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Notes from the occupied territories: Black America and the police

March 24, 2009

by Jean Damu

Keeping his finger on the trigger, this officer was one of a small army of BART police “protecting” the Rockridge BART station from a demonstration demanding justice for Oscar Grant organized by No Justice No BART on March 19. NJNB chose the station in the upscale Rockridge neighborhood for their second demonstration and found BART’s own riot police, or “Tactical Team,” waiting for them with chemical and other weapons ready to go and barricades around the escalators. The demonstration gave Rockridge a taste of the occupation that Black and Brown communities must constantly endure. – Photo: Dave Id, Indybay
Keeping his finger on the trigger, this officer was one of a small army of BART police “protecting” the Rockridge BART station from a demonstration demanding justice for Oscar Grant organized by No Justice No BART on March 19. NJNB chose the station in the upscale Rockridge neighborhood for their second demonstration and found BART’s own riot police, or “Tactical Team,” waiting for them with chemical and other weapons ready to go and barricades around the escalators. The demonstration gave Rockridge a taste of the occupation that Black and Brown communities must constantly endure. – Photo: Dave Id, Indybay
When the full story is finally told and, though not likely freely admitted by many, deep within the spiritual thinking of numerous African Americans, an emotional candle will be lit in memory of Lovelle Mixon, the man who, in a horrific shootout in which he was finally killed, shot five Oakland police officers, four of whom have died. They will then say to themselves, “But for the grace of God I could have been he.”

Mixon, whom family and friends say was not a monster – “He didn’t walk up and down the street killing people” – was by many accounts a marginally normal person in African American neighborhoods. But the truth of the matter is, Lovelle Mixon, who, police say, is suspected of an earlier killing and rape, represented the man to whom society had given almost nothing, the man of whom society expected nothing. Lovelle Mixon was America’s worst nightmare: the Black man with nothing to lose.

The line between those of us who have something to lose and those of us who don’t is tenuous at best. In many cases the line of separation is almost invisible. Virtually every African American has a family member or knows someone who has been to jail or prison, or remains there today. There are no economic boundaries to this truth. Is there one African American oriented church located in the Black communities that doesn’t have a ministry that outreaches to the incarcerated? Likely no.

The day before the East Oakland shootout, this writer was on the phone talking to a long time friend whose husband had been released last year from Angola prison after serving 25 years. Louisiana paroled him to California where he landed a job with a CalTrans program for parolees.

Too bad Mixon, who had been trying to get a job, wasn’t guided toward that program. But chances are it wouldn’t have done any good.

Even though African Americans are just 13 percent of the population, we currently comprise 50 percent of the U.S. prison population. Many might say this is because during the 1990s President Clinton enacted draconian drug laws that unfairly were weighted against Blacks. Although this situation has always existed, the criminally lopsided racial disparities of those who are sent to prison were widely existent as far back as the era of slavery. In the early 19th century in several states that outlawed slavery, Blacks made up 50 percent of those who were incarcerated.

What this should signal to those who are paying attention is that the U.S. doesn’t have a clue when it comes to creating racial equality.

Everything that has resulted from the civil rights movement, up to and including the limited efforts at affirmative action, in actuality is little more than window dressing. Many have benefited, but a huge and growing Black and Latino underclass simmers.

Despite the rapid influx of immigrating cultures in recent decades, the U.S. mostly still conforms to the example of the apple. At the apple’s core exists the historic white/Black dichotomy. Around the core revolve the more recently arrived or ethnic cultures.

It is for this reason that in America the issue of race is almost always a significant factor in every significant issue, from the destruction of the economy to March Madness.

The war waged by police on Black youth claims the families of all those it kills. Here, Oscar Grant’s grieving family – his mother at right – marches on what should have been his 23rd birthday, Feb. 27, in his home town from Hayward’s BART station to its City Hall. They were hemmed in and harassed at every step by police in riot gear. – Photo: Bill Hackwell
The war waged by police on Black youth claims the families of all those it kills. Here, Oscar Grant’s grieving family – his mother at right – marches on what should have been his 23rd birthday, Feb. 27, in his home town from Hayward’s BART station to its City Hall. They were hemmed in and harassed at every step by police in riot gear. – Photo: Bill Hackwell
With all due respect and sympathy to the survivors of the fallen, it has to be noted the deceased officers, all white, lived in Tracy, Danville, Concord and Castro Valley. The fact that white officers travel from mostly white America to patrol Black and Latino America is not a unique situation. Anyone who has seen the film, “The Battle of Algiers,” will immediately recognize the situation for what it is: occupation.

It’s the same in most U.S. cities. It’s true in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and most definitely – perhaps especially, given its unwarranted progressive reputation – Berkeley.

Of course in all similar situations it’s never just an issue of color – nor is it just an issue of an occupation force keeping their booted heels on the necks of the oppressed. Because within the dialectics of progressive philosophy, it’s a time-honored truism that capitalism tends to turn its opposites into itself.

Thus it has become that in a multitude of circumstances Blacks often have become the oppressors of Blacks – regardless of whether they belong to the local police agencies or Crips and Bloods-type criminal organizations. In some cases, as has been alleged in regards to several elements of the Oakland Police Department, the line between paramilitary and criminal agencies has become vague, perhaps even disappeared.

It is believed in some quarters that an investigation into the possible blurring of distinction between some members of the Oakland Police Department and criminal formations in the city is what led to the assassination of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey.

All of the media, all the local and state political classes will come together to honor the murdered police officers as heroic defenders of the state. There will be great and emotional public displays of grief. Bagpipes will be ubiquitous as California’s paramilitary organizations gather to honor their fallen comrades.

The bagpipes, played at the funeral of all police and fire department funerals in the U.S., indicate it is those agencies through which the Irish were allowed entrance into the U.S. middle class 200 years ago – a privilege not extended to African Americans in any numbers until just one generation ago.

But for those who experience the daily tactics and attitudes of the paramilitary occupation forces, distrust and questions will remain.

The Oscar Grant demonstrations, in protest of his New Year’s Day shooting by a BART police officer, should continue.

Jean Damu is the former western regional representative for N’COBRA, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and a former member of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, taught Black Studies at the University of New Mexico, has traveled and written extensively in Cuba and Africa and currently serves as a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Email him at jdamu2@yahoo.com.

8 thoughts on “Notes from the occupied territories: Black America and the police

  1. Edgar A Martinez

    Jean,
    This letter is probably a waste of time since you seem to be already blaming the white majority that has “occupied” that part of the hood, and which you seem to blame for Mixon’s cold blooded killing (or temper tantrum…the way you probably see it) of four police officers.
    Just exactly WHAT is it that people like you want? Do you want a separate territory with black people only? Last time I checked we had a black President. Race is only a problem to a hand-full of professional race baiters (ie: Sharpton, Jackson), and low life neo-nazis. What do you want?
    Do you hate your country so much that you need to blame one tragedy (Grant’s) with another, and ultimately conclude that it is the “paramilitary” forces’ fault for everything that happened?. Should we go back to segregating ourselves and shoot it out in a conflagaration of bullets…until the last man standing? Dude! What anger and hatred fills your passion? Journalism is truly dead in this country.

    Edgar A Martinez
    Mesa, AZ

    Reply
  2. Cyril

    Jean,

    Re: incarceration stats for US prisons: “What this should signal to those who are paying attention is that the U.S. doesn’t have a clue when it comes to creating racial equality.”

    So if the percentage by race of the general population was equivalent to that of the prison population, you would be happy with that? Would we have equality then? This kind of thinking illustrates the absurdity of “equality” in the sense you use it. Equal opportunity–OK. Treat others as equals until they give you reason not to– I’m all for that. But to demand that society itself “create” equality of result, that is delusional.

    What seems to bother you is that people of all colors are generally held accountable for their behavior: productive and harmonious behavior merits reward, while destructive behavior merits punishment. I don’t doubt that to some extent blacks– because of their race– get unfair treatment in the U.S. by law enforcement. But that appears to be the less significant part of the problem. Just looking at stories in this periodical it is clear that wanton violence is readily given justification in the black community when it serves as a balm to social wounds both real and imagined. When non-blacks believe that there is a very real and threatening “culture of violence” among urban American blacks, there is a mountain of blood-soaked evidence to support that view.

    As the previous commenter asks, What is it that you want? Not– what do you want from society or from non-blacks– but what do you want from yourselves? What do you demand of yourself that will take you to a higher level? Whatever it is you will have to generate it for yourselves. It cannot be obtained from or given to you by any outside (human) source.

    Reply
  3. StreamVNC

    Call it the “occupied territory” or whatever. Just keep that mess in Oakland or Richmond. Don’t even think about infecting my neighborhood.

    Reply
  4. Suki

    I am a former student of irish Ameican history and know something about the “troubles” in the North of Ireland…I was happy to see you connect the enfranchisement of the Irush through the door of policing- it also connected with the meditations I have been having on the policing of the working class/Catholic communities in the North of Ireland and how integral-how necessary- the corruption of the police force was for the British to maintain “order”…
    The line between the paramilitaries – the Ulster Defense Regiment, for example- and the Police force of Northern Ireland was frankly non existent and existed only for the press releases of the British should charges of police corruption and “collusion” be brought up by investigative journalists.
    I think if I had not studied life under British occupation in Ireland, I would not at all understand what you or any other writer/journalist means when you mention the killing of Chauncey Bailey or the extra legal means the police have extended to them by a Govt happy to look the other way…
    Tiocfaidh Ar La!

    Reply
  5. Tariq Mahmood

    I am by no means a lap dog of the West, but they seem to bend backward and forward for immigrants and minorities.

    In home country when migrants (people from other parts of the country) come and take jobs and hard times set in people take to the streets, torch cars, and yes dead bodies do start to show up.

    America is letting immigrants come here for a better life, they are paid wages 9 to 30 times higher then in home country for unskilled work, they can use this wealth to buy capital and technical expertise (and America will subsidize their education if they go for it too), yet they don’t.

    Can a McDonald’s worker afford a $10,000 car payment and a 500 square foot apartment in Mexico? In America they can …

    Black America operates the same as immigrants, with a victimization mentality.

    Were past wrongs dealt to African Americans, yes their were, but you know what wrongs are dealt to everyone, even at the individual level. Instead of creating helpless and depressed communities that look at the police as the enemy, why don’t you encourage your youth to achieve things.

    God does not change the fate of a people who does not change the fate of themselves.

    I think with President Obama’s election this mentality will die out, and minorities will start to integrate rather then embrace the racist multicultural policies of the left.

    Reply
  6. Robyn from Oakland

    Thanx for the heads up on the CalTrans program for parolees *whew*! Lord knows I could put that to use for somebody. Also on the war film/doc “The Battle of Algiers”. I found the reviews at IMDb.com under “La Battaglia di Algeri” and it sounds real good! Nominated for 3 Oscars & 7 wins. I’m dL’ing from mininova right now, cant wait!

    Trivia: In 2003, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon screened this film for officers and civilian experts who were discussing the challenges faced by the US military forces in Iraq. The flier inviting guests to the screening read: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.

    Reply

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