The Unspeakable Oscar Grant
In the days leading up to the Mehserle verdict, the bay area media maintained a steady drumbeat of warning at the riot that was surely coming. They eventually got one, but in looking so carefully for the riot that they had been preparing for (to the extent of seeing a traffic jam and declaring it a city in flight, as if a traffic jam at rush hour was some bizarre never-before-seen phenomenon) they told very little about the actual lived experience of the Oaklanders for whom the name “Oscar Grant” has come to mean something almost unspeakably important. Meredith Fenton’s “What if the Police Threw a Riot and No One Came” is worth reading, as is the Bay Citizen’s “Untold Stories of the Mehserle Verdict”. What does it mean to walk around Oakland and see so many shops and restaurants boarded up not because they were vandalized but because their owners were 100% sure they would be and fled? Who dehumanizes Oakland more, the legal system that showed no signs of prosecuting Mehserle until broad public rage made it necessary, or the entire establishment apparatus that pounds it into everyone’s heads that mindless (black) violence is in the offing, without trying to imagine where it might be coming from, what they might say, or how silence and violence are so often entwined.
A good friend of mine, who spent that afternoon trying and failing to find an open restaurant in Oakland (eventually had to eat in Berkeley) and who walked past armies of massed riot police to attend a peaceful rally that would be un-spoken in favor of the vandalism and failure to disperse that would later occur on the same site, wrote this:
I kind of feel speechless and want to have words to explain my numbness… my inability perhaps to react, the distance I feel from something I think I should be more connected to. This is about worlds divided by racism… those who in fear evacuate and those who shut down and can’t hear the truth by running away. This is not about one man, Messerle, it’s about a system of oppression that operates through its invisibility. What is visible are assumptions and close-ups of looters, when what are hidden are all the small acts of violence which create worlds of division, oppression, that are painfully visible to some, while totally unbelievable to others. And the way incredible black and brown people, young and organized, became invisible when they were speaking out, speaking a truth to power that only the few of us who attended the rally could hear. All the other reports blasted images of what several youth explained– “fools they had expected us to be.”
I am remembering my dear friend Verlon at these times, and how shocked I was not only that he was killed, but also just how far I was from worlds in which people are killed, how shocked I had been on his 31st birthday when my congratulations were met with his response that he never would have believed that he’d make it to 30. I never even considered that people in MY world had questions or thoughts about whether they’d grow old. We worked together, we sat together, we slept together, and while we had our shared moments, it was all the conditions and people, the police, teachers, newscasters, that created the world that he lived in and created a different world for me, that kept us apart. How can we talk when our experiences of our worlds represent such different places? And yet, now that I have experienced death, and his loss, and the meaning of MURDER, which took place in his room, a place that I shared with him, I have had this small window opened.
I did see my world turned upside down for a moment, I do know that things are not as they seem. Must death happen to us for a crack to open, for us to see through the window clearly? I see friends who have changed their facebook profile, “I am Oscar Grant and my life counts.” I want to feel that I am Oscar Grant, I know in my head and can speak words that say how wrong this verdict is, how grossly disappointing it is to see a system that first kills you, and then a legal system that calls such killing involuntary, and finally a media apparatus that convinces you to be afraid of the people who are OBVIOUSLY angry having been once again disappointed by the JUST-us system. But I can’t seem to get my heart and my emotions in line with the words. And then it occurs to me, that just as a million perspectives on the shooting didn’t seem to find what most of the world could see, my words certainly can do no more than the pictures for all to see. I am caught once again between worlds, unable to translate and make visible what is as obvious to some as it is nonexistent to others.
It is in this caught between position, a place which I have lived my life, trying to find the cracks in the system, the truths which are visible only to some, and abhored, shut out, policed, and ignored by those who have the power to do something about it. I hope to find my emotions here, so that I to can say confidently that I AM OSCAR GRANT and that MY LIFE MATTERS. Until then, I suppose you’ll have to settle for stream of consciousness and confusion of one who feels too distant to know how I feel, and therefore what to say.