on television. It’s up to us to be the change we want to see in the world.
Barack Obama isn’t going to prevent a corrupt policeman from killing another black man, woman or child. We have to. It all starts with us. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.
“It Takes A Nation Of Millions…” —Public Enemy