"Oscar Did Not Die in Vain": Revelous Citizen Journalism, Righteous/Riotous Work, and the Gains of the Oscar Grant Moment in Oakland, California.

AuthorRodriguez, Cesar "Che"

This article examines the first month of the Oscar Grant moment in Oakland, California--January 2009--as the first episode in a broader pattern of popular mobilizations within the United States during the past decade against police violence. This moment disrupted the cultural and juridical strategies that law enforcement officers and agencies who harm, maim, and kill people use to produce impunity. Revelers turned citizen-journalists broke the cultural production of police impunity, as they produced and shared impromptu video footage that neutralized the information management and narrative framing strategies that law enforcement officers and agencies normally deploy to exonerate themselves. In turn, people resisted via mass mobilizations, direct actions, and rebellions, which broke the juridical production of police impunity, as government officials in local and federal government reacted by conceding the historic arrest and incarceration of a law enforcement officer for an on-duty murder. Furthermore, this intense period of activism forced rare modicums of transparency and reforms of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police department. Ultimately, this manuscript aims to intervene in journalistic and popular repudiations of popular struggle, particularly rebellions, as well as despondent analytical tendencies within academia by illustrating how people in struggle broke police impunity through a litany of actions, from impromptu citizen journalism, mass mobilization, and community organizing to open rebellion.


Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old father from Hayward, California, who, on New Year's Eve 2008, heeded his mother's advice by traveling to New Year's Eve festivities in San Francisco's Embarcadero district on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter rail system. Following an altercation, the train's operator called BART police and stopped the train at Fruitvale Station in Oakland's largely Latino and immigrant district. BART police officer Anthony "Tony" Pirone arrived first, and witnesses credit Pirone with escalating the situation between Grant, his friends, and people on that train, which ultimately resulted in officer Johannes Mehserle fatally and extrajudicially shooting Grant (Bulwa 2010a,b, Bulwa & Swan 2018, Chimurenga 2014).

Normally, law enforcement officers and agencies that harm, maim, and kill people produce impunity for themselves through cultural and juridical processes. These processes rely on a lack of public transparency and produce a lack of public accountability. Yet, people--from revelers to revolutionaries--disrupted these patterns and outcomes. People resisted police violence prior to and well after Grant's murder amidst social contradictions that blossomed into a period of intensified struggle between people on the one hand and the state and capital on the other. I use the phrase the Oscar Grant moment1 to refer to this period of struggle in Oakland--from just before Oscar Grant, a young Black man, was murdered by Mehserle on January 1, 2009 (at least) to November 5, 2010--when Mehserle was sentenced to two years for involuntary manslaughter in a Los Angeles courthouse. Through the condensation of popular self-activity, popular social bodies made considerable and historic gains by breaking the cultural and juridical production of police impunity, as well as by forcing public transparency and accountability over BART police.

Yet these gains are obscured by at least two tendencies in the dominant, written archives of Western society: the criminalization of mass mobilization, especially rebellion, within corporate media, and the fatalistic academic narrations that fixate on state violence and social structure at the expense, even erasure, of the historical veracity of successful popular struggle from below. Ultimately, this article aims to intervene against journalistic and popular repudiations of popular struggle, particularly rebellion, and against despondent renderings of the Oscar Grant moment within academia by illustrating what people accomplished in this moment, and how.

Specifically, this text demonstrates three claims. First, revelers turned citizen-journalists on the train with Grant broke the cultural production of police impunity as they produced and distributed impromptu video footage that neutralized the information management and narrative framing strategies that law enforcement officers and agencies normally deploy to exonerate themselves. Secondly, mass mobilizations, direct actions, and rebellions followed, with the rebellions apparently playing a significant role in breaking the juridical production of police impunity, resulting in the historic incarceration of a law enforcement officer for an on-duty murder. Finally, this intense period of activism forced one-off modicums of public transparency and accountability over BART's police department via reports that demonstrated police dereliction and reforms that illustrate the failures thereof in preventing further instances of police violence.

