Not long after midnight on New Year’s Day in Oakland, California, 22-year-old grocery store butcher and father of one, Oscar Grant III, was detained along with several other men by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cops responding to reports of a fight on a train. Then, to the horror of witnesses, with Grant face down on the ground and restrained by two officers, one of the cops, Johannes Mehserle, pulled out his gun and shot Grant in the back. Cops then delayed getting Grant medical attention, and he died seven hours later at a local hospital.
Tragically, this is far from the first time a young unarmed Black man has been gunned down by the police. For all the talk of a post-racial America being ushered in by Barack Obama’s election as president, racism and police brutality go on. Far from protecting and serving the people, the police are armed mercenaries who serve and protect the racist capitalist system – a system that rests on the exploitation and oppression of the working class and poor by the ruling capitalist class. Racism is essential to the system’s functioning, keeping the working class divided and relegating most workers of color to the bottom, as a pool of super-exploitable labor. Police brutality serves to keep working-class people of color, particularly youth, in a permanent state of intimidation, fearful of standing up against this nightmarish system.
The police normally succeed in getting away with their killings. But this murder was recorded on cell-phone cameras by numerous witnesses who gave their videos to the media or posted it themselves on the internet.
A week after the shooting, hundreds of mostly young, working-class people of color gathered to protest at the BART station where Oscar Grant was killed. Later, when protesters converged on Oakland’s City Hall, patronizing and high-handed attempts by Democratic Party mayor Ron Dellums to call for calm only enraged an already very angry crowd. “I understand that you’ve lost confidence in a process because you’ve seen what you believe is a homicide, ” he declared, “But listen to me ... we are a nation of laws. I’m asking people to disperse. Let’s leave in a spirit of peace.”
But the protesters did not fall for Dellums’ talk about “what you believe” was a cold-blooded murder – as if the many videos of the killing showed anything else. Nor did they swallow Dellums’ pleas for faith in the legal system. Mehserle had still not been charged with any crime, and the protesters were well aware how often racist police have gotten away with murder.
Instead, the crowd hurled abuse at the mayor and continued the protest, with some trashing nearby cars and storefronts. Riot police attacked the protesters, arresting over one hundred. The mainstream media predictably vilified protesters for the rampage, but broad numbers of people understood that while the damage to innocent people’s property was unfortunate, it did not compare to the murder of Oscar Grant. And it did serve to draw attention to the attempts by politicians, the courts and the media to sweep the case under the rug. As a result, the protests continued to grow on subsequent days. They finally forced the District Attorney to file charges against Mehserle and have him arrested – almost two weeks after the shooting.
The struggle for justice for Oscar Grant has just begun. The courts work hand in glove with the cops everywhere, and are notorious for helping them get away with murder. There will be little reason to expect a conviction of Mehserle unless continued protests threaten to spark wider struggles. Mass militant protests have been key in the past in restraining the cops. But it is critical to understand that ending police brutality means putting an end to the capitalist system whose interests the cops serve.
A recent example of the ruling class lining up behind its killer cops was the acquittal last April of the police who murdered Sean Bell in a hail of 50 bullets on the morning of what would have been his wedding day, in New York in 2006. Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, urged people to “respect” the verdict because America is a nation of laws. He hoped to derail the outrage and mass struggle into the trap of passively voting for Democratic Party politicians like himself.
Expectations are now high that Obama will lead the nation into an era of greater justice and equality. But those who suffer most from the real injustices of life under American capitalism may be disoriented when they see Obama siding with the oppressors. Obama was groomed for the presidency by top capitalists precisely for his ability to polish up America’s image and cover up the imperialist system’s crimes at home and abroad.
Cracks are already appearing in Obama’s progressive image. In November, his words against gay marriage were used by anti-gay bigots in California to win passage of Proposition 8, denying gay men and women the right to marry. More recently, Obama’s backhanded support of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza has shocked many. And as the deepening economic crisis compels more and more working-class people to fight back against the capitalists’ economic attacks, Obama will be exposed to millions as the tool of the ruling class that he is.
People can’t help being filled with fury witnessing the videos of Oscar Grant being shot to death point blank. This outrage needs to grow into a movement for social justice against the capitalist state and the ruling class it serves. The lesson that Obama is a capitalist politician and serves the same class interest as Bush must quickly be learned. Massive struggles against racist atrocities like the murder of Oscar Grant III and against the growing attacks on working-class jobs, wages and social services are desperately needed – and inevitable.
Massive struggles can force the cops to retreat from their racist and anti-working-class brutality and win victories in the face of the capitalists’ mounting economic attacks – if only temporarily. But most importantly, such struggles will begin to show the working class the power it has to challenge the system that exploits and oppresses it. More and more workers and youth will be open to the argument that the working class must overthrow capitalism and build a socialist society of freedom and abundance in its place. So as we fight today’s struggles on the streets and in workplaces, the key task for the most politically far-sighted, revolutionary-minded workers and youth is to come together to build a revolutionary socialist political party to lead the coming mass struggles to the only solution to racist and anti-working class attacks: socialist revolution!