What Justice?: Oscar Grant & Johannes Mehserle

People demand justice outside Mehserle trail

I’ve been conspicuously quiet about this trail. In fact, I haven’t written a word about it since last January (see We Are All Oscar Grant), just after the riots in Oakland. Since then, public sentiment – at least in the ‘public sphere’ in which I find myself – has remained convinced that justice for Oscar Grant equals incarceration for Johannes Mehserle. Yet, I am not as convinced by the easy math powering the concept of retributive justice. Overall, I’m just not sure this equation is the best formula for justice. My ongoing uncertainty began to beg the question, what exactly is justice in a context such as this?

I’ve only said this aloud once or twice and in each case it hasn’t been a popular statement to make, nor have my questions provoked any real consideration. The people around me usually ask some combination of the following: Don’t you know how horribly racist policing in the United States is? Don’t you know that cops are never held accountable for the violence and terror they exact on communities of color everyday? Didn’t you see the videos? Oscar Grant was on his belly with his hands behind his back for Pete’s sake!

Yes. Yes, I know all of these things.

I also know that it is downright brutal to intend to tase a person who has suffered head injuries and is prone, but nevermind that for a moment.

So, given all of the above, how could I not agree that the most logical outcome is for Mehserle to sit in prison for several years on the taxpayer’s dime?

Well, for starters, I am not convinced that locking anyone up is the best solution to social problems. And, while some may remind me that they don’t believe it is the “best” option either, those who tug at my arm will also let me know that “it is the system we’ve set up.” In other words, we’ve established a social norm that we are having a hard time thinking outside of. Moreover, we’ve established that norm based upon a very specific notion of what constitutes justice, where retribution and vengeance relative to the act(s) in question takes precedent over remedying or removing the conditions of possibility for the act in the first place. (As a side note, I should mention that the ideas of ‘correction’ and ‘repentance’ upon which penitentiaries were originally developed are clearly no longer applicable. In fact, whether they succeeded at correcting or instigating penitence in the 19th century is a question as well, but that’s beyond the scope of what I want to say here.)

What I’m getting at is this: if Johannes Mehserle is incarcerated on any of the possible charges the jury is now deliberating over, will his incarceration prevent another young black man from being shot and killed by law enforcement agents of any stripe? Will that reduce the amount of police brutality and racial profiling in our neighborhoods? Will that provide greater educational and career options for all young people who end up tracked into low paying jobs, or mediocre careers that they hate? Will it change the way policing agencies view communities of color? Will his incarceration help Oscar Grant’s daughter? Or Oscar Grant’s mother? And what of the pain coursing through Mehserle’s family right now? Are we to believe that their pain is justified because he pulled the trigger on what he claims he thought was his taser?

Overcrowded Prison - California State Prison, Los Angeles

And why should we all agree to keep paying for people to be in prison when we know how horrendous “correction facilities” are? Which isn’t to say we should privatize prisons so tax payers are not responsible for them anymore. That is most certainly not my point. The corporatization and privatization of punishment is already underway and is super-profitable. The emergence of the Prison Industrial Complex under global capitalism reinforces a knee-jerk ‘lock-em-up’ logic because it brings in the big bucks, while disproportionately capturing and disappearing people of color. The irony here is that calling for Mehserle’s incarceration actually supports an entire industry-institution that has more Grant-like characters in its corridors than Mehserle-like folks. Where is the justice in that?

It seems to me that one of the key problems on both sides of this situation – Grant’s death and Mehserle’s impending incarceration – is that we, Americans, suffer from an acute case of life-devaluation. We are in the habit of throwing people away, either by murder, or by putting them away for the rest of their physical lives so they become the living dead. In plain English, I’m saying we have learned to not give a shit about Life. And this is a shared problem, not just one that Mehserle has, or that police officers have, or that “gang-bangers” and “thugs” have. This problem is everywhere evident: from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the xenophobic violence in Arizona, to the commercial trafficking of women and girls, to the shameful number of children and adults who are incarcerated.

So what would Justice look like if we deeply valued Life? Perhaps justice would show up in the way wealth, resources and opportunity are distributed throughout the social body. Perhaps justice would show up in our understanding that all Life is interconnected and interdependent. Perhaps justice would mean digging up root causes rather than constantly tending to symptoms. Perhaps justice would look like creating an environment where someone like Johannes Mehserle might feel safe enough to tell his story, no matter how racist and f*cked up people thought it sounded. And I’ll pause here because this is important. How can we ever begin to undo the underlying issues that lead to Oscar Grant’s death if Mehserle can’t get help? He was shamed into silence, and then shamed into producing a ‘reasonable’ or likely story. My assumption here is that people who do “bad” things are still people and should be offered some way to heal the pain they’ve caused, while also healing the pain they undoubtedly feel. For the record, I should say that I am aware that some of the motivation for his defense probably has nothing to do with shame, and is rooted in his desire to stay out of prison. So, with that potential outcome looming large, we are yet again, unable to move any closer to substantive, restorative justice.

As I try to wrap this up, I am noticing that I do not have any answers, or a concrete plan for moving forward. I simply have questions that complicate the basic equation we’re asked to support, where one life lost has to equal another life lost. In my heart I feel something must be done to redress the loss of life. But I do not believe that “something” is taking another life. The solutions are deeper, more protracted, and in a range of places all at once. Our task should be seeing to it that the possibility of a second Oscar Grant/Johannes Mehserle tragedy is no longer a possibility.

Retribution is about adding to the body count.

Justice is about Love and Balance.

5 thoughts on “What Justice?: Oscar Grant & Johannes Mehserle

  1. Sandy says:

    I am a wife of a police officer and my son is currently working on a Criminal Justice degree to pursue a career in law enforcement as well. I just wanted to let you know how great I felt your article was. I do not agree with everything you said but it was extremely thought provoking. I am terribly saddened when I hear how negatively law enforcement is looked by certain communities. I would be ignorant to believe that there are not some bad cops out there, but I truly believe most become cops to help people and make a difference. I just wanted you to know I think your article was fantastic.

  2. alenahairston says:

    Sis NeEddra: Right on. And, too, I am thinking about the cultural chasms between suburban/rural whites and urban blacks, between cops and black people. Mesherle is from Marin county, spent most of his time in nonurban spaces. How beautiful would it be, then, if he were required to live in a working-class/working-poor Oakland community? His parole stipulations would require that he maintain residency here, raise and educate his child within this community, live and work in this community for, say, the 10 year maximum sentence he won’t get. Community members would be made aware of his presence and neighborhood meetings would be held to establish an accord. This would give new meaning to “neighborhood watch” and “integration.” He would have to journal/blog about his experiences and be required to mentor other officers who have little experience with marginalized communities. And, and, and. How beautiful this would be.

    And possible.

    Keep going love.

  3. Genevieve says:

    As usual, thoughtful and thought provoking. I’ve been considering the meaning of justice, life, and what it is to have done a “bad” thing as a human being. I’ll keep thinking on it with some other great points you addressed here to add to the pot of consideration.

    Thanks for this.

  4. Mista says:

    I just found this, and this is exactly what’s been missing with all the anger that’s come out of this – there is a SHARP disregard for LIFE, and THAT is the problem that we need to address.

    I was thinking this morning – why is it that black lives only matter to “us” when they are taken by white people but seemingly, not nearly as much as when they are taken by black folks. Do I understand institutionalized racism and how it plays out in social interactions on a daily basis? Absolutely. Do I think that’s enough to not be enraged EVERY time a life is taken? Absolutely not.

    The day when all of humanity figures this out will be the day that this world will end and a new one will begin. Humanity may not be present for that new one, however.

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