Verdict in the Oscar Grant Shooting Trial: No Justice

When BART cop Johanes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant as he lay face down, handcuffed on a train platform he committed involuntary manslaughter, not murder.  Or, so said a Los Angeles jury yesterday.  With an involuntary manslaughter charge, Mehserle will face at least two years in prison and a maximum of six years, rather than the life sentence he would have faced if he’d been convicted of murder.

(Image from here.)

As the verdict came in last night, here in New York I watched as one of the cruelest ironies played out in the press.  While much of the blogosphere and almost all of my Twitter stream was filled with news of the verdict, the mainstream news media devoted its considerable attention to the faux-news money-making event of where a certain basketball player would decide to shoot hoops.   The juxtaposition of these two black men – one shot dead by a white cop and the verdict in the trial of his killer largely ignored, the other bid on by some of the wealthiest white men in the country to entertain them — is striking.    The spectacle of the press fawning over LeBron James while Oscar Grant lies murdered, dead and buried is says a lot about the way America wants to see black men: entertain us or your life has no value.

There was no justice in this case, but no one who is even a casual observer of racial politics in this country can feign any surprise over the verdict.  White cops shooting black men, even when they kill them, do not get convicted of murder in the U.S.   The thing is, the shooting of Oscar Grant is not an anomaly.  It doesn’t happen every day, but it happens with enough regularity that – as a sociologist – it’s impossible not to see a pattern here, and the pattern falls unmistakably along lines of race, class and gender.    White cops shoot black or brown people, usually poor, usually men, and for the most part, get away with it.  As Adam Serwer points out, what’s remarkable in this case is that Mehserle ever stood trial at all.    The good folks at Colorlines did some excellent investigative journalism which highlights the systematic pattern at work in white-police-involved-shootings:

New York City consistently has the highest number of shooting deaths by police in the country, an average of 12 every year. The city also has substantially disproportionate killing of Black people, who make up 26 percent of the population but represented 66 percent of those killed by police.

Perhaps the most striking data of the period concerns the fates of active officers, on or off duty, found to have fatally shot civilians. Including all shootings–even cases where victims were unarmed–only one officer was convicted of wrongdoing. In 2005, Judge Robert H. Straus found Officer Bryan Conroy guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the 2003 death of Ousmane Zongo, a West African immigrant and art restorer who rented a storage room at a Chelsea warehouse where the NYPD was conducting a raid targeting a counterfeit CD and DVD operation. A jury trial had previously deadlocked when considering the case.

In many ways, the murder of Oscar Grant illustrates an extension of the new Jim Crow in which black men who are not fabulously wealth basketball stars are regarded as dangerous, even when they are laying face down with their hands cuffed behind them.  Just as important in the new Jim Crow is the notion of the white cop as hero-victim.    Mehserle will, like other white-cop-shooters before him, get lots of press attention focusing on how difficult it is to be a cop (hero) and how “afraid” (victim) he was in his job (generally) and of Grant (specifically).

The caste system perpetuated by the new Jim Crow is sustained by the white racial frame.  In other words, the shooting of Oscar Grant and the near-acquittal of Mehserle is going to be legitimated and justified by a majority of whites who will talk about the ways that Grant deserved to be killed, or was a menace and the ways that Mehserle was honorable and just doing his job.  For evidence of this you can check the comments at Serwer’s piece here, or pretty much any other blog or news site that’s writing about this verdict.    And, as if to drive this point home, last night as the verdict came in and even before we’d posted anything about the verdict, we started getting racist hate mail through the blog saying all that and more.

A Mexican Revolution Photo History, 100 Years Later

What do most Americans know about the Mexican Revolution? It disrupted everything in Mexico 100 years ago this November, prompting several waves of Mexican immigrants to enter the United States five generations ago.

Most of us may have heard of President Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, the soldaderas, Venustiano Carranza, Pascual Orozco, Victoriano Huerta, Álvaro Obregón, and others. In different contexts, we also know about William Randolph Hearst, President Woodrow Wilson, General John J. Pershing, George Patton. But do we know the latter were also participants in Mexico’s civil war upheaval?

Do we know who did what to whom when during an 18-year uprising by Mexicans that changed Mexico and the United States, a history that has continued to shape both nations? The Mexican Revolution is part of our unrecognized U.S. border history, and knowing the events of 100 years ago helps us to understand current immigration issues.

Here, for example, are the opening words of “Chapter 7: Rebel Armies Advance on Mexico City”:

Despite the unexpected developments that the revolution unleashed throughout Mexico, a feeling of expectancy, of widespread hopefulness prevailed. Even then, people had no idea what to expect, given the changes and uncertainties. What would happen when the revolutionary armies from the north and the south met in Mexico City?

People kept hearing they would be “liberated,” that the revolution would free them from Porfirio Diaz’s tyranny, but how that would happen remained unclear.

The Porfiriato had both shaped and created the Mexico that everybody knew for more than 30 years. After a generation and a half under Porfirio Diaz, and now in the grip of the revolution, most Mexicans were destitute. The country was in shambles, and Mexicans and the foreign investors wanted stability.

The advancing rebel generals–Villa, Obregon, and Zapata–were daily moving toward Mexico City with their armies. All three had supported Francisco Madero, but Madero was now gone. Obregon was beginning to fight for Carranza, and Zapata and Villa simultaneously inspired and scared the people because no one actually could say what they were going to do once they were in the Palacio Nacional, the National Palace.

The uncertain developments caused some Mexicans to be cautiously optimistic while others were depressed, and the rest didn’t know what or how to feel.

The great majority of the citizens were anxious and bewildered, for no one could control events that clearly were unpredictable. Even then, reports of battles, skirmishes, and disastrous encounters between the armies in different cities and regions of the country constantly surfaced. No one could say with certainty what would happen if and when soldiers from the different revolutionary factions met in the capital, Mexico City.

Would the losing soldiers be killed, imprisoned, or what? Would the victorious leaders meet and celebrate despite the unrest? What would they say? What would the people hear? What would they decide for Mexico? No one could say anything for sure. Clearly, it was not a good time to be in Mexico City or anywhere else in that vast country with so much unrest and unclear future. Most Mexicans didn’t know how other people they daily met on the streets felt about the revolution. It was awful because everything was in turmoil. No one knew what the following day would bring, or the next hour, or the next few minutes.

My 132-page photo history narrative contains 80 carefully selected photographs from the more than 483,000 pictures taken by Mexican, American, and foreign photographers who rushed to Mexico in 1910 to capture the revolution’s developments.

Note: Copies of Why Pancho Villa & Emiliano Zapata Wore Cananas: A 100th Year Photo History of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1928 are available from Marco Portales at 3800 Chaucer Court, Bryan, Texas 77802.