On New Year’s morning, the San Francisco BART police–yes, transit cops–dragged a bunch of young men off a train, including Oscar Grant. An officer then proceeded to execute Grant of them with a gunshot through the back, while he was restrained and lying face-down on the ground.
I think you should watch the videos, if you think you can handle it. They made me want to throw up, made me feel dizzy and aching, but they’re important. If bystanders hadn’t been leaning out of their trains with cellphone cameras, this incident might have passed largely unnoticed. According to witnesses, the BART police reacted immediately by confiscating cameras and phones in the name of “evidence.” The two videos that have surfaced were apparently taken by people who managed to keep their phones because the train started moving before the cops could get them. You have wonder why some city governments have been pushing in recent years to criminalize recording video in public without a license.
Oscar Grant left behind a 4-year-old daughter, along with the rest of his family. It’s not entirely clear yet what happened during the incident, and it may never be. He was apparently not one of the initial group dragged off the train–one of the videos shows him unrestrained and standing up, trying to intercede with the police. According to witnesses, he was trying to de-escalate the situation between the cops and his friends. This is not an isolated incident, not by a long shot. This kind of thing happens all the time: out-of-control police violence in response to non-violent communication. It happens to people of color, and to queer folks too. It happened to me and Jack a little more than a year ago, along with a group of colleagues and friends, for asking the police why they were making an arrest. An officer decided to pepper spray our group, without any real provocation. We’re lucky, and privileged, that it wasn’t a gun.
Who knows what’s going through these cops’ heads? Are they freaking out, paranoid, fearful, are they untrained, do they have no idea what to do? What really matters to me is that they’ve been given weapons to use, and they’re wiling to use them at the slightest provocation, up to and including lethal force. What matters is that any questioning of their authority, whether you’re holding a camera or trying to de-escalate a situation, is seen as a challenge that has to be put down, by taking your stuff away, or “crowd-controlling” you, or killing you. We should all be scared. Especially if you’re part of a frequently-profiled community.
I’m not even going to try and draw any connections to feminism this time around, like I did with Sean Bell. I don’t want to have that meaningless argument about what’s feminism and what’s not. Fuck that shit, really. It’s not even necessary–everyone should care about this kind of thing going down, regardless of who you are, as a matter of human rights and people being crushed by state power. People with deadly weapons, who are supposed to be protecting our communities, and who far too often end up as panicked bullies exacting deadly retribution on anyone who gets in their way. It doesn’t even have to be a feminist issue if that bothers you so much; decent human beings still ought to listen up and speak out, and we’ll still talk about it on this blog.
There is a protest planned for today (Wednesday) from 3-8 PM PST at the Fruitvale BART station. For those of us elsewhere, Racewire has a list of things you can do.
I’m adding videos of the event to this post, since the news site above is unreliable.
from left side, subway door – shooting at 0:37
from directly across the platform, shooting at 1:27
from right next to the incident, shooting at 2:57
I want to stress one more thing. The news is reporting that the police “felt outnumbered.” This is exactly the same reason they gave for pepper-spraying the crowd that Jack and I were in. But let’s be clear — it doesn’t have anything to do with numbers. If it had been a quiet crowd ignoring the police and just sitting on the train, the numbers wouldn’t matter. They “felt outnumbered” because a lot of people watching were demanding to know what was going on, yelling, and refusing to just “mind their own business.” People who were demanding to know what was happening, because they know that abuses happen far too often and take far too many lives, and that someone has to watch the watchers.
Unfortunately, to police this makes you “the enemy,” especially if you’re making your voice heard, yelling, demanding to know what’s going on. The police, whether because of training or inculcated philosophy or temperament, see this as a potential riot, and they escalate the situation. The solution to this problem is not to just mind our own business and go about our lives even when we see unwarranted arrests and unnecessary brutality and violence happening. It’s to hold the police accountable, organizationally as well as individually. It’s to let the government know that this kind of thing will not stand. It’s to make it clear that in a society where the “guardians” too often become murderous bullies who overstep their bounds and take innocent lives, we all have a right AND a duty to speak out and let them know they’re being watched. It’s to make it clear that the police need to be able to deal with this like professionals if they’re going to be allowed to carry weapons that injure, incapacitate, and kill.
Two days after Grant was murdered, I went to the Gaza protests in New York City to do the exact same thing — hold the police accountable and let them know that someone was watching them. I feel privileged and fortunate that the police didn’t react to me in the same way that they did the crowd at the Fruitvale station. I was protected by one simple and silly thing: a hideously ugly, bright green cap marking me as a legal observer representing the National Lawyer’s Guild. I was able to walk right through police lines and barricades by looking like I was doing my job and belonged there, and right up to the site of potential altercations between police and angry youth, and I would like to believe that my presence on at least one occasion helped defuse what was happening. But it doesn’t always work, not even if you have a green hat on. Sometimes the cops decide that everyone who’s not looking the other way is simply their enemy, or “interfering with the administration of police duties.” Sometimes they decide you’re a bunch of unruly kids (who just HAPPEN to be brown-skinned) and try to put you down.
Keep your eyes open. Let them know you’re watching. But be careful.
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