Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: November 2010 (page 3 of 3)

No Justice for Oscar Grant

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, responding to reports of fighting on the BART in Oakland, officers arrived on the scene and detained a group of young men.  One of the officers, Johannes Mehserle, pinned a young man to the ground, face-down.  The young man, Oscar Grant III, may or may not have resisted the arrest–that much remains contested. Whatever the case may have been, Officer Mehserle stood, reached for his weapon, and shot Grant point-blank in the back.

A woman protests in support of justice for Oscar Grant

Mehserle was arrested and charged with murder for the crime, but eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.  The officer claimed he had meant to tase Grant, that Grant had resisted arrest, that it had been a mistake.  Following the decision, peaceful protests were organized and held across San Francisco and well beyond.  Supporters of justice for Grant spread the word online; on Twitter and on Facebook, individuals from around the world organized to express discontent at the decision and push for harsh sentencing for Mehserle.  There were also small riots, with 78 people arrested.

Today, Mehserle was sentenced: two years in prison, minus time served.  Less than Michael Vick served for organizing dog fights.  Less than Plaxico Burress will likely serve for shooting himself. And far, far less than Mumia Abu-Jamal has served for the crime of killing a white police officer.

I wasn’t there on that fateful day, so I can only speculate on what really went down.  It’s possible that Johannes Mehserle made a terrible mistake.  It’s possible that he abused his power as a police officer.  It’s also possible that he knew exactly what he was doing.  Whatever the scenario, he took a young life for no good reason at all, depriving a young girl of her father, a mother of her son, and countless individuals of a friend.

Two years in prison is not justice

John Burris, the attorney for the Grant family, said that he viewed the two-year term as confirmation of a racially unfair justice system.  It is indeed illogical to view this as an isolated incident, outside of the greater framework of systemic racism that exists in this country.  The system is rarely fair when it comes to dealing with police brutality toward people of color, and despite plenty of widely-publicized examples–Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, even Henry Louis Gates–we keep making the same mistakes,

A mural for Oscar Grant, San Francisco

again and again, ignoring the patterns.  Between the nation’s desperate, blind push toward a “post-racial” society and the media’s yearning for “objectivity”, these incidents are viewed in isolation, which makes it all too easy to see each subsequent event as accident.

Just as justice was denied in July when Mehserle evaded a murder charge, so was it today with Mehserle’s sentencing.  Tonight, on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco, the protests will undoubtedly continue as people react to the meager sentence handed down to Mehserle.  And rightfully so: for months, activists have fought, often within a broken system, for justice for Oscar Grant and his family.

But as Jessie at Racism Review reminds us:

The call for a harsher sentence in the particular case of Mehserle, and the grave injustice to Oscar Grant and his family, should not distract us from addressing the larger issue of the systemic racism which perpetuates this injustice on a grand scale.

Photos of protesters by Thomas Hawk available by Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-NonCommercial Generic license.

Restoring Sanity: More Media Than Politics

"This better be historic"

This past weekend, as many of you already know, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.  I had purchased plane tickets barely twenty minutes after the event was announced, honestly, along with a few friends and colleagues.  I couldn’t resist – after wasting a Saturday afternoon at home watching Glenn Beck’s absurd Restoring Honor Rally, I was duly inspired to get my derriere to D.C. to rage against…well, something.

Now, I’m probably actually outside of Stewart’s core demographic, though I don’t think of myself that way.  As CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin pointed out last week, Stewart has done considerable mocking of actual anti-war protesters, and as the Rally’s site explains: “ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs”.  Like Benjamin, I’ve taken offense to some of Stewart’s rhetoric, such as his equating progressives calling George Bush a war criminal with right-wingers calling Obama Hitler.

"Team Muslim"

At the same time, Jon Stewart is an island in a sea of faux-left commentators.  He is the sole television personality to offer a balanced view of the Israel and Palestine, and one of very few to actively point out the sheer idiocy of (much of? most of?) the American media.  The Daily Show, though intended as comic relief or “faux news” is by far more realistic and balanced than most of the actual news. (And yes, it is highly problematic that a comedian is more sane than 99% of our newscasters and pundits).

