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Can We All Get Along?

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 plaintive words:

"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 cue.

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?"

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

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