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Rosalea Barker: Real-ass real

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Real-ass real

There’s only one news story in Oakland at the moment. It began in the very early hours of New Years Day and won’t be going away any time soon. I’ve been trying to write about it ever since Day One, but just can’t find a way in. So this will be a column of all the first steps in all the directions the story’s been going in as seen by me.

::It ain’t no thing::
... to come off the hip and let it go ping. (Diego Trinidad, “Hata Shades”)

Even though this is my tenth year living in the United States, I’ve never become used to seeing all the hardware that cops have on display as they walk around: batons, handguns, tasers. And there are so many varieties of cops—collectively called “peace officers”—employed by school boards, university campuses, local municipalities, park boards, transit systems, and so on. Cops employed by counties are called sheriffs. Then there’s the California Highway Patrol, and at a federal level an alphabet soup of armed police forces, of which the FBI is only one. And they each build a wall around themselves when it comes to who’s going to handle a case.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART) has its own police force, and they have a reputation, even among regular commuters, for being overly bullish. Then this happened: A group of rowdies on their way back home from the New Years Eve fireworks display in San Francisco was taken off a crowded train at Fruitvale Station, and in the course of the police action an unarmed young man, flat on his stomach on the ground, was shot in the back at close range and died.

::Reporters of the Year, Any Year::
Initial TV news reports quoted BART police as saying there was no video of the incident, despite there being surveillance cameras on the platform. A day later—perhaps to counter the idea that now everyone could do what they like on the station platforms without being recorded—a BART spokesman said the police system didn’t record the incident but, yes, there was tape from the cameras, recorded by the station agent’s system. However, it was too unclear to be useable.

Already, within two days of the incident, BART was looking very much like it wasn’t coming clean about it, and then the local CBS station aired an exclusive interview it had recorded with a young woman who had been on a following train that had also been stopped at the station. She’d recorded the events using the video capability of her digital camera, and CBS sent one of their videographers to her home to watch it and talk with her.

What captured my attention with this video wasn’t so much the footage Karina Vargas shot—it’s actually hard to tell at the moment of the shooting what is going on—but her clear-headed description of what she did and didn’t see, and the questioning by the CBS videographer, John Ramos, about her attitudes towards the police to establish whether Vargas was reading something into it born of her own prejudices.

The raw video of that interview is here: The time on this clip is Jan. 03, 3:29pm. The later video on the CBS website timed around 7pm isn’t as good because it’s been edited to fit a studio report and the videographer’s questions aren’t used.

::Seizing the opportunity::
By now, it’s only two days since the shooting and it’s the weekend. The local TV news stations are trying to outdo each other with coverage of the incident. Days go by and the name of the police officer hasn’t been released, and BART is looking stupider and stupider, to put it kindly. On Wednesday, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) includes in one of its email broadcasts about the upcoming January 10 protest over Israel’s attack on Gaza a request for people to turn up at a rally in Oakland on January 7 to protest the BART incident.

In TV news clips of the ensuing burning garbage skips and broken windows that Wednesday night, some yellow ANSWER signs are clearly visible. But it’s not the only group taking advantage of the situation to promote its own agenda: The photo below is the street sign outside Revolution Books—which is affiliated to the Revolutionary Communist Party of America—in Berkeley.

Click to enlarge

An email from an anarchist group published on a local political and legal affairs reporter’s blog several days later, gives “An Anarchist Perspective on the ‘Violence’ of the Oscar Grant Riots”. As I commute past the Oakland Technical High School, I notice that Indybayarea has taped fliers to the seat backs of the benches at the bus stop urging students to join in any protests.

::Giving me a headache::
The BART board holds several meetings at which the public is allowed to vent. One of them was the Sunday following the “riot”, and I planned to go to it to get a better sense of what was going on and perhaps suggest the BART police chief should step down for failing to provide adequate training for his police officers. But I get a blinding headache on my way there and pike out.

By now the name of the police officer is known, as is the fact that he refused to talk to BART investigators about it, instead sending his lawyers to tell them he’d resigned. The Oakland Police Department can’t do anything, we’re told, unless they’re asked to by the BART police. The county District Attorney says he’s going to investigate. The State Attorney-General—a former mayor of Oakland—first says he won’t investigate, then says he will.

It’s a freaking dog’s breakfast! And still no-one’s head has so much as bowed let alone rolled. How can someone shoot somebody in the back—whether by accident or on purpose—have it captured on video by about a dozen cellphones as well as on camera, and still not be charged with anything or investigated in any way? As the days go by, and the media latches onto the property damage story instead, the widespread outrage at the shooting among the general public turns to a sense of public fear that Oakland’s about to go up flames.

::As it stands today::
Today is the second Wednesday after the death of Oscar Grant and a second protest was planned for Oakland City Hall, one that stressed the need for peaceful protest in order to keep the focus on what happened on New Years Day. Yesterday, a workmate who travels on the same bus line home as I do sent me an email saying she was going to stay home today, under lockdown, because she feared violence. She also commented on how many news trucks she’d seen parked outside a BART meeting recently and called the TV channels “vultures”.

On my way home, the bus was detoured around city hall as far as six blocks away. Stores had closed in the early afternoon, even though there was no need for it. Perhaps the current Mayor of Oakland’s assurances that businesses who lost custom or suffered property damage because of the protests would be compensated encouraged them to go for the free money instead of remaining open.

And yes, there was a splinter group at the end of the march this evening who caused some damage to businesses close to City Hall. And yes, the officer was finally arrested today.

::Things I wonder about::
BART Police don’t routinely carry tasers—the force simply doesn’t own enough for every officer to wear one. And when they do, the taser is strapped onto the thigh of the leg opposite the side on which their gun is holstered. In other words, you’d make a conscious decision to use a taser, whereas you’d reflexively reach for your gun. What reflex made the BART officer draw his gun?

A taser weighs much less than a gun—some brands even have colored sections on them—so as soon as it’s in your hand, you’d know which weapon you were holding. Why didn’t the officer know? Or did that message simply not get through to his brain in time to stop him pulling the trigger? Why? It’s not like he was being crowded by a horde of unruly rowdies. He was surrounded by a horde of BART police officers.

Given all the media coverage—locally, nationally, and even internationally—and the agonizingly slow lead-up to his eventual arrest today, where in the world is Johannes Mehserle going to get a fair trial?

On the matter of the protests, is the OPD just using this turn of events to do a little training of its own? With them showing up in such force in riot gear at the protests, it looks a lot like the scenes I saw around the political conventions in Denver and St. Paul. All that shiny new gear paid for by Homeland Security has to be put to some use, I suppose, and the “best” use it’s been put to, to date, has been on drug busts. Or so I was told by an Oaklander when I was watching the riot police go down the street in Denver back in August.

What’s happened to the old journalistic saw: If it bleeds, it leads? The only person doing any bleeding in this story is the young man who died. But that story has been subsumed by a seeming need by the media to scare the bejeezers out of everyone who lives in Oakland by implying that we’re about to suffer the same fate as Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating. Why are we being driven in this direction?

Perhaps the real-ass real (as opposed to merely the “real”) story can be summed up with another line from Diego Trinidad in the song he wrote about his mom, “Moms”:

You raised two, two black men, proud to be black, and we’re still here, past 21. I love you.



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