12 July 2010

What Does Justice Look Like?

There are many people in and outside of Oakland who are rightfully upset about the outcome of the Oscar Grant trial.  My heart goes out to his family, friends, and the citizens of Oakland.  Although black and poor people, whether defendants or plaintiff, are perpetually denied any kind of justice via the court system, I can understand the heart wrenching disappointment upon hearing a verdict that did not seem to fully acknowledge the abrupt and violent end of another black man's life.  To the citizens of Oakland who felt they had no recourse but to riot in the name of some semblance of justice, because we often have no recourse in the justice system, I can't say I blame you.  I hear you.  I generally resist often articulating my own (struggles with) nihilism, but when things like this happen, I can't help it.   We're taught to implode; we act in instead of acting out, if we act at all.  Finding value, meaning in life makes no sense most days when we look at the world.  Might as well torch a Foot Locker. 

I can't go on about the differences between involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder beyond how many more years one who has committed the latter crime receives compared to those who are found guilty of the former.  To be clear, I understand the verdict as unjust, especially after having seen the video.  But I think I need to clarify what I mean by that.

I was logged on to Twitter the night the Oscar Grant verdict was rendered, and I happened to read some tweets from various activist types who shall remain nameless.  What struck me was that some of the same people who wax/tweet/politic about the prison industrial complex and how jails are generally bad were the same ones decrying the verdict because it was the lesser charge, and therefore not a suitable punishment for the crime.  Some of them seemed to be suggesting, in 140 characters or fewer, that the manslaughter conviction, that the 2-4 years just wasn't enough.  What would have been enough?  Could we have found "justice" in a murder conviction?

I ask:

Doth one protest if Mehserle is convicted of the graver charge of second-degree murder?  And if one doesn't, does that mean that the conviction, and the subsequent punishment of jail time is fair?  And if that is so, does that mean that we think imprisonment is a reasonable punishment for committing this--and other--crimes?  And if that is the case, then does that make the concept, the institution of prison just?  In other words, if the gavel had come down on "our" side, would we have greeted the verdict, and therefore (briefly) silenced our protests about prison in general?

As someone who sees the way that the criminal justice system and prison disproportionately affect black and brown men and women and its ineffectiveness in general, I cannot say that a "just" punishment would have been for this cop to go to jail.  I simply cannot agree with that.  I find no justice in the criminal justice system, no matter the verdict it hands down.  Since I agree that the system is broken, I can not argue that jail is a warranted punishment, not even when I want to, not even when my initial reaction upon hearing something is that the (alleged) perpetrator should be put under the jail.  I understand that I can make this claim because I am essentially not involved.  Yet, if I don't believe in the rehabilitative aspects of being imprisoned for my people, guilty or not, I don't think I can believe that justice would have been served in this case either--not by sending this guy to jail.

Jail time, or a "just" conviction does not solve much of anything.  It doesn't resurrect Oscar Grant.  It definitely doesn't adequately answer the question of why a cop felt the need to taser a man who was already subdued, face down and handcuffed.  My version of justice is more complicated, and harder to attain.  How do we teach police officers not to be threatened by black men to the degree that they needlessly and continuously respond violently towards them?  How can we create a systemic change, how do we retrain these officers in a way that a black body within their proximity does not trigger such virulent reactions?  And furthermore, how do we channel our nihilism into something other than implosion?  How can we strategically disengage from a society that only finds value in our bodies through our alleged athletic prowess or criminality?  How can we move beyond disconcerted tweets and our blogs and the pictures of ourselves and our activist friends and our protest placards?  How can we stop duping ourselves into believing that a system created to subjugate and disenfranchise us can ever deliver us justice?  And when will we understand that jail, no matter who's inside, makes nothing better?


AC said...


something i posted in moyazb's comment section was "and i don't even believe in prison but this is fucked up..."

so i struggle to make sense of desiring justice while at the same time feeling the prison system is inherently flawed, that the prison system itself is fucked (all the way) up.

i think we struggle with accountability. how is this sentencing about accountability? or, does this sentencing at least give us the capacity to see the cracks in the (in)justice system itself, allow more people into the conversation about why prison itself may not be rehabilitative or transformative? i'd hope so...but i think many of us (myself included) end up being stuck on the injustice that animates every aspect of this case...from his shooting, to the arrest, to the prison in which Mehserle will spend time...

bLaKtivist said...

Hey Summer,

I posted your link to my facebook wall with the following commentary...

"I was grateful not to be in Oakland when the verdict came thru because I was conflicted... While I have always been in opposition of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) especially per my further examination of it while an intern at CUAV - I find myself challenged when those who chose to live by the penal code are not held to the same standard that so many, particularly people of color are subject to...

So from NYC I sat, with my feelings - bothered that the judgement was not more "fierce" even if in my heart of hearts, JAIL is not the ANSWER - this is not rehabilitation, this will not bring Oscar back, this will not right the wrongs of so many black men, men of color, people of color, oppressed peoples... WHAT IS THE ANSWER family...? What is sufficient... cuz THIS AINT IT. 4 years? when folks get more for hustlin' to put food on the table? you gotta be kiddin' me..."

Thanks to Moya for her google buzzin'

Thank you for your words.

Anonymous said...

Walnut creekD3 Items in the event the judgement came up through due to the fact I was conflicted... As i are in level of resistance of the Imprisonment Commercial Complicated (Picture) specifically every my personal additionally examination of it although a good intern at CUAV -- I have found myself questioned any time those that chose to live by the actual penal computer code areRS Gold certainly not used to the similar typical that countless

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