Racial Capitalism and the Oscar Grant Moment

In retrospect, the Oscar Grant moment became the first episode in a decade-long broader pattern of struggle against the manifestation of racial capitalism within the United States. I understand racial capitalism as a particular--not universal, indomitable, nor inevitable--parasitic social order that, since its inception within Europe, requires the cultural ordering of racialism to legitimate the material violences necessary to reproduce itself across time and space: expropriation, exploitation, exclusion, and, in moments of crises, the attempted extermination of negatively racialized people (Kelley 2000, 2017, Robinson 2000).

Racial capitalism accounts for the conditions in Oakland's fladands, which house Native, Black, Asian, and Latinx communities, and which are characterized by high rates of working poverty, underemployment, and unemployment, as well as an atrophied social wage, or decline in redistributive social programs (East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy 2008, 2012) (for a fuller demonstration of racial capitalism in Oakland circa 2009, see Rodriguez 2020). This converges with national patterns as US political and economic elites, via neoliberal revanchism, further saturated working-class communities of color with militarized, aggressive policing, which, in the wake of an atrophied social wage produced by neoliberal abandonment, advances gentrification and is increasingly applied to all matter of complex social issues--from homelessness to substance use to impoverished public education (American Public Health Association 2018, Kelley 2020, Vitale 2017).The incongruent application of state violence to individuated instances of social maladies, maladies ultimately structured in racial capitalism's mass production of racialized impoverishment, inevitably results in spectacular instances of police violence. Indeed, one study found that three men are killed by law enforcement every day (Edwards et al. 2018).

This broader national pattern is reflected in Oakland. Housing became particularly extractive through former Mayor Jerry Browns 10K plan (circa 1999-2007), which gentrified Oakland, resulting in rent increases and evictions that dovetailed with the foreclosures of homes financed by predatory subprime mortgages during the Great Recession (Beyers & Brown 2008, Carson 2005, Causa Justa :: Just Cause 2013, Nguyen & Marshall 2003). Brown's mayorship also expanded Oakland police's budget, staff, and reach, which resulted in high-profile police violence (e.g., the Oakland Riders), costly settlements for class-action lawsuits for civil liberties violations, an increasing pattern of police killings, and federal oversight of Oakland police (Artz 2012, BondGraham 2019, Fagan et al. 2000, Id 2009c).

While the application of saturation policing to historically expropriated, exploited, excluded, and negatively racialized communities, along with the ensuing forms of quotidian and extraordinary police violence, is not necessarily new, what is new is the proliferation of cellular phones with cameras and the ability to distribute footage produced therein via the internet. This results in impromptu citizen-journalist footage produced through renegade sousveillance (a monitoring of the relatively powerful, from below by the relatively powerless) that generates what Cedric Robinson (2007, xiii) called "fugitive, unaccounted-for-elements of reality"--empirical texts that escape law enforcement agencies'ability to enclose, manage, and frame information within the discursive patterns of racial regimes. These texts allow working-class people to preempt the self-exonerating narrative strategies of law enforcement officers and agencies after they harmed, maimed, and/or killed. Mass mobilizations and community organizing, even rebellions, often follow in protracted battles to pursue justice in the name of a new martyr.

And so, in the past decade, we have seen struggles mounted from below in the names and places of Jacob Blake (Kenosha, Wisconsin), Breonna Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky), George Floyd (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Freddie Gray (Baltimore, Maryland), Eric Garner (Staten Island, New York), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Alex Nieto and Luis Gongora Pat (San Francisco, California), and many more working-class people--mostly of color, largely Black and across the spectrum of genders and sexualities, and almost all living in socio-spatial terrains of exploitation, abandonment, and toxicity characteristic of racial capitalism. The Oscar Grant moment was the first of its kind in this last decade of struggle, one in which working-class peoples--across traditions of struggle--produced knowledge and history through struggle. The lessons learned and victories claimed, and how they were made, by people in struggle during the Oscar Grant moment are of note. Yet, their fidelity has been archived to varying degrees...

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