As a scholar who is deeply intrigued by both the ingredients and political consequences of public opinion, I often gauge public sentiment by simply reading the status messages and posts of my friends on Facebook and Twitter. These social media tools are excellent indicators of what people are angry about, intrigued by, and concerned with. While most of the country came to a halt waiting to hear Lebron James publicly announce which city would become the new home to his basketball greatness, I chatted with a small group of fellow scholar activists who work on the politics of punishment waiting to hear about a different kind of decision. Our discussions often focus on how the nexus of race, crime, and the law structures the political experiences of people of color in the United States and increasingly, across the world. Yet on this day we waited to hear the verdict in the case of former Oakland BART police officer Johannes Mehserle who was charged with killing an unarmed African American man named Oscar Grant III. Much like prominent media outlets CNN, ESPN, Fox News, and MSNBC, most of the Facebook status messages barely mentioned the Mehserle verdict. Most debated what it would mean to Lebron James’s legacy if he left his hometown of Cleveland, how it would boost the party scene in the host city, and how much money a “vintage” Lebron jersey could bring on ebay.
An all-white jury deliberated for less than six hours before finding Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a conviction that can carry an enhanced sentence of two to fourteen years. Two years for a tragic murder that was captured by multiple cellphones and transmitted across the world via YouTube. Two years for shooting a twenty-two year old man who lay facedown. As the verdict came down my husband reminded me that a year earlier former NFL wide receiver Plaxico Burress received a two year sentence for accidentally shooting himself at a New York nightclub. Two years.
As Oakland residents took to the streets decrying what they viewed as another incident in a long history of police brutality, national media outlets focused on the outrage of Cleveland residents who burned jerseys, shouted obscenities, and questioned Lebron James’s integrity.
Even the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who has built a career championing the rights of disenfranchised people, chose not to address the verdict. Jackson and others remained silent, missing a chance to comment on the alarming number of unarmed civilians who die at the hands of police officers each year. Instead, Reverend Jackson spoke out against Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert for treating Lebron as a runaway slave who had escaped the control of his master. On the surface it appeared that America’s thirst for entertainment exceeded its appetite for justice.
Perhaps we have become so immune to this state-sanctioned violence that it no longer captures our interest. Perhaps we are so overwhelmed by the stories of Tyrone Brown, Sean Bell, Robbie Tolan, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, and now Oscar Grant that seeing a successful young African American man like Lebron James take control of his future and excel on his own terms provides an opportunity to exhale and enjoy the comfort of possibility. But the juxtaposition of these two announcements is too great to ignore. It is a signal that even in this mythical “post-racial” era racialized acts of violence and injustice are deeply entrenched in the American experience. The reality is that race has and will continue to shape interactions between citizens and police officers. The task now comes in determining how it will matter and what measures must be enforced in order to protect members of our communities from the overwhelming fear that seems to structure interactions between the two.
It is a fear that prevents community members from respecting law enforcement and silences suffering under the admonition to “stop snitching.” It is a fear that leads police officers in post-Katrina New Orleans to murder unarmed civilians whose only crime was attempting to cross a bridge to escape death, only to meet it at the hands of the very people sworn to protect and serve them. It is a fear that leads state legislators to devote more resources to controlling criminals than educating children. The murder of Oscar Grant III reminds us that we must commit ourselves to doing the work in the present that will ensure a fairer, more equitable and violence free future for our children where they won’t grow up fearing police officers who see Black and think criminal.
Part of that work involves renewed dedication on the part of the Department of Justice and its Civil Rights Division to aggressively enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1871 that punishes state representatives who deprive Americans of their rights. Chief among those rights must be freedom from injury and death at the hands of judicial officers who abuse their use of force powers. As the US continues to grapple with economic downturns, rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and increased concerns over domestic terrorism, we can expect a steady increase in interactions between police officers and communities of color. What we should not expect and cannot tolerate is a justice system that continues to stratify the life chances of young people based on race.
Khalilah L. Brown-Dean teaches in the Departments of Political Science and African American Studies at Yale University. Author of the forthcoming Yale University Press book, Once Convicted, Forever Doomed: Disenfranchisement and Fractured Citizenship, Brown-Dean has been featured as a political analyst, advisor, and commentator for CNN, PBS, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Crisis Magazine, Democracy
Works, and The Sentencing Project.