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.

Structural Racism and a Tale of Two Islands: Manhattan and Rikers

Yesterday, The New York Times’ City Room Blog published a piece about the changing demographics of Manhattan which is obvious to anyone who lives here:  Manhattan is getting whiter.   In fact, Manhattan is whiter now than it’s been since the 1970s.   According to the report,

For the first time since the 1970s, a majority of Manhattan’s population is non-Hispanic white, according to an analysis of census estimates. The white share of the population, which had dipped to about 40 percent as recently as the 1990s, climbed to nearly 51 percent last year. The rest of the borough’s residents were 24 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black and 11 percent Asian.

Part of this demographic trend is not about urban-living per se, but about the cost-of-living in Manhattan.  As Scott Stringer, Manhattan borough president, notes “The entrance fee to live here is a million-dollar condo.”  That’s not exactly true, but it feels true.  I live in Manhattan and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will always be a renter and never own a home or apartment.   Stringer is more accurate when he says, in the rest of that quote, “It’s magnificent and a great place to live, but its becoming more challenging for two teachers, or a nurse.”   Perhaps not surprisingly, Manhattan lost residents in the past year after a decade-long trend of population gains.

(Image from PlanetWare)

The bigger picture here is that there’s another island which is also part of the New York City:  Rikers Island.    Rikers Island is the city’s largest jail facility, and it’s actually a complex of some 14 different jails.  (Jails, different than prisons, hold people who are being held before sentencing and those with sentences of less than one year.)   The island is a small land mass in the East River just between Queens and the Bronx.    On a given day, there are approximately 14,000 people incarcerated there, and another 11,500 or so who work there as correctional officers or civilian staff.

Rikers Island is, in many ways, experiencing the mirror opposite trend of Manhattan.    Ninety-five percent of the inmates in New York City jails are African-American or Latino, while these two groups make up only about half the city’s population.  This, too, is obvious to anyone that’s ever been to Rikers Island.  I spent about five years doing health-related research there and know this fact well.

What does this tale of two islands tell us about structural racism?   In very broad terms, it illustrates the ways that racism and racial inequality can operate quite effectively without the kind of overt racism of the “Yup, I’m a racist” t-shirt-wearers.   One tale, of Manhattan, is a tale of real estate.  The other tale, of Rikers, is a tale of the New Jim Crow, New York-style.

Like so much in Manhattan, the driving story around the rise in white people here is about real estate.    The real estate trend that most often gets mentioned in this context is the gentrification in Harlem, East Harlem and Washington Heights, neighborhoods that have traditionally been home to large African-American and Latino populations. Gentrification is the process of newer, more expensive housing being built in neighborhoods; the newer, more expensive housing displaces current residents who can’t afford to live there.  There’s nothing inherently racial about gentrification, but when those who are displaced are Black and Latino and those who are gentrifying are white, it works out that way.

What drives the gentrification of these once predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods is a dramatic rise in the construction of tens of thousands of “luxury apartments” all over the city.  Once apartments are designated “luxury,” they are not subject to the otherwise fairly strict rent-regulation laws in New York City, and they are priced well above what’s affordable for working and middle-class New Yorkers, and are completely out of the range of poor families.   The majority of new housing being built in Manhattan in the past 10 years has been “luxury,” while the number of “rent-regulated” (or, even the more expensive “rent stabilized”) apartments has dramatically decreased.

What the City Room Blog refers to, rather benignly, as the  “dispersal of black and Hispanic Manhattanites,” is more than simply gentrification and being priced out of the housing market.  This is also the story of policies that are part of what Michelle Alexander has termed, The New Jim Crow.
Take a look at the policies which have created Rikers Island and you will see what the New Jim Crow looks like in New York City.   In contrast to “million-dollar condos,” for white, wealthy New Yorkers, those who are economically disadvantaged and Black or Latino live in what are referred to as “million dollar blocks.” That is, those who are incarcerated at Rikers come from the same few blocks within New York City.  These blocks are dubbed “million dollar blocks” because the criminal justice system has become the predominant institution in these neighborhoods and funnels, literally, millions of dollars into them to control these predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.   In these neighborhoods, simply standing on a street corner will put you at risk for being arrested, regardless of what you’re doing.  The NYPD’s “sweeps” in these neighborhoods – where the police literally “sweep” everyone off of particular corners and detain them – is standard policy in New York and has been since the Guiliani era (Bloomberg has continued and stepped up these policies).

