On New Year’s Day in Oakland, California, an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was shot by a white police officer. The bullet went through his back, rebounded off the pavement, pierced his lung and took his life.
As a black man who has been harassed, thrown up against a wall and called racial slurs by white cops in Michigan, I was frustrated. When I saw the video on KTVU, a local TV station in Oakland, I played it over many times. I thought that if I played it enough, I would somehow erase its horrible memory; maybe I could understand it better or find a rationale for the officer’s actions. I thought that if I researched enough maybe I could discover what crime Grant was suspected of committing that could warrant such a response. But as I watched and read the reports, the social realities of the event became glaringly clear.
As people were returning from various festivities on Oakland’s Bay Area Rapid Transit subway, one bystander opened his cell phone to record an escalating conflict. BART police officers were investigating a report of a fight nearby. The recording shows three police officers surrounding men against a wall. Grant appears to be making an innocent plea on his knees. Other bystanders seem to be silent. Grant was then forced to lie on his stomach by the police. One police officer stands, draws his gun, and shoots him in the back.
Grant was unarmed, but the officer contends that he was reaching for a weapon. Grant did not appear to be struggling at all, but if he did reach for a gun, it would have been justifiable grounds to use force. The officer also claims that he meant to use a taser instead of a gun, but the truth to this claim is questionable. He has been charged with first degree murder and is the first California officer to be charged with murder in decades.
It’s no secret that African-Americans’ sentiments about cops are often negative. A 2007 report to the United Nations titled “Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse of People of Color in the United States” documented the disproportionate effect of racial profiling and police brutality toward African-Americans. A 1999 study by The New York Times reported that 57 percent of blacks said they did not feel safer in the presence of a police officer, while 62 percent of whites said they did. There is a reason that African-Americans get extra-fidgety at the site of a Chevy Impala or blinking lights. The particular response of African-Americans to police is more directly related to a long history of racism and police brutality.
Anyone around of a television set during Black History month may at some point come across the images we have seen so many times before: police and their canines belligerently attacking black men, women and children. This footage largely comes from the 1960s — a time that was plagued with salient racism and brutality against blacks. In what is being heralded as the “post-racial” era, it is easy to surrender to historical amnesia, to view racial tolerance as on the rise and to pronounce our black president as the pinnacle of the black civil rights struggle. But racism still exists today. And it seems that racism’s relationship with police brutality has been relentless.
In 1991, four policemen used excessive force against Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots ensued after the police were acquitted. In 1999, in New York City, Amadou Diallo was killed after four policemen shot at him 41 times — all four were acquitted. On the morning of Sean Bell’s wedding day in 2006, the police shot and killed him in Queens — they went to trial and were found not guilty. In 2006, in an occasion closer to home, Clifton Lee Jr. was horrendously beaten by police in Ypsilanti Township and then died. In all cases, the victims were unarmed. Questions of racism that lack obvious answers persist.
This year’s remarkable inauguration sharply contrasted Oscar Grant’s death. The American mass media has celebrated civil rights progress in the U.S. on account of Obama’s presidency, yet the Grant incident is comparatively inconspicuous. Is this an accident? Are we numbed by negative racial issues to where news media no longer finds police brutality interesting? Are we worried that police brutality and its consistent correlation with racism will challenge the supposed “post-racial” era?
Hopefully, this case will contradict history and the officer will be convicted — this time, it’s only one cop. But his conviction does not ensure proper racial sensitivity training, and such training is crucial during a time where racialized issues are considered less prevalent. After all the progress thus far, it would be a shame to brush this one under the carpet just because Obama is now president. We all want to finally become part of the “post-racial era”, but ignoring racism’s existence fails to accomplish this goal.
Matthew Hunter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.