So I went, on a plane, down to D.C. in order to see what this whole thing was all about.  I went with relatively low expectations, to be perfectly honest, knowing that I would enjoy the event but unsure what, if any, political consequence it might have.  As many have pointed out, it is exceedingly superficial that Americans require a celebrity to call them to action.  It is incredibly frustrating that there is no real “left” in this country, and it is absolutely insane that the voices calling for an end to American imperialism and exceptionalism are so drowned out by those ranting about creationism and against social freedoms.

But those voices are nevertheless American voices, and the problem is less in their existence than it is in their amplification at the expense of the rest of Americans, the amplification of their ideas as the ideas of “real Americans”.  Looking at my Twitter feed at the start of the rally, I was a bit disheartened to see Tweets from some of my friends in other countries, many of whom felt that this rally was too little, too late.  In a sense, they’re right; we sane Americans most certainly need to raise our voices louder and protest the many injustices perpetrated by our government.  But, and I can’t stress this enough, that’s not what this rally was about.  Rather, this rally was about contesting the skewed perception presented to the American public by our center and right-leaning media (since a truly left media is nonexistent–at least in the mainstream–I leave it out, though I admit the center-left media is not immune to propagandizing).  This rally was about reminding the country that “real Americans” are not only the right-wing Christians, but also the brand new immigrants, the socialists, the atheists, the Muslims, and everyone else.

Though Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s program was mostly schtick, there were a few moments that stood out to me.  One was the intentional focus on countering the Right’s Muslim hatred (it’s not fear, it’s hate), from bringing out Yusuf Islam (né Cat Stevens) for a song to awarding the “you’ve got no Qur’an” guy with a “medal of reasonableness.”  Of course, you can argue that such an act is basic and shouldn’t require an award, but we are alive in insane times, friends.  The other was Stewart’s closing speech (full transcript here) in which he reminded us that “the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false” (unfortunately, he also implied that Juan Williams isn’t a real bigot, but I’ll ignore that for now).

OMG immigrants!

What mattered to me most, though, was not the music and the speeches and the antics, but the people who showed up.  In the media insanity and across state lines, it’s so easy to forget that this country is filled, like all countries are, with incredible, tolerant people as much as it is with intolerant ones.  This weekend I did not encounter hate, but kindness, helpfulness, and openness.  I saw people sharing (chocolate chip and bacon) cookies.  I saw lots of amazing signs. I watched a crowd of young Muslim women and a crowd of lesbians congratulate each other on their awesome signs.  I talked to people who’d come all the way from California.  In the crowd, I was surrounded by a group of middle-aged men, an elderly woman, some young punks, some hippies.  I saw hundreds of Redditors. And I saw CODEPINK supporters, anti-war demonstrators and others who likely felt Stewart’s message wasn’t enough.  And I was reminded once again that sanity is out there, something hard to imagine if you watch the media as closely as I do.

I say this as a natural optimist rather easily dragged down by serious concern for the world: Stewart’s message may not go far enough, but if he can use his earnestness and real celebrity to bring together such a diverse group of people whose views are likely different but who stand for bringing sanity and reality back to American politics and media, then I for one am glad.  I’ve come to a place where I am trying my damnedest not to discount–even for a second–those who are, so to speak, on the same “side” as myself.  We will never share the same precise opinion, but by pushing aside those who “aren’t [left, or radical, or what have you] enough,” we are doing this country a disservice.  Because on this “side” is where the open-minded and the tolerant stand, and we are all working toward the same thing: making the world a better place.

“This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. … Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine.”

And so I see what Stewart was trying to do by calling to the people “too busy to go to rallies.”  I don’t believe his intent was to discount the activists, rather, I believe that Stewart was doing an important deed: calling all of us, the sane, together to stand tall against those who would stomp on our civil liberties.

I think it’s also important, as others have noted, that we don’t stop here.  Let this be a call to genuine action, a reminder not to give up.  Going to a rally is never enough, we must continue not just to stand tall or speak out, but also to fight for what we believe in.  Fight with your vote, with your voice, and with your body.  Engage in the political process and in activism.  Don’t let this be all you do.

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