Race and the Oakland Riots 

The violent response to the killing of Oscar Grant fans flames of struggle within the black intelligentsia.

The New Year began with a horrifying bang on January 1 when a BART cop killed Oscar Grant. Handcuffed and lying on his stomach at the Fruitvale BART Station when he was shot in the back by Officer Johannes Mehserle, Grant left a four-year-old daughter. Then, in character with local history, after a January 7 memorial service and protest dedicated to Grant, a small-scale riot broke out in downtown Oakland. About 150 people were arrested and dozens of local businesses suffered damage.

As these tragic events move through the legal system, we are sure to hear more about Grant and those arrested in the disturbance. But they also highlight a divide within the black intelligentsia. Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that he just doesn't get the rioters who felt it appropriate "to punish the city and its citizens for the tragedy." Johnson, who has singlehandedly made public safety Oakland's number one political issue, complained that "apparently the scores of young black men murdered in Oakland, year after year — most often by other black men — does not warrant the same level of outrage as one black man shot by a law enforcement officer."

Black intellectual Stanley Crouch went even farther. Writing in the online magazine The Daily Beast, Crouch, like Johnson, compared outrage at the killer cop to black-on-black crime. "The central cause of death among black males is not excessive police action," he wrote, but the "national slaughterhouse" of black people "killed by other black males." Crouch bases much of his argument on the work of a controversial Northeastern University researcher, James Alan Fox, whose study "The Recent Surge in Homicides involving Young Black Males and Guns" received heavy media coverage. Fox and Crouch advocate more "crime control" in black communities. Fox's research, however, has been roundly criticized by Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, who argues that violence by black teenagers is not on the increase.

Whatever the facts, Johnson is certainly right when he writes that "Oakland folks are dog-tired of street madness," and "worn out by violence." But he and Crouch are wrong to juxtapose the supposed lack of attention to black-on-black crime with concern over police brutality. Both are important issues, and a concern for one need not belie a lack of concern for the other. This has been argued by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an Atlantic magazine writer who commented after the riots about the supposed lack of attention to black-on-black crime. "The fact that people are pissed that a cop shot a man face down on the pavement, doesn't mean that they also aren't pissed about shit like this. I'm black, and I know I am. Walk and chew gum, people."

East Bay residents are especially sensitive to police brutality. Oakland was, after all, the home of the Black Panther Party, the strongest response to police brutality this nation has ever seen. And there's a reason the Panthers began in Oakland. Tahirah Rasheed, an Oakland college student who protested at the BART board meeting, told the San Jose Mercury News that she sees the death of Grant as "the culmination" of decades of poor relations between police and citizens. The Grant killing reminded her of "seeing her older brother mistreated by a police officer when she was about six years old."

Police enjoy a special status in society. We rely on them to keep the peace, not break it. Citizens have a right to expect that police are on our side, and not people from whom we must flee. While traveling in Mexico a couple of years ago, I was robbed by cops not once but twice on the outskirts of the Mexico City airport. I will never again look at a Mexican cop as someone on my side. That is disturbing. Cops are symbolic of state power. When a cop kills an unarmed man, it is different than a citizen-upon-citizen shooting. Symbols matter.

Regarding crime, the conduct by those within the black community has been debated by the black intelligentsia for years. The furor over the comments of Bill Cosby remains with us. Cosby, you may remember, lambasted black youth and black parents for their poor social habits. He trashed poor black moms for buying their kids "$500 sneakers" but refusing to "spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics." Michael Dyson, a black intellectual who teaches at Georgetown and who spoke in Oakland last April, argues in his book Is Bill Cosby Right? that there is an ideological divide in the black community, just like the one seen in reaction to this riot. On one hand is the "Afristocracy," upper-middle-class blacks who "rain fire and brimstone upon poor blacks for their deviance and pathology." On the other hand is the "Ghettocracy," poor blacks who are "desperately unemployed and underemployed." Dyson castigates the Afristocracy for its cavalier attitude toward those stuck in the Ghettocracy.

While it is easy to rail against the orgy of black-on-black crime in Oakland, solutions are much more difficult to pin down. One storeowner whose property was damaged in the recent riot was quoted by the Chronicle as wondering why the rioters did not "channel" their anger and frustration into something else. But what has society offered these folks to channel this into? Who the hell listens to the Ghettocracy?

Disputes such as these have existed for decades. Nearly one hundred years ago, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois went at it tooth and nail in debates that have a similarity to those of today. The difference this time may come from having a black president. In that sense, it is the best of times and the worst of times for the residents of Oakland's most violent streets. Will this symbolic change translate into real change for Oakland's poor? The most we can do is hope.

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