Jul 10, 2010
The cauldron of hatred and anguish bubbles over like oil
slowly seeping into fragile marshlands. The ravages of perpetual warfare rend
the fabric of society and sow the seeds of mass insanity. Racism forms a patina
over our relations as four centuries of unspeakable atrocities are elided from
our master narrative. Politicians prattle, pundits pander, and plutocrats prosper
while families grieve and rifts widen. The clock ticks mercilessly and no one
seems the wiser.
Where exactly does one cast their gaze anymore to find
shelter from the storm? War, conflict, and violence permeate every aspect of
modern existence - from our oil-soaked daily lives to the harsh inevitabilities
of geopolitics. States legalize racial profiling and ethnic subordination,
creating a climate of fear and antipathy. The environment is everywhere a
casualty of war, yet the people who orchestrate its devastation are immunized
from rebuke while those challenging their impunity are treated as de facto
terrorists. And still, we can't even legally limit the most outlandish firearms
in our midst.
It is tempting to do what we oftentimes do to cope with this
nightmare posing as "reality," namely to take a piece of it and analyze it
in-depth with the intention of promoting awareness and suggesting avenues for
change. But the cycle churns out more episodes than one can keep up with,
forcing us to become something like societal coroners cataloguing individual
causes of death as genocide continues unabated. We work at the level of
symptoms while the essence of root causation eludes us time and again.
No more. We cannot afford to continue in this manner for
another second - our very existence is in peril, and I would rather risk
ridicule than court complicity. Not too long ago, in a situation reminiscent of
the despair now felt in Oakland and
elsewhere, an ordinary person spoke an extraordinary truth in plain and
"People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?
Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older
people and the kids? ... It's just not right. It's not right. It's not, it's
not going to change anything. We'll, we'll get our justice.... Please, we can
get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we're all stuck here for a while.
Let's try to work it out. Let's try to beat it. Let's try to beat it. Let's try
to work it out."
On the streets of America,
yet again, a young life is extinguished by the arm of the state, a person of
color perishes at the hands of a white oppressor, a martyr is created and
justice is barely upheld. In the killing of Oscar Grant by officer Johannes
Mehserle, we witness a microcosm of the entire paradigm on which the pervasive
violence of our lives rests. Grant, a black fast-food worker with a high-school
equivalency and a rap sheet, father of a four-year-old daughter; Mehserle, a
white police officer with educational opportunities and a spotless record,
father of a child born on the day after the shooting. Grant, a victim even
before that fateful morn of January 1,
2009, and Mehserle, groomed for the role of oppressor - their
destinies now linked forever.
How many racialized episodes were both Grant and Mehserle
exposed to before their encounter? How deep was the well of mutual fear and
suspicion of the other in both their minds and hearts? They were strangers, and
yet knew each other as stereotypes and caricatures. Mehserle, vested with the
legal monopoly of violence by the state and trained in how to deploy it, goes
from golden boy to judge, jury, and executioner in a matter of seconds that he
will relive for the rest of his days; Grant, used to violence being done to him
and responding accordingly, reacts to the deadly blow with almost emphatic
resignation: "You shot me! I got a four-year-old daughter!" Mehserle recoils in
shock, hands on his head, repeating "Oh my god!" over and over again. All as if
each one had been trained for this moment, with lines delivered precisely on
What kind of a world creates a Grant and a Mehserle? Two
young men, young fathers, growing up in the same area, separated by skin-deep
pigmentation and the baggage of a history that neither asked for nor created. A
society that already had adjudicated Grant as a lesser being entitled to only
grudging acceptance, while privileging Mehserle with the prospect of power if
he will simply agree to play by the rules established for his benefit long ago.
A system that uses both as pawns, sets each up to fail, pits one against the
other, and diverts our collective gaze from the real culprits who have made
violence the baseline feature that binds our lives.
This does not excuse Mehserle's culpability. Each of us has
the option to resist our programming and eschew our privilege as best we can -
assuming we have the tools to recognize that choice. As callous and shocking as
the verdict of "involuntary manslaughter" seems, it might be close to the
unfortunate truth of our society. Mehserle almost certainly had no intention of
killing Grant in particular, or likely anyone at all, but rather was ingrained
with a perspective and cloaked with an authority that should never have existed
in the first place. No healthy society ought to ever tolerate the existence of
an underclass, nor the appearance of an armed force whose central yet often
unseen role is to enforce the boundaries that maintain this caste system. That
Mehserle would see Grant as a threat is ironic and perverse, whereas Grant
likely understood all too well that the real threat was living in a world that
even needed an Officer Mehserle in the first place.
Now Grant is dead and Mehserle probably wishes he was.
Outrage in the streets boils over, and the chasm between police officers and
community members widens. Meanwhile, the next Grant is being shunted into a
life of diminished opportunity, and another Mehserle is being trained in the use
of force. How many more must we create before the assembly line itself is
dismantled, smashed to unrecognizable pieces, and consigned to the dustbin of
history? This is not a case of individual pathology or blood on someone else's
hands. We were all in that BART station on New Year's Day 2009; we are all
witnesses to the killing; we are all Grant and
Mehserle. It is time to own the knowledge that our continuing participation in
a world of competition, consumption, categorization, and cruelty renders us all
victims and perpetrators at the same time.
A suggestion: there can be no "other," no "lesser," no
"expendable" aspect of our shared existence. The separation of reality into
convenient classifications such as white/black, humans/nature, or us/them is
simply nonsensical. You can scan the great texts from physics to metaphysics, and
the essential organizing principle comes out the same: mutual interdependence. A whole with distinct yet interlinked
parts, each necessary for the other's existence and none of more importance
than any other; no center, no rank, no privileged perspective. In this sense, there
can be no war, no despoliation, no hatred that does not come back upon
ourselves. We will emerge from our adolescence to embrace this realization, or
perish by our own hand - one oil spill, one war, one Mehserle, and one Grant at
a time. The news of the day holds up a giant mirror for our edification and
potential evolution. Like the man said, "can we all get along?"
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