I was in San Francisco last week researching an article; the most striking feature of my trip was the extent to which the San Francisco Police Department is consumed, to the point of an almost paralyzing obsession, with the possible outbreak of riots, should a jury fail to convict a Bay Area transit officer of murder for shooting an unarmed black male on an Oakland subway platform on New Year’s 2009. We are all familiar with the phrase: “City X is bracing for ‘disturbances,’” but it’s another thing to observe what this “bracing” actually means in practice: the constant nervous updates by phone and blackberry about defense motions and judicial rulings; the conference calls; the pleas from business owners for suggestions on how to protect their employees, customers, and property—pleas that were more than justified given the damage already inflicted in Oakland by several riots following the January 1, 2009 subway shooting. The department’s preparations for similar outbreaks in San Francisco following the “wrong” verdict were the prelude to almost all conversations I had with a San Francisco law enforcement official; at every turn, I was warned that my meetings with commanders and officers could be cancelled at a moment’s notice, once the jury reached its decision.
To be sure, every G-20 or G-8 summit raises the specter of loathsome white kids and self-described anarchists gleefully destroying the fruits of responsible people’s hard work, and likewise provokes massive preemptive preparation. But it is nonetheless depressing to see how much “riot ideology,” Fred Siegel’s phrase for the power to intimidate government officials and the bourgeoisie, remains an intermittent mode of black political behavior long after the madness of the 1960s.
It is true that death at the hands of a representative of the state–in this case, the BART police officer–has an entirely different meaning than death at the hands of a common criminal and produces a far greater sense of injustice. That sense of injustice is compounded for blacks by the shameful history, now largely corrected, of police abuse. Still, this one tragically-mistaken killing—BART officer Johannes Mehserle entered a scene of chaos at Oakland’s Fruitvale station on a night in which several guns had already been found along the subway line and thought, according to his testimony, that he was firing his Taser to subdue a resisting, possibly gun-wielding Oscar Grant—stands out from the tidal wave of cold-blooded murders in Oakland by the fact that Mehserle did not intend to murder an unarmed civilian. Like many urban areas, Oakland has been seeing a retaliatory shooting pattern around vigils for shooting victims. On June 21, for example, a 17-year-old was shot at an Oakland bus stop; just after midnight the next day, two gunmen sauntered up to a vigil for the bus stop victim and killed a 19-year-old girl and seriously wounded five other teenagers who were attending the vigil. None of these and the hundred or so other murders a year in Oakland provoke the spectre of riots if their perpetrators are not convicted; indeed, it is often hard to find anyone to cooperate with the authorities in bringing the killers to justice. The thousands of black-on-black killings a year nationally are treated as a matter of course; so, too, are killings of police officers.
Let’s hope that Oakland residents heed the many calls from community leaders to accept the jury’s verdict peacefully and defeat the sad, but not irrational, expectations of Bay Area law enforcement.