After Mehserle’s Sentence: What is the Value of Black Life?

What is the value of a black man’s life? To Judge Robert Perry, the answer is two years.

That’s the amount of jail time that Judge Perry sentenced former BART cop Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant. Granted  double credit for time served, Mehserle will end up serving less than a year in prison. As others have commented, that is less time than Michael Vick received for dog fighting. Would Mehserle serve more time if he had shot a golden retriever?

It hurts to even ask a question like that. The truth is, the trial was rigged at every step along the way — from moving the trial to LA, to the selection of a jury with no black members, to the judge’s refusal to allow evidence of Mehserle’s prior brutality while serving. I wasn’t expecting a strong sentence. And I knew that prison perpetuates more violence than it does justice. But when Judge Perry’s sentence came out on Friday, I was shocked all over again.

TWO YEARS??!!!???

For all the comparisons between Mehserle’s sentence and Michael Vick’s, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this case in relation to another sports star. The day of jury’s verdict this summer, Oscar Grant’s name was buried under the national headlines by none other than LeBron James.

I wrote this article for Tikkun magazine earlier in the year, and it just came out last week. It’s about Oscar and LeBron and what their stories tell us about race and class contradictions in America. Here’s a snippet:

Lebron James and Oscar Grant never crossed paths. Why would they? Lebron is the most talented athlete in the country, while Oscar was a butcher at a grocery store in Oakland — my local grocery, in fact. Yet on July 8, 2010, the same day that millions of people watched Lebron announce he was going to Miami, twelve jurors in Oscar’s case decided that, unless he can put a ball through a hoop, a black man’s life is worth little in America. Two decisions — both resulting from five hundred years of white supremacy.

Here in the twenty-first century, our country invests billions of dollars in two industries that highlight the contradictions of racism. On the one hand is the world of professional sports, which projects a 24/7 image of incredibly wealthy, mostly black athletes. On the other hand, we have a prison-industrial complex and its associate police agencies that violently target and imprison more than two million people per year, again most of them black and Latino. There are only a few Lebron Jameses in the United States who make it to play in the NBA. But there are thousands of Oscar Grants, gunned down by cops not just in Oakland, but also in Detroit (Aiyana Jones), New Orleans (Adolph Grimes), and increasingly along the U.S.-Mexico border (Sergio Huereka). Why do we not know and revere those names like we do Kobe, Dwayne, and Dwight?

Read my full piece on Oscar Grant and Lebron James at Tikkun, and let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, here in Oakland, another round of protests turned into police repression and chaos in the streets. I was at the rally downtown on my crutches, and right after the official event was over, you could just tell the night wasn’t going to end well. Over 1,000 cops from 7 different agencies (why are Pleasanton policemen never labelled “outside agitators?”) and hundreds of sad, angry protesters without an organized way to express their pain. I hopped out on my one good leg, only to find that the protesters had been circled just blocks from my apartment and were arrested en masse.

So here we are, at another crossroads in the long road to liberation. The trial ended the same week the right wing Republicans won the mid-term elections.  For many of us right now, there’s more questions than answers. I’ll do the only thing I can: keep writing, keep fighting. But hopefully in ways that re/create strategies where next time, we can WIN.

If you’re here in the Bay, I invite you to a Youth Town Hall on Police Brutality this Friday, November 12 at 5:00pm at Pro Arts Gallery in downtown Oakland. I’ve been working on this along with some amazing young leaders from Youth Speaks, and our homies at Urban Peace Movement, AYPAL, Ella Baker Center, and Raw Talent. The town hall is asking the question, “Who’s the real criminals?” Now that the trial is over, how do we keep the movement going and receive real justice for Oscar Grant — and for everyone who’s been harassed by the cops?

It’s a scary time right now. Let’s be safe, be smart, and most of all, be together.