“Justice for Oscar Grant!” As I sit in front of these keys I know that I could have written this essay 100 times before and will likely need to write it 100 more times before I die, simply because I knew there would be no justice for Oscar Grant. Justice for most would have been a conviction of Officer Mesherle on a second degree murder charge, but that still would not equal justice — that would simply be a small step on the path towards justice. Justice is larger than the Oscar Grant case, the Sean Bell case, or any of the host of assassinations of unarmed Black men by the police. Justice is about their totality and the space that lies between popular unshakable belief in state innocence and Black male criminality. Justice is knowing and doing something about, as Mos Def said, “the length of Black life [being] treated with short worth.” When Oscar grant was killed nearly 2 years ago at the age of 22, he would exit this planet knowing that this society had done him no justice and his family was reminded of that when the jury deliberated for 8 hours, about the misery they will have to cope with the rest of their lives. So many will wonder, is the judicial system even the place to look for justice?
When I found out a verdict was reached quickly, I knew that the charges they found would not be the maximum and prayed that they would find some guilt, but that was a weak prayer. I wanted partial justice, but there is no such thing as partial justice. While we casually throw around the term justice, few of us take time to grapple with its meaning at its core. I’ve come to my own conclusions on justice that draws sources ranging from John Rawles to George Jackson. At its core, I think justice is the equal distribution of tragedy and triumph. Reading some people’s thoughts on Oscar Grant and others reminds me that loss and pain exist, but Black people, particularly poor Black people, get an extra helping of it. What would be more justice than all sharing in suffering? More pressing than that, are we willing to accept what at just society would look like? We will have justice when a child born in Detroit is as likely to go to Harvard as a child born in Greenwich. We will have justice when a twenty-two year old Asian woman is as likely to be executed at point blank range as a twenty-two year-old African American man. It may sound extreme, but the stifling and loss of human life is extreme.
When it comes to daily criminal activity, the judicial system is more concerned with retribution than with rehabilitation. When we look at the justice system as it comes to their own agents, police officers, suddenly the scales are tipped towards reform and away from reality. The increased video monitoring of police abuses seems to matter little in courts where criminality is silently embodied by poor Black men. So where does this leave us? How do I teach my Black brothers and our community that justice is available in this country? We must continue to teach our community so they know their rights when engaged by police so that they can remain safe and strong. We must continue to pressure local municipalities to develop civilian oversight programs. Even as we do this, we have to realize that these are all small scaled and collective action across race, class and gender lines is mandatory. Collective dissatisfaction must be so loud that the mainstream media can no longer ignore the Oscar Grant case or any of the many cases that paint the innocence of the state and the guilt of victims.
I want justice in the courts. I want justice in the community. We will know that we are closer to justice when my unborn children’s life paths are determined by their own volitions, not the discretion of police with guns and tasers.
R. L’Heureux Lewis teaches in the Department of Sociology at City College in New York City. His scholarship on race and education has been featured in media outlets such as US World News
Report, Diversity in Higher Education, National Public Radio,
theRoot.com and the Detroit Free Press.