You don’t have to be committing a crime to be targeted by NYPD for “stop and frisk.”   Since 2004, the NYPD has stopped and interrogated people nearly 3 million times, more than 80 percent were Black or Latino. The names and addresses of those stopped have been entered into the department’s database, regardless of whether the person had done anything wrong. Last year, NYPD officers stopped and questioned or frisked more than 575,000 people, the most ever. Nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped and questioned by police last year were neither arrested nor issued a summons.

Once in the system, either with a record – even for a minor offense – or, just because you were once “stopped and frisked,” means that the NYPD regards you as a potential suspect, and, you are even more likely to end up spending at least some time at Rikers Island, particularly if you are young Black or Latino man.    Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Her work shows that by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.

That process works here in New York City, where the rhetoric of color blindness prevails while the island of Manhattan gets whiter, and Rikers Island remains Black and Latino.

Oscar Grant Trial Begins: No African Americans on Jury

The shooting of Oscar Grant, an African American man, while he was handcuffed and lying face down on a train platform by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop in January, 2009 sparked renewed attention on the racial injustice system that some are calling the New Jim Crow.  This past week the trial of Johannes Mehserle started and the jury selection process seems to illustrate the (unconscious) and systemic racism in criminal law. The result: there are no African Americans on the jury in a trial of a white cop accused of killing an unarmed, handcuffed black man.   While some are suggesting that this trial breaks new ground because of the video footage from cellphones of bystanders who witnessed the shooting, the jury selection process suggests that this is another manifestation of the racial caste system.

(image from Flickr/cc: hensever)

Officially, it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of race in the process of jury selection.  In 1986, the Supreme Court in the Batson v. Kentucky decision, found that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits prosecutors from discriminating on the basis of race when selecting juries.

Unofficially, however, racial bias in jury selection is rampant.  And, the Supreme Court and lower courts have tolerated all but the most egregious example of racial bias in jury selection, and this is usually put in practice through something called “peremptory strikes.”    Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are permitted to strike ‘peremptorily’ jurors they don’t like — that is, people they believe won’t respond favorably to the evidence or witnesses they intend to present at trial.  What this means in practice is that peremptory strikes are notoriously discriminatory.  In addition, jury pools tend to be disproportionately white for a number of reasons, including the felony-disenfranchisement laws that permanently exclude 30% of men from jury service for life.  Thus, the practice of systematically excluding black jurors has not been stopped by the Batson v. Kentucky decision.  What the law requires is that the prosecution must come up with a race-neutral, or “color blind,” excuse for who they exclude from the jury, which is an exceedingly easy thing to do.    (M.Alexander, The New Jim Crow, New York: The New Press, 2010, pp.116-120).

This trial brings with it a mix of feelings from powerlessness to a strong desire to see justice prevail.   Dr. Boyce Watkins sums up this when he writes:

What’s most egregious about cases like this one is the sense of powerlessness that many in the black community feel, when one of our own is killed by police in what appears to be a highly questionable situation. Police are not accustomed to having their authority questioned, and some of us forget that officers are human like the rest of us, often carrying a temptation to abuse their authority. Unless a reasonable explanation can be provided regarding why this officer shot an unarmed young man in the back, there is no reason for anyone to believe the officers should be found innocent. Let’s hope these jurors do the right thing.

I, too, hope the jurors do the right thing.   I wouldn’t say that I’m optimistic about that happening.