Criminalizing our youth to excuse police murder

Stop the appointment of Raheim Brown’s murderer as chief of Oakland school police! Pack the School Board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 24: press conference 4 p.m., meeting 5 p.m. at Paul Robeson Building, 1025 Second Ave., Oakland

by David Slagle

After the London riots in August, the theorist Paul Gilroy made a rousing yet frighteningly honest speech to a crowd of community leaders and activists in Tottenham, North London. In his speech, Gilroy argued that Black and poor youth had been subjected to what he called “processes of criminalization,” re-creating them in an image they did not choose. This carefully moulded portrayal of the “feral street thug,” the “violent monster,” emerges only through a close alliance between information – from newspaper articles to public relations statements – and power.

This relationship between information and power is shown in its stark nakedness by the failure of the American media to cover stories relating to police murders. The Raymond Hérissé murder [in Miami on May 31] is a case study in this regard: Out of the thousands of media outlets which can be searched through Google News, only five have dared to print the slain man’s name and only the San Francisco Bay View gave the story a face by printing a photo of Hérissé.

It is as if, in a bizarre kind of instant amnesia, Hérissé’s identity itself, the fact that he had a name and a face, is an act of treason, a threat to the power of the state. One is reminded of the days immediately following the emancipation of the slaves, who were told that they didn’t need their 40 acres – their freedom was enough.

In a similar way, the media seems to be saying, especially to young Black men, “Don’t try to find out more about this Hérissé case, because you should be thanking God that it wasn’t you,” as if educating oneself would be a way of cursing one’s own life. Whereas the supposed job of the mainstream media would be to cover stories, we find in this case that they are prime agents of cover-ups, not only relating to the circumstances of police terror but, equally, to the names, identities and livelihoods of the people themselves.

People like Hérissé, Oscar Grant [murdered by BART police in Oakland Jan. 1, 2009], Mark Duggan [whose murder in London on Aug. 4 touched off the rebellion in England] and Raheim Brown Jr. are, after the fact, “criminalized,” made into the criminals that the media-police information alliance wants to convince us that they always were.

This posthumous act of “criminalizing” the person who is pulled under the fiery storm of police bullets is an act of desperation on the part of a state and an elite, which is struggling to reconcile its idea of the world with the ugly truth of the world.

The newly-promoted Barhim Bhatt and his accomplice, Jonathan Bellusa, are experiencing this same conflict: On some level they know, just as well as Lori Davis and Raheim Brown Sr., that their son, Raheim Brown Jr., was not a murderer. But this knowledge is drowned in the myth that forms an unfortunately vast part of the “American Dream” – the myth that justice lives in the hands of the white man, the police, the cowboy who raped and murdered American Indian children.

The other side of this myth, and the crucial part here, is the idea that if Brown, Hérissé, Grant, Duggan and thousands of others met their deaths this way, at the hands of the “enforcers of justice,” then they must have done something wrong. This is why the only information the Oakland police seem to have released, in the scant few news stories about Brown’s death, is that one of their officers was “stabbed with a screwdriver,” that Brown’s car “smelled of marijuana” and that it was stolen. Their stoicism is evidence of both their power and their fear that such power will be challenged by any real information about the incident.

In this case, we have the word of the Oakland Police Department, the same department which – only a little more than 40 years ago – unwillingly served as the worldwide emblem of the ongoing war between the police and the people via the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. On the other side, we have the word of Tamisha Stewart, the only civilian witness, who was beaten and jailed after the crime on Skyline Boulevard. Stewart claims that the screwdriver never left the ignition.

One thing that should worry us, and perhaps gestures toward the years to come, is the question: How do the average Oakland Hills residents, the people whose mansions stand within a mile of Skyline, justify this murder and cover-up? When they opened the paper and saw the news story, did their eyes focus on the words “marijuana,” “theft” and “screwdriver,” rather than “20-year-old,” “student” and “excessive force”? And, if so, is there any hope for them? Is there any hope that they might, one day, be able to devote their time to understanding the way in which the American republic punishes people for the fact of their own birth, twists and pushes and moulds people into criminal mentalities and behaviors?

I write these words with a tearful hope that some understanding may be reached between the people in the community who know Raheim Brown’s situation and the people who devote their every waking minute to ignoring the fact that he was born, that his parents and siblings and fiancée loved him, that he made mistakes, in part, due to his country’s disavowal of his human rights, of his humanity and his dignity.

I write because I know that not all of the former group are Black and not all of the latter group are white, but that, nevertheless, it is still an issue of white supremacy, because – as James Baldwin and Malcolm X always said – whiteness is a matter of worldview, a worldview which has trapped and condemned not only Hérissé, Brown, Grant and Duggan but, in a terrible death embrace, their executioners as well.

David “Shoshone” Slagle is a researcher and journalist born and raised in Oakland.  He has studied in Los Angeles and London, U.K. He keeps a blog at http://dreamofsafety.blogspot.com and can be reached at davidjslagle@gmail